More Langford citizens are expressing resentment over City Hall’s modus operandi.
THE RAIN PAUSED AND, along a quiet side-street in Langford, residents are venturing out. There are no sidewalks, but a caregiver is pushing a wheelchair towards Veterans Memorial Park and a small dog strains at the leash, pulling a woman down the street.
Fairway Avenue, the site of a contentious redevelopment proposal, is the latest Langford neighbourhood to mobilize against what residents see as out-of-scale development. In addition to complaints that two multi-storey towers are being shoe-horned onto a site which held five single homes, there is an undercurrent of concern about lack of council transparency, difficulty in obtaining timely information, and a perception that too much influence is being wielded by developers in the fast-growing city.
Location of the proposed development (Image provided by City of Langford)
Artists rendering of proposed development (Image provided by City of Langford)
Langford has grown to more than 45,000 residents from 18,840 in 2001. The City projects it will have 56,000 residents by 2026, a growth rate of 123 percent within 25 years.
In many ways, Fairway Avenue represents the remarkable changes seen in Langford over the last two decades. On one side of the street, single family properties back on to the imposing trees of Royal Colwood Golf Course, but, across the street, properties back on to Goldstream Avenue, which has become a busy, urban artery.
Development became inevitable with the Official Community Plan designation of the area as “city centre,” a zone that has no height restrictions (the property still has to be rezoned). Still, residents were horrified when, at an informal meeting last summer with development consultant Mike Wignall, they were told the proposal was for two 12-storey buildings, one fronting on to Goldstream and the other on to Fairway, with all access from Fairway.
J. Scott, who has lived on Fairway for 17 years, sprang into action helping form Fairway Neighbours Unite for a Livable Langford, a group that has written countless letters, organized a 246-name petition against the development, contacted the Province about the makeup of committees, and lobbied staff and councillors.
By the time the proposal reached Langford’s Planning, Zoning and Affordable Housing Committee on Monday, January 11, the proposal was for a nine-storey and a six-storey building and, by the end of the meeting, developer DB Services, agreed to two six-storey buildings.
Scott is grateful for that concession, but said the group will continue to push for four storeys on Fairway.
Caller after caller to the phone-in committee meeting voiced concerns and, at the conclusion, Councillor Denise Blackwell, committee chair, said staff will be asked to look at concessions such as a sidewalk along the entire length of Fairway, instead of only in front of the development, and the possibility of an entrance/exit on Goldstream – something Fairway residents are adamant is needed to prevent the quiet street from becoming a busy thoroughfare.
“It should not be a life-threatening experience to walk down Fairway Avenue,” Scott said, pointing out that wheelchair-bound residents of The Priory, a complex care centre, frequently use the street, in addition to neighbourhood children and dog-walkers.
An additional niggling worry for residents is that the developer, Design Build Services, is the same company that developed Danbrook One, a 90-unit Langford highrise that was evacuated a year ago after being deemed unsafe.
However, Blackwell said the fault with Danbrook One lay with the engineer, not the company. “I don’t think it’s appropriate to just say because they built Danbrook One they shouldn’t be allowed to build anything else,” she said in an interview.
The Fairway plan will go to council for first reading Monday, January 18 and then to public hearing, but some residents have little faith the changes will be sufficient to stop the neighbourhood being obliterated.
Chris Peterson told Focus he had planned to retire on Fairway Avenue, where he has lived for six years, but is now reconsidering.
“What can you say about Langford Council—committed to no tree left standing and a concrete jungle of ugly looking condos,” Peterson said.
“We understand development will happen and accept that, but, when everything around you is three or four storeys and council says it doesn’t see a problem with a new six or 12-storey building blotting out your access to sunlight or the total loss of privacy at your family dwelling, then it is time to ask what gives,” he said.
Like others, Peterson questioned why cumulative impacts are not considered during rezonings and pointed to plans for another large development at the end of Fairway Avenue.
But, Blackwell said, as that plan has not yet come to councillors, it could not be part of the discussion.
“Developers put in proposals all the time, but that doesn’t mean that what they are proposing is going to be the final product,” she said in an interview.
That was little comfort to Peterson.
“Council always has time for developers, but, if you are a private citizen, complaining about a proposal, council is quick to let you know they don’t care or your complaint isn’t relevant to the proposal,” he said.
Citizens resent being left in the dark—and out of decisions
Like others in Langford who have fought the scale or density of developments, the Fairway group has found the major obstacles are obtaining timely information and unearthing what was discussed at meetings.
“I got my notice on Thursday afternoon which was three days before the [Planning and Zoning] meeting and you’re supposed to have 10 days,” said Scott, who was then told she needed to have her submission in by the previous day to have it included in the agenda package.
Fairway resident Petra Bezna said she received a notice the same day as the meeting.
“There are no details and the map of the development on the back of the letter is not very helpful in my opinion.” she said.
Scott said the first time the neighbourhood saw the plans was three days before the Monday meeting. “It’s unacceptable, we have been asking to see the plans since last spring,” Scott said.
True to form, Langford Council released its agenda package for the upcoming January 18 council meeting late on Friday, January 15. Running to 572 pages, Scott noted that it includes public hearings for no less than five developments, three of which are contentious (e.g. 11- and 12-storey buildings planned for Costin and Carlow)—plus numerous bylaw changes including one to rezone the Goldstream/Fairway properties as “city centre,” allowing for two multi-storey buildings. Scott was dismayed to see that the package still portrays the buildings as six and nine storeys—rather than the two six-storey ones the developer agreed to at the committee meeting .
There is simmering resentment at the lack of information and records, apart from bare-bones minutes, and even those are not available until shortly before the next meeting.
“They don’t put an agenda up for Monday meetings until 3 pm Friday and then City Hall is closed, so you can’t ask questions,” said a resident of South Langford, where a group is battling for green space and traffic mitigation after finding out about a proposal to put 25 duplex lots on a semi-forested area, with traffic routed through a previously quiet cul-de-sac.
A Whimfield Terrace resident, speaking at the Planning and Zoning Committee meeting, said hundreds of Langford residents are frustrated because they feel that, by the time a proposal goes to committee, City staff and developers have worked together and the development is a fait accompli.
“People just don’t feel like our voices matter and I would really encourage the planning committee, City staff and council to consider that residents would like to have a say in how their community is being developed—not just the developers,” she said.
Blackwell responded that residents’ views are taken into consideration, pointing to the height concessions on Fairway, but acknowledged staff work with developers to hone proposals before they come to committee.
“Our staff is very professional and very good and that’s one of the reasons why we pay so much attention to their reports,” she said.
Public delegations are usually referred to a standing committee, rather than full council. But Langford’s standing committees do not meet the requirements of the Community Charter, which says standing committees must be made up of a majority of councillors, said Scott, who asked for the Planning and Zoning Committee meeting to be postponed because the discrepancy.
Langford’s standing committees have only two councillors and, adding to the discomfort, the makeup of the Planning and Zoning Committee has come under criticism by residents for the preponderance of appointed members associated with the development industry.
In an email to Scott, Marie Watmough, Langford manager of legislative services, said, although the committees are referred to as standing committees, they operate as advisory committees, which require only one councillor, and the City is in the process of changing the website references.
Lauren Mulholland, spokesperson for the Ministry of Municipal Affairs said the ministry is aware of concerns about committee structure and has contacted Langford staff to offer support.
Langford lags on livestreaming and recording meetings
At the heart of much of the discontent is the difficulty in obtaining information if someone cannot phone in to committee and council meetings—or wants to refer back to what was said.
Unlike most municipalities, Langford does not livestream or tape the awkwardly-timed 5:30 pm meetings, and despite a $4.8-million grant from the provincial COVID Restart Fund to ensure municipalities were able to keep residents informed during the pandemic, Langford voted at an in camera meeting in December to delay debate about live-streaming until this year’s budget discussions.
Under growing pressure, Mayor Stew Young, who has led Langford since 1993, agreed earlier this month to ask staff to post audio recordings of council meetings—but, that does not extend to committee meetings.
Mulholland said the ministry is aware of citizens’ concerns. “Local governments are required…to make best efforts to keep the public informed and able to participate in their council and board meetings, including committee meetings,” she said in an emailed response to questions.
“Local governments must also review or develop a resolution with respect to open and electronic meetings and state how they will continue to meet the principles of openness, transparency and accountability in the current circumstances,” she wrote.
Langford’s opaque behaviour exasperates John Treleaven, chair of the Grumpy Taxpayer$ of Greater Victoria. “They are increasingly at odds with what motivated, educated residents and taxpayers expect as a modus operandi,” he said. Treleaven believes it would benefit councillors to livestream meetings and allow the public to see how they balance decisions.
“It seems to us that Langford does what it can to make the voice of the community easier to ignore,” he said.
And he was appalled that council met in camera to discuss transparency and livestreaming. “How in God’s name can you meet in secret to discuss transparency. To me that’s a red flag that something is fundamentally wrong and it should be called out…There is no institutional memory in a format that is easily accessible to taxpayers,” Treleaven said.
Blackwell, who voted in favour of livestreaming, said that she was told the meeting was held in camera because it was a new service. “We did ask the question,” she said.
It is strange that Young wants livestreaming to be part of budget discussions given the provincial grant and directives that are clearly geared to access, Treleaven said. “So, you have the money, the need is obvious—be a hero. It’s 2021,” he said.
Judith Lavoie is an award-winning journalist specializing in the environment, First Nations, and social issues. Twitter @LavoieJudith