Vaughn Palmer: An act of political realism by Oak Bay

Opinion: Developer Kim Colpman was under no illusions about the reason for Oak Bay council’s change of heart regarding the Quest — and it wasn’t the solar panels or her tree-management plan.

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VICTORIA — Oak Bay council this week approved a four-storey, 15-unit condominium project, reversing its vote against the project last year, which had drawn the ire of then housing minister David Eby.

The unanimous vote of support, coming near the end of Tuesday’s meeting, was in marked contrast to what happened in March 2022.

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The council then refused by a vote of four to three to send the project to a public hearing. Opponents cited concerns about the height of the building, the impact on traffic, the noise from blasting out space for underground parking and the threat to a single tree.

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The rejection was the second in five years for the project known as the Quest. An apt choice of names, given that it has been navigating the thickets of Oak Bay bureaucracy for the better part of 10 years.

Eby cited the turndown as a case study for why he was urging the then-John Horgan-led government to develop legislation that would allow the province to override intransigent local governments and approve needed housing.

The implied threat drew a pushback from not-in-my-backyard forces in famously insular Oak Bay. “Butt out province and let the locals decide,” was the headline on one letter in the Victoria Times Colonist.

Far from butting out, when Eby succeeded Horgan as premier near the end of 2022, one of his first actions was to bring in legislation, the Housing Supply Act, to enable the province to override local government on housing approvals.

Then this year, when the Eby government released its so-called “naughty” list of municipalities that needed to approve more housing, Oak Bay was in the top 10.

The provincial target for Oak Bay was 664 completed units over the next five years. Not all that ambitious except when compared to Oak Bay’s actual record of a mere 27 housing starts in 2021.

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Oak Bay Mayor Kevin Murdoch responded to the province with a 10-page letter explaining why the 664-unit target was unworkable owing to a lack of land, viable proposals, staffing resources and just plain time.

Ravi Kahlon, Eby’s successor as housing minister, laughed when I reminded him of the joke about the way they answer the phone in the permitting department at Oak Bay: “How did you get our number?”

As for the letter, Kahlon cited the Quest as an example of the kind of project that should go ahead.

“They had recently a proposal that allowed for four-storey housing next to other four-storey housing and they decided not to proceed,” he told reporters.

“Those are examples of things that just should happen so that we can get housing available for people, not just in Oak Bay, but in communities around the province.”

“My hope is that Oak Bay look at their policies, look at their processes, and find ways to be part of the solution,” said Kahlon.

Whether or not that rethink was the key, the Quest sailed through council this week in contrast to what happened 18 months ago.

The developer, Large and Co., had reduced the height by half a metre, added solar panels and produced a revised tree management plan. The plan also called for 15 units, one more than in 2022.

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The project came with a favourable assessment from staff: “Overall the application is in alignment with the district’s official community plan and development permit guidelines, therefore staff believe the application is supportable.”

The council package also included a number of letters urging support for the project.

“It’s no secret that Oak Bay is one of 10 municipalities highlighted by the province as needing to up its game in terms of providing housing,” read one. “While other municipalities watch their neighbourhoods change and conform to meet the challenge of additional housing, Oak Bay sits back and allows the do-nothing mentality to take hold.”

Council members lined up to explain why the Quest was, on balance, the kind of development Oak Bay needs.

Mayor Murdock, who supported the project in 2022, saw the unanimous vote as a sign that Oak Bay is finally moving in the right direction.

“We’ve taken a long time,” he conceded to Mary Griffin of CHEK TV. “I’d say Oak Bay, until the last five or six years, hasn’t taken housing seriously.”

Developer Kim Colpman was under no illusions about the reason for Oak Bay council’s change of heart regarding the Quest — and it wasn’t the solar panels or her tree-management plan.

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“It’s political,” she told CHEK TV. “When you have the pressure from the province and also from the community — they really want housing of all kinds — they just can’t afford to say no.”

Housing Minister Kahlon also saw the council’s reversal as an act of political realism.

“Whether they want it or not, this project has become a symbol of how difficult it is to get housing built in Oak Bay,” he told Richard Zussman of Global TV. “I think it is a positive sign that Oak Bay realizes that they’ve got some targets that they need to meet.”

Other municipalities on the naughty list, take note.

[email protected]

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