Residents are concerned about possible bias and the sacrifice of green space as Langford continues housing push.
“ON DAY A FOREST, the next day a clearcut,” shrugged a Costco shopper, staring at a denuded patch that seemed to have appeared overnight above Langford’s big-box stores.
The 20-hectare patch, slated for a mixed commercial and residential development, went through the usual processes at Langford City Council—including a public hearing—but for many it is hard to keep up with the breakneck pace of development in one of BC’s fastest-growing cities.
New housing has transformed landscapes, from sprawling rural to small-lot urban, in areas such as Happy Valley and Latoria Roads. There is no sign of a slowdown, despite growing discomfort that the unremitting push to build housing means the loss of natural landscapes. Those concerns are exacerbated by suspicions that developers are controlling the agenda to the detriment of those pleading for larger lots and retention of contiguous green space.
A new development in south Langford
Langford’s Official Community Plan calls for 40 percent open space on previously undeveloped land. But wiggle room allows open space to drop to 25 percent if there is a significant community benefit, such as affordable housing or a school site. Critics say those requirements are often waived, or green space is divided into fragments, with playing fields or recreation facilities making up much of the mix, as opposed to more natural parkland.
“They [council] often don’t follow their own requirements. They constantly make exceptions for…the benefit of the developer, not for the natural resource,” said South Langford resident Mike Turner.
The “clearcut-blast-build” formula, followed by promises to plant saplings, cannot replace the loss of critical and endangered habitats, said a member of Citizens of South Langford for Sustainable Development, one of the recently formed groups asking for a more environmentally and socially sustainable approach to development.
“Langford development requirements do not need to undermine the integrity of our natural ecosystem; instead, they should complement each other,” said Tim Allan, a member of the group. “The community has made it clear that preserving natural parkland is important…Council and developers need to hoist in that message, keep the lines of communication open with the community, and more deliberately integrate natural parkland into their planning,” he said.
Langford incorporated in 1992 and the City’s aggressive push to provide housing has taken the population from 18,000 in 1996 to more than 40,000 today.
Mayor Stew Young, who has been in charge since 1993, proudly proclaims Langford’s come-hither approach to developers, saying reducing red tape and delivering fast approvals remains one of council’s highest priorities. Langford is renowned for completing rezoning applications in six months, minimizing the time that developers are left in limbo holding expensive land, which helps them keep housing costs more affordable.
According to Langford staff, the pushback from a few residents is weighed against the needs of a broad cross-section of citizens who need homes, along with the need to increase the tax base—which provides amenities ranging from sidewalks to arenas.
Langford planning director Matthew Baldwin said there is some friction in South Langford because it is transitioning from the haphazard pattern of development pre-incorporation to a more organized, urban form of development. That means small-lot or condominium development in areas with more spacious homes or surrounded by green space which is used by the community. But it is impossible to roll back the clock 40 years to a time when there was no development pressure or housing crisis, Baldwin said. “You can’t do it that way any more because the fundamental economic underpinnings of land value and construction costs would make that home prohibitively expensive.”
Speedy approvals of developments in Langford have come in for criticism (and will likely increase given the removal of the new 11-storey Donwood One’s occupancy permit, forcing 86 households to move just before Christmas). Much of the approval work is done behind the scenes as municipal staff work with developers to fine-tune applications before they go to council.
“Quite often we have robust discussions at planning and zoning and resolve a lot of the issues,” Baldwin said, noting, “By the time things get to a formal public hearing, there are often no more issues, as people feel their issues have been addressed. Members of the public who had concerns are aware that those concerns have been addressed, and then they may decide not to attend the public hearing.” He pointed out that no one turned up when there was a public hearing for 3,000 residential units on Bear Mountain.
Councillor Denise Blackwell, who chairs the Planning, Zoning and Affordable Housing Committee, said background work by staff aims to bring unambiguous proposals to council. “By the time an application gets to the committee stage, it is usually just a matter of tweaking the proposal, adding certain conditions that suit the particular circumstances or address unforeseen concerns raised by neighbours,” she said, adding that, since incorporation, the total area of protected green space has increased from 8 percent to more than 20 percent. “Council has also worked to acquire strategic park lands, develop active recreation for all, and continues to support efforts of the region as a whole to protect green spaces through the CRD’s Regional Green/Blue Spaces Strategy,” she said.
However, the City’s friendliness towards developers troubles some residents, dealing with what they see as a council that does not prioritize the environment. A group in the Latoria Road area was surprised when told by council that they had to deal with Draycor Construction Ltd to address concerns about a proposed development.
Council was dismissive when the group first turned up at a council meeting, said Laurie Anderson. “We don’t agree with the lot sizes that are being proposed, and there are a lot of environmental concerns…They just dismissed us and said we had to speak with the developer,” she said.
There is increasing concern that developers, many with long-term ties to the community and council, hold undue sway.
The Planning, Zoning and Affordable Housing Committee, which provides advice to council, but does not have decision-making authority, is made up of two councillors and five appointed citizens including Kent Sheldrake, co-owner of Draycor Construction Ltd.; Art Creuzot, owner of Luxbury Homes; and Malcolm Hall, owner of Lifestyle Ventures development company and Solo Suites airbnb hotel.
The six-member Board of Variance, which operates at arm’s length from council and deals with matters such as relaxation of zoning regulations or tree-protection requirements, includes Cliff Curtis owner of TBJ Properties; Jim Hartshorne, owner of Keycorp Developments Ltd and Westhills Land Corp; land development consultant Rachael Sansom; and Ron Coutre, owner of SouthPoint Partners Ltd and president of Westshore Developers Association.
A spokeswoman for the Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing said no complaints have been received about the makeup of Langford committees. But some residents are alarmed by the perception of bias.
A presentation on behalf of developers of the property behind Costco was made by Hartshorne, chair of the Board of Variance; a controversial rezoning application for 734 Latoria Road, made by Kevin Parker, co-owner of Draycor Construction, whose partner Sheldrake is a member of the planning and zoning committee, was approved with 17.5 percent green space, despite public opposition.
The selection criteria used by mayor and council is unclear, Allan said. “Given its current membership, the Planning, Zoning and Affordable Housing Committee appears to be overwhelmingly weighted to favour development. With such an apparent bias, it is difficult for it to reflect the broad views from the citizens of Langford,” he said. Some members have served several consecutive terms and will continue to the end of 2022, Allan noted.
“The [committee] needs to have a cross-section of representation from not only the developer community, but also public housing representatives, seniors, business, Chamber of Commerce, environmental groups, just to name a few,” said Allan.
Turner pointed out that committees are usually balanced between interests such as citizens, First Nations, government, and environmental groups. “I would say that any committee making recommendations to government needs to be balanced between all the special interests that have a stake in whatever they are discussing. So to have it dominated by one group that has a clear, vested interest more than any other group is not appropriate,” he said.
J.Ocean Dennie, founder of the Friends of the T’Sou-ke Hills Wilderness, is worried that plans to punch an alternate route to the Malahat will result in a sprawl of development, and he has little faith that Langford will protect wilderness values. “What it comes down to is who is sitting at the table, who is making the decisions and who is pushing the agenda. As concerned citizens, a lot of the time we just don’t have that information. We don’t have time to keep up with the backroom deals,” he said.
Lawyer Matthew Nefstead, who was hired by West Coast Environmental Law to help those fighting for more Latoria Road green space, wrote in his analysis, “The fact that most, or all of the non-elected members are property developers who have dealings with the Committee and the City and who do not appear to declare conflicts of interest, presents—in my opinion—a reasonable apprehension of bias.”
But Blackwell said some members of the committee are semi-retired and, as chair of the committee, she asks individuals to recuse themselves if there is a perception of conflict of interest.
The argument heard from Langford staff is that council wants the expertise provided by developers and, for environmental input, relies on registered professional biologists or professional foresters. “I don’t think it would serve anyone on the committee or council or the public at large to have one qualified professional questioning another qualified professional’s opinion,” said a staff member.
With controversy over the makeup of committees, there is a push for more transparency from Langford council—one of the only municipalities in the Capital Regional District that does not webcast meetings. “Why are there no cameras recording the meetings?” asked Terrie Wilcox, who mobilized a group of neighbours worried about overdevelopment in the Goldstream Avenue area, where plans call for redevelopment of St Anthony’s Clinic, including a 15-storey condominium building.
Wilcox worries that development is racing ahead of infrastructure, and most of the input heard by council is from tradespeople and developers. “I agree with development due to the housing shortage, [but] Langford is moving far too fast with very little change, if any, to infrastructure,” she said, pointing to road dust on her patio table from incessant traffic.
Like many Langford residents, Sarah Forbes agrees that housing development is needed, but the “pitchy-patchy approach” of separate developers is resulting in isolated communities connected by commuter corridors.
“With the large-scale development, we could have some really world-class communities if we had a more sustainable approach to development. It’s a huge opportunity that is being missed,” said Forbes. “I do support development. We need to grow as a community, but we can do better…We have this great opportunity to grow this whole city, and we could develop it more sustainably with real sustainable practices in mind,” she said.
Judith Lavoie is an award-winning journalist specializing in the environment, First Nations, and social issues. Twitter @LavoieJudith