The future shape of the city along with council’s behaviour towards the public are at issue.
Costco and environs in Langford
THERE IS ONE CERTAINTY as Langford’s municipal election campaign gets underway—it is unlikely to be a politely fought battle.
Recent Langford council meetings have been notable for their lack of civility, sometimes degenerating into shouting matches, with speakers cut short.
Feelings have run high as Mayor Stew Young, with the constant support of four out of six council members, has pushed ahead with his crusade to fix the housing crisis and transform Langford into a modern city.
“A green initiative is to have higher density going into the airspace, rather than spreading out sprawling and that’s what Langford is doing now. We’ve got 50,000 people, it’s time we grew up as a city,” Young told Focus.
The city’s eye-popping growth, with the population soaring by 31.8 per cent between 2016 and 2021, has transformed the community, which, last year, had 46,584 residents.
Langford, south of the Trans Canada Highway
But, those advocating for slower growth, more green space and protection for residents of existing neighbourhoods are increasingly frustrated that concerns—such as the effects of living in a constant maelstrom of dust and construction noise—are ignored, while developers are given centre stage at council meetings.
The insistent push for high-rise towers, small lot subdivisions and multi-condominium buildings means development is inevitably top-of-mind for voters as the October municipal election approaches.
However, the more visceral issue is that many residents feel shut out of council decisions.
Research scientist Jason Mackenzie has lived near McCallum Road for 16 years, in an area that has undergone serial rezonings. His home is now surrounded by six-storey, rental condo buildings and efforts to speak to council have been ineffective.
“We were led to believe, given the zoning at the time, that we would be surrounded by housing like ours. Clearly this is not the case,” said Mackenzie, who is looking for opportunities to move.
“It’s not that I don’t want to be in Langford, I don’t want to be in Langford with the existing council because they are people who don’t listen,” he told Focus.
“Langford is run like a dictatorship. I have gone to the meetings, but nothing happens,” he said.
Young, who has held the position since 1993, and his four supportive councillors, most of whom have held power for decades, will be fighting to retain their seats, while an organized group of opponents, running under the Langford Now banner, and some unaffiliated candidates aim to unseat them.
Young and councillors Lanny Seaton, first elected in 1996, Matt Sahlstrom, first elected in 2002, Roger Wade, elected in 2008, and Norma Stewart, elected in 2018, have not yet formally announced they will run for re-election, but a joint announcement is expected shortly.
Young stopped short of confirming he is running, but left little doubt about his intentions.
“It looks like I’m running. I’m just not going to say for sure. I have the support of the majority of council and, man, have I got a lot of support in the community,” Young said.
“You know, these new people that are running, they’re doing it for their own political reasons. That stuff they’re saying about Langford is actually disgraceful as far as I am concerned, because Langford is a great community,” he said, listing changes that have turned Langford from its scruffy, semi-rural roots into a thriving hub with a plethora of recreational facilities, schools, restaurants and shops.
Young dismisses claims that green space is lacking and that trees have been wiped out in development areas.
“Our park space has gone up 1,000 per cent from where it was… We have got millions of dollars of parkland free from developers. They give us up to 40 per cent green space when they develop,” Young said.
“These people just don’t know their numbers or what they are talking about,” he said.
Young also shrugs off complaints about autocratic behaviour saying every municipality has a problem with serial complainers kicking up a fuss if a decision is not to their liking.
“They say ‘you are not listening to me.’ Well, we are listening to the majority and, the last time I checked, the majority wants jobs and an affordable house to live in and good schools,” he said, accusing his critics of wanting to kill jobs.
Seaton echoes Young’s contention that there is misinformation about how council operates.
Charges that almost all proposed developments are given fast-track approval are not true, he said.
“We have turned down lots of developments that we thought wouldn’t work,” said Seaton.
An indication of the tone of the campaign is that Young is not including Councillor Lillian Szpak or Councillor Denise Blackwell on his slate, despite endorsing them in the last election.
Szpak and Blackwell, who topped the polls in 2018, have spoken out against some high-rise developments and Szpak, who has campaigned for tree protection and dust bylaws, has been a frequent target for the mayor.
“The majority of council are great; there’s two councillors, Denise and Lillian, who have sided with the self-interest groups and they just say whatever to get themselves votes,” Young said, when asked why he is not supporting Blackwell and Szpak.
While there is general agreement that Langford has some enviable facilities, it is also a community where mountain tops have been blasted into oblivion, developers wield an extraordinary amount of power and, despite an increasing number of people working in the community, traffic jams are a constant headache.
Charlene Manning, who has lived in Langford since 1975, said tower blocks destroy any feeling of neighbourhood.
“We need townhouses and infill housing, carriage houses and subsidized housing,” said Manning, who emphasizes she is not opposed to densification, but believes there needs to be more community debate and consideration of existing neighbourhoods.
“It is just too much. How much do we have to suffer to be a bedroom community?” she asked.
“Everyone I have talked to—and I am talking to older people—is flabbergasted by what is going on,” she said, adding that Young’s contention that complaints are coming from newcomers is simply not true.
Main arteries such as Goldstream Avenue are a mess and living in a constant building site is draining, Manning said.
“I hear the beeping, beeping, beeping and they pour concrete until 7 p.m. and the banging and the radios,” she said.
Then, there is the problem of a council that doesn’t listen and a mayor that argues with critics.
“He yells at his councillors if they don’t agree with him. What the heck—where is that coming from?” Manning asked incredulously.
A new slate of new candidates
Five candidates fielded by the newly-formed Langford Now Electoral organization will be tapping into the growing community unease and pushing hard for more engagement in a community renowned for apathy and low voter turnout.
Four years ago only 4,812 out of 21,206 eligible voters—18.5 per cent—bothered to vote municipally, giving Langford the unenviable position of second-lowest turnout in the province.
Engaging voters will be a challenge, but the group is banking on the enthusiasm and quality of their candidates to encourage people to vote, said Corrina Craig, spokesperson for Langford Now.
Candidates endorsed by Langford Now are:
• Colby Harder, who grew up in Langford and is now a University of Victoria Masters student researching transportation for aging adults.
• Keith Yacucha, who teaches economics at Camosun College and recently bought a home in Langford. “We have appreciated what the community has to offer. At the same time, I have been alarmed by the lack of an up-to-date community plan, the patchwork ad-hoc development, the lack of public infrastructure and the opacity of city finances,” Yacucha writes in his election bio.
• Kimberley Guiry, a cabinet maker with a degree in environmental science, who says listening to residents is a priority.
• Mark Morley, a former member of the military who now works as a financial officer with the Department of National Defence. “Development has grown too fast for services to keep up, traffic is brutal and our infrastructure is starting to strain,” Morley wrote
• Mary Wagner, who was born and raised in Langford, has a PhD in biochemistry and teaches biology at the University of Victoria.
Mary Wagner, one of Langford Now's slate of candidates for council
Community First Langford is also a registered Electoral Group and principal official Stephanie Sherlock said the organization will hold a news conference in Langford on Thursday, Sept 8. No information will be given before that time, she said.
Wendy Mingo Hobbs, who served on Sooke School Board for 25 years, is a non-affiliated candidate.
“I am very worried there is not enough infrastructure being put in for all the development… It has just gone over the top and there’s absolutely no environmental stewardship happening,” she said.
Politics played around the council table is another reason change is necessary, Hobbs said.
“The behaviour of the mayor, especially with women, is dismal and yet they say they don’t need a code of conduct,” she said with exasperation.
“There is no democratic thinking with that council—well, I should say with the mayor, because we all know he runs the show,” Hobbs said.
However, Shirley Ackland, former mayor of Port McNeill, who moved to Langford two years ago, agrees with Young that Langford is providing extraordinary opportunities for young families, which is why she is “seriously contemplating” running for council.
People are moving to Langford because of what it offers, said Ackland, a former college instructor.
“There’s new schools here, they see the activities that are available at the Y and the parks and they are just blown away,” she said.
But some, like Keith Yacucha, one of the Langford Now slate, question the current council’s stewardship of public funds. Langford, he notes, “spends amongst the most annually on public works per private residence. Langford: $717, Colwood: $695 and Saanich: $553.”
Ackland is aware of complaints about council attitudes, but said she looks for solutions.
“As long as you can be respectful, people can have those sorts of conversations,” she said.
But people have found respect is sadly lacking, Craig of Langford Now said.
“People are talking about how rude the mayor and some of the councillors have been to each other and to members of the public,” Craig said.
People listening in to council meetings have been “shocked, surprised, disappointed and frustrated that these are our elected officials,” she said.
“These are the people who should be representing the public and they don’t want to talk to us. You see when you are watching the livestreaming, the eye-rolling when a member of the public calls in about concerns,” said Craig, who has lived in Langford since 1997.
A frequent question fielded by Langford Now is why the group is not running a mayoral candidate, but Craig said change can be effected by electing progressive councillors.
Young is only one voice on council, she emphasized.
“A loud voice doesn’t mean you are smarter than everyone else. It just means you’re louder and, ultimately, he has to get votes passed,” she said.
Respect and longterm plan lacking say Szpak and Blackwell
Lillian Szpak, who previously said she was not running, said she changed her mind because of an outpouring from the community.
“I’m there to serve and I think our number one job as elected officials is to bring the voice of the community to the table and I think the community knows that I am trying my very best to do that,” she said.
Mayor Stewart Young, Councillors Denise Blackwell and Lillian Szpak
Livestreaming, initially rejected by council, but brought in because of COVID restrictions, has allowed people to see what is going on, Szpak said.
That means people are more engaged and more concerned, she said.
“It is disturbing for people when they feel that no one is listening and the mayor is shouting down a councillor who is speaking appropriately to an item on the agenda… I think councils lose their credibility when they appear to be in conflict,” she said.
Szpak said she is proud of what has been achieved in Langford, but the city, with changing demographics, is now at a crossroads and people are looking for ways to address climate change and ensure responsible development.
When people look at developments on McCallum Road and Skirt Mountain, where the trees have been razed, they ask why it is happening, Szpak said.
“I think we have to articulate clearly what our plan is and, if we are going to live sustainably on the South Island, we need to pay attention to climate change advocacy,” she said.
Although the city has an official community plan it lacks a plan for growth that includes community consultation, Szpak said.
“How are we going to grow and what does it look like? We don’t want to be ‘ride into Langford and throw up a tower here or there’ without a long-term plan for how you are going to support that kind of density,” she said.
Blackwell said it is concerning that Young gets irate when people oppose his ideas.
“I chaired the Capital Regional District and I am able to have meetings where everyone is civilized and everyone is allowed to talk, but it seems at Langford council he doesn’t want anyone to talk except him and, if you do raise an issue, he just talks over you,” she said.
Blackwell emphasized that she does not want development to grind to a halt, but it is time to take a breath and listen to the people of Langford on issues such as multi-storey towers and managing traffic.
During the early years on council, Blackwell, who was first elected in 1992, bought into Young’s vision of the city.
“But when he started talking about all these towers all over the place, I said ‘that’s not my vision,’ and so then I was persona non grata,” Blackwell said.
So far, Young has no competition for the mayoralty.
But that does not mean Langford council will continue along the same path, Craig said.
“There will be a change in council members this fall and there will be at least a majority who are willing to work together and who are willing to look at sustainable development, transparent and democratic governance, and protection of the environment,” she predicted.
Judith Lavoie is a freelance journalist who enjoys exploring stories about the natural world, including the politics surrounding it. See an earlier piece about contentious Langford council meetings here.