A Planner Speaks

SNS Dialogue Session with the OCP Project Team

Alan Osborne 

   I’ve heard lots of confusion and concern about the review of the Official Community Plan (OCP). As a retired community planner and long time North Saanich resident I think I can “cut through the noise” and identify what’s at the root of many of the concerns. 

          In this article I won’t deal with the consultation process, but rather focus on the actual proposals and why they are problematic. 

          I want to thank the Save North Saanich organizers for inviting me to a couple of meetings back in May. The first meeting involved a group of residents who had concerns with the OCP review and the second was when this group met with the “planning team” (the planning consultants and North Saanich planning staff). In listening to the group I found that we shared many of the same concerns, so much so that they asked me to make the lead-off presentation at the meeting with the planning team. 

          I’ve worked as a planner for some BC municipalities, a regional district and the Islands Trust, and I’ve been involved with many OCP reviews. I also worked in the provincial government, in the ministry responsible for local government. In my time there I was Director of Local Government Policy and Legislation for quite a few years and oversaw the development of much of BC’s current planning legislation. Before retiring I was Executive Director of Planning and Intergovernmental Relations, and helped municipal and regional governments across the province tackle issues such as urban development, affordable housing and climate change. Locally, I’ve served a few terms on the North Saanich Advisory Panning Commission, the Parks Commission and last year I was appointed to the North Saanich Select Committee on Climate Change. 

          The issues with the OCP proposals fall Into three themes: vision, context and climate. Basically, the planning team is heading in the wrong direction by: (1)proposing to change the long-standing vision of North Saanich, to make it more a more urban place; (2) ignoring the regional plan, which is aimed at stopping urban sprawl and keeping new housing within the “urban containment area” (which doesn’t include North Saanich); and (3) proposing significantly more housing were the residents will have no choice but to rely on personal vehicles. Putting housing in locations where residents need to rely on cars not only puts strain on family budgets, it also puts hundreds of more vehicles on our roads and makes it difficult to reduce emissions and achieve our climate change goals. 

          Now if you can bear with me a bit longer, I’ll explain these issues in a bit more detail.  


I’ve lived in North Saanich for 35 years and I’ve been involved with numerous committees and commissions since Day One. Literally on the day we moved in, as I was unloading boxes from a U-Haul truck, someone walked up the driveway and asked me to attend an Advisory Planning Commission meeting that was scheduled for the following day. I went. 

          I’ve watched North Saanich evolve. On the face of it the community has changed a fair bit over the years, but one thing has remained steady; the community vision, captured by the OCP. 

          Residents have always valued: 

-          Our role in providing green and blue spaces (some planning jargon that means our forests, farms and foreshore).

-          Our role as a major food supplier, with the potential to dramatically increase food production if needed in the future…and with climate change that time may be sooner that we thought. 

-          Our rural landscapes, and the ecological value of our forests and hedgerows. 

-          Our responsibility as a regional transportation hub. 

          The vision has been a touchstone and has served the community well. 

          The vision that the planning team put out for public comment includes a significant shift from our long-standing vision of the community. I doubt that many people appreciate what looks like subtle changes in the wording. And what frustrates those who do notice the changes is that there’s never been an explicit discussion on why the current vision needs to change. 

          The planning team will say that they asked for input on the revised vision, but it’s very difficult for the average resident to cut through the warm fuzzy wording and appreciate the implications. Ask the average resident to comment on a vision that adds terms like “diverse neighbourhoods” and their eyes glaze over. They don’t understand the implications of those words. I assured the planning team that if they explained that “diverse neighbourhoods” means adding townhouses and 4 story condos to what are now low-density rural neighbourhoods they would get much more reliable feedback on the vision! 

          So that’s the first fundamental problem with this OCP review; nobody asked residents whether the long-standing vision for the community still reflected what we valued. Instead, a new vision with some warm, fuzzy words was thrown out there for comment and residents need a translator to appreciate that this new vision would make North Saanich a much more urban place.  


 This leads us to the second theme, the lack of context. For any planning process - forest planning, social planning, financial planning - it’s critical to start with the context. 

          We have 13 municipalities in the Capital Regional District (CRD) and all of their OCPs need to fit into a regional context. The CRD Regional Growth Strategy is very clear on the role that North Saanich plays in the region. And that role is very much aligned with the vision in the existing OCP. The RGS does not see North Saanich being a major source of new housing. Quite the contrary, it was agreed that no part of North Saanich would be in what’s called the “urban containment area”. 

          Millions of dollars and years of work were spent developing the original RGS and the update done just a few years ago. A central pillar of the RGS is the need for an urban containment boundary, to prevent further urban sprawl, to protect rural areas, protect our farms, to protect the environment and reduce emissions. 

          Housing demand and affordability were a big part of the RGS analysis. The urban containment area was determined to be the most appropriate place for new housing in the region. It has the required services and within the urban containment areas there’s real potential to achieve what’s called “active transportation neighbourhoods”. That’s more planning jargon, which means residents should be able to walk, cycle and use transit for most of their daily trips. 

          Allowing more housing in neighbourhoods where people must rely on personal vehicles for most of their daily trips is not only bad for the environment but it also puts pressure on an already strained family budget. Most studies show that Canadians spend about 20% of their income on transportation, and that owning a vehicle costs about $15,000 per year. With mortgage rates, rents, food and gas prices all increasing it’s more important than ever to focus new housing where people have options to reduce what they spend on transportation, by taking public transit, walking or cycling. Containing urban sprawl is a win/win situation. Families save money on vehicles and gas and at the same time it reduces emissions and helps the region to meet our climate goals. 

          The RGS says that we need to focus 95% of new housing within the urban containment area. It goes further and stresses the need to ensure that new housing is in those “active transportation neighbourhoods” so that residents aren’t car dependent. So how are we as a region? The most recent RGS Annual Progress Report says that only 39% of new housing is being built in these “active transportation neighbourhoods”. In other words, 61% of new housing is still being built in areas where residents, by necessity, will need to rely on cars to get around. Municipalities like North Saanich need to get more serious about containing urban sprawl. 

          Under the RGS, North Saanich is not within the urban containment area and is not seen as an appropriate place for significant new housing. This is no surprise, given that we have few bus routes and infrequent service. 

          Has the CRD told North Saanich that it wants to expand the urban containment area to include portions of our municipality? No it hasn’t, nor should it, because it’s already struggling to contain urban sprawl. Then how is it that the only land use scenarios that have been put out for public review all call for significant amounts of housing outside of the urban containment area? Why aren’t residents asked to consider land use scenarios that are consistent with the RGS and don’t expand the urban containment area? 

          If residents are expected to give input on lands scenarios they need context. The land use scenarios sent out for public comment don’t provide any explanation as to why there is an urban containment area in the RGS, what it’s intended to achieve and what progress is being made (or in this case, not being made) to contain urban sprawl. By being silent on the context, this suggests that there are no negative impacts to any of the scenarios; that they are all good planning options. 

          Some years back I was in a meeting where then-Premier Gordon Campbell called the mayors from our major urban areas into the Cabinet Chambers to tell them that they had to get serious about climate change. He asked them, “How many of you ran for office on a platform to create more urban sprawl?” (No one raised their hand.) “And yet that is exactly what you’re doing. You may think that you’re approving reasonable developments but when you stand back and look at the cumulative results, you’re still creating urban sprawl.” 

          I will continue to be critical of the current OCP review until someone makes a very clear and convincing case that the urban containment area needs to be expanded into North Saanich. Further, they need to make a convincing case that an urban village in the McTavish neighbourhood is the best option to meet our region’s housing and environmental goals. If we were in Ontario, or any other jurisdictions where they have a planning review board, there would have to be detailed studies, presenting data and analysis, before any expansion would even be considered. Yet here it’s being assumed that parts of North Saanich should be in the urban containment area, and the only question being asked of residents is “how much”? 

          And while the McTavish urban village attracts a lot of attention, the planning team’s proposals also call for a lot of new housing be added in other areas of North Saanich as well. And again, with no rationale, no context and no sense of the implications. 

          I appreciate why some residents will be in favour of more housing. Some people will want to add a secondary suite or guest cottage to supplement their income. Some would love to subdivide their property, make some money, and build a smaller home for themselves. Other people will see a need to help tenant farmers and farm entrepreneurs live on-site, etc. 

          This OCP review should be a forum where such issues can be examined and discussed. To help the discussion the planning team should have presented the context, the challenges, identified the tough choices that need to be made and provided the implications of each option. With such information residents would be in a realistic position to provide informed input. 

          So that’s the second fundamental problem, residents haven’t been given any context. It’s almost as if the regional plan doesn’t exist and we’re planning in isolation and with no information about the impacts of the various proposals.  


          This brings me to the third issue, the impacts of the proposals on climate change. 

          The most recent CRD Greenhouse Gas Inventory showed that the region is falling far behind where it needs to be in reducing GHG emissions. The goal was to reduce emissions by 33% between 2007 and 2020. The study shows that emissions fell by only 10%. Per capita emissions did fall quite a bit in some municipalities, particularly in Victoria. Which municipalities are doing the worst? No surprise, it’s those like North Saanich that continue to allow development in rural areas. 

          When North Saanich Council declared a climate emergency the community was told that the OCP would be where they would see details on many of the bold actions that will be required. Council also agreed to implement a recommendation of the municipality’s Select Committee on Climate Change that a “climate lens” be applied to Council reports and decisions. 

          The planning team documents mention climate, and mention the need for “strong actions”, but then there’s a huge disconnect between those nice words and the actual proposals. The concepts put out for public input recommend significant amounts of new housing where residents will have no choice but to use personal vehicles for most of their daily trips. How is that bold action on climate? 

          The planning team seems to have made the assumption that denser housing means the residents will use transit, regardless of where that density is. Take the Deep Cove proposal for mixed use and an undefined amount of new housing, for example. It’s presented as a “climate-friendly” option. I can only assume the planning team hasn’t studied the bus schedule. For those of us who live there, we know that the level of bus service is nowhere near that required for residents to forgo the use of a car. On weekdays the bus comes every 2 or 3 hours. On weekends the bus comes only 3 times a day. So if you miss your bus you have a 6 hour wait. BC Transit tells us there are no plans in the foreseeable future to improve bus frequency in Deep Cove, so it’s pretty obvious that any new housing there will be auto-dependent….more vehicles on the road, more emissions. If a climate lens was applied I guarantee you this proposal would fail. 

          The same issue applies to the Benchlands (Terraces). I know there are some residents there who want to subdivide or put in guest cottages. Maybe there are some portions of the Benchlands where pedestrian pathways could be added so that the residents could have short walk up to East Saanich Rd., and have access to bus service. And maybe bus service could be increased to the level that people could forgo private vehicles for many of their daily trips. The proposal thrown out for input shows significant infill housing in that whole area, without any analysis of the impacts. The reality is that most of it will likely be auto-dependent development and will hurt our ability to reduce emissions. 

          If Gordon Campbell were here he would say, however well-intentioned, at the end of the day, if it’s car dependent it’s sprawl, and we can’t afford more of it if we’re serious about climate change.  


          It would be a mistake to dismiss residents opposed to the OCP proposals as simply “anti-development”. I’ve found that my neighbours understand why North Saanich is such a special place and why allowing more urban sprawl is the wrong thing do. They also understand the challenges of housing affordability, and they are sceptical that any new housing built in expensive rural neighbourhoods will somehow be affordable. They want solutions to the housing crisis that also meet our other objectives, such as doing our part to address climate change. They connect the dots between more development, more cars on our roads, and more emissions. They were looking to the municipality to show some leadership in reducing emissions and addressing climate change and they expected the OCP review to be an opportunity to showcase and discuss some of those ideas. Like many North Saanich residents, I completed the recent OCP on-line survey. I found it very frustrating; the way the change in the overall vision was downplayed, the lack of regional context, the limited options presented and the failure to address climate change. 

          It made me think about the fact that we’re only a few months from the next election and that I should have my own questions ready for the candidates. I’ve still got time to work on them but they’ll probably be something like this: 

  1. Do you agree that the long-standing vision of North Saanich is still valid? Or do you think that it needs to change to incorporate more dense, urban development? 
  2. Do you support the RGS goal to limit urban sprawl and focus new housing within the current urban containment boundary? Or do you believe we should ignore the RGS and allow significantly more housing throughout North Saanich? 
  3. Do you believe that strong actions are needed to address climate change and reduce emissions? If so, do you agree that we need to apply a climate lens to all development proposals, to ensure that we aren’t approving more development where residents must rely on cars for most of their daily trips? 

          I’m hopeful that the local election in November will be a good opportunity to finally discuss our vision for North Saanich. 


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