Opinion: Is infill development a good idea for Oak Bay?

Many questions need to be asked and answered before decisions are made

Anthony Mears

The Municipality’s infill/densification intentions have several stated objectives: containment of urban sprawl, creation of more affordable housing, attraction of younger families, creation of housing options in neighbourhoods, and the creation of more urban transit.

All are laudable goals however to achieve these objectives the questions that must be asked are: is squeezing in more and more people compatible with maintaining the character of the community? Who and what will determine enough is enough? Who will pay for the increased infrastructure, road improvements and municipal services required?

The Infill Development Strategy already developed by Council dated June 2015 is four pages long but does not define what infill housing is. Many people aren’t aware that the infill housing, proposed to be built on our single-family lots is: garden and basement suites, lane way houses, triplexes, duplexes and lot subdivision.

Developing infill implementation strategies and writing policy and guidelines is an advanced planning stage, particularly if you are just about to hold your first Resident Advisory Planning Commission meeting. The commission’s mandate is to advise council on all land use matters; this includes changes.

Also the new Official Community Plan appears to be out of sync with the Oak Bay Annual Report regarding the capabilities of our very old infrastructure system. This report was presumably used as an information source. Our underground infrastructure system was designed mainly for our present single-family homes, and does not provide for the new range of multi-dwelling units that are proposed.

The first step in any infill Housing planning process is to analyze in detail the municipality’s ability to absorb the population increase infill will result in. This should include:

• Can the current infrastructure withstand the increasing densification impact this substantial land use change will result in? E.g. Infill will impact sewers, storm drains, and pave over a lot of green space etc.

• Is there a traffic flow problem now? Oak Bay is a bedroom community, and almost everyone commutes by car. So will adding more and more cars make matters worse? (Changing single-lane road systems is a very expensive proposition that requires senior government funding).

• Are our schools full now, and is there adequate daycare and before and after school child-care programs in place?

• What is the present inventory of senior accommodation, given most rental and strata units are age-restricted. What are the vacancy rates annually?

• Are our present amenities being fully utilized?

• Will an increased population bring user fees?

• Do we (or does anyone) currently have adequate demolition controls?

• Is infill development compatible with our Urban Forest Strategy and tree bylaw? Tree cutting is often necessary to allow for additional massing. Oak Bay’s tree canopy is 38 per cent; Vancouver’s is 18 per cent.

The second step would be to ensure the public is provided with a full picture, not just a sell job of the benefits but the adverse impacts of these proposed infill land use changes, and ensure a comprehensive public engagement process is developed that goes beyond advice and consultation to include collaborative decisions.

This must occur before any land use changes are considered. It is not up to council alone, or developers, to define what’s in the best interests of the community.

Will any new revenue cover the increased municipal service costs?

Where will the revenue come from to ensure adequate funding for resident protection and complaint programs?

Regulate the basement suites we have now before allowing more.

Ensure that infill developments pay their way and do not require subsidizing by the majority of taxpayers who do not have these additional revenue properties.

Oak Bay Council needs to ask other communities that have infill development, “So how has this worked out for you in so far”? Has the tax burden shifted even more onto single-family properties? Is your Community better or worse than before this infill land use change? What are your unresolved Infill problems?

The OCP’s Housing Policy (September 2014) states that residential infill will be “considered.” The  OCP also states that our sewer and storm water systems are “in the latter years of service” and “the needs for repair and replacement of this underground infrastructure exceed available resources.”

In view of these circumstances hiring expensive consultants to write infill policy and guidelines seems premature and indicates decisions have been made without adequate planning, transparency and public consultation.

Also the community has just (perhaps) resolved a monster house zoning mistake and I’m sure does not want another intrusive development situation.

There is an axiom that warns: you can lose a municipality’s character and identity one bad development and land use decision at a time. I believe most people are not against change but let’s carefully consider what the outcome of that change will be.

Oak Bay resident Anthony Mears is a former long-term city social planner, provincial social services and welfare department manager, nighttime emergency social services manager, police officer and registered social worker.