Interest in residential development is on the rise in Tofino and the district office is fortifying its planning department to try to keep up.
“We have a lot more interest in larger developments of multi-family housing than I’ve seen here before in my 14 years (with the district),” manager of community sustainability Aaron Rodgers told the Westerly News. “Development is picking up, it’s not slowing down.”
He added interest has shifted from commercial to residential projects as the district has published a new Official Community Plan that underlines to developers that Tofino isn’t welcoming any additional tourist accommodations until it gets its housing sorted out.
“Because of how the OCP is written, we have very few applications now for commercial accommodation…That’s dried up actually over the last couple of years as the OCP has come to completion and people either read or understand what’s happening in the community,” he said. “Commercial accommodation is, right now, among the least desirable uses in Tofino. Tofino is looking for residential and, more preferably, affordable residential as we try to close the gap between our housing issues in order to support the local economy so that people have places to live and businesses can hire people who have places to live who can come to work in the morning after a hot shower.”
Tofino’s planning department has included both a Senior Planner and Planner 1 position for the past several years, but has never actually filled both positions at the same time.
“In the past, we’ve only provided funding for one of those positions, so the way that it’s worked is that we’ve hired people as Planner 1 and as they progress through their career and they get the right accreditations, we can offer them a promotion to a senior planner position which gives you a little bit more responsibility and you can start working on more of the longer term plans and bigger planning projects,”
“This year council has moved to fund both positions concurrently so we’ll for the first time ever have two paid planning positions in the department.”
The district is currently advertising for the Senior Planner position as well as a temporary Planner 1 to fill in for paternity leave.
Rodgers, who oversees the planning department as well as emergency services and the recreation team, said the senior planner would focus on long-term thinking around processes like the Official Community Plan and larger planning projects while also providing mentorship to the Planner 1.
“It’s been a need for a long time…As we get to be a bigger municipality and as we have more responsibilities through provincial legislation we require more people to do the work,” Rodgers said. “We’re stretched a bit thin…All these projects that we have to do just keep getting pushed away because we’re dealing with the immediate all the time.”
He suggested there are over 40 active applications in the hopper currently, meaning the person charged with dealing with those has no time left to support long term planning work.
“We also spend a significant amount of money on planning consultants, especially through the last couple of years, so it’s our hope that instead of spending that money outside of Tofino we can direct that money towards a position within the district,” he said. “We’re trying to do as much as we can to maintain and improve our service levels and to start being able to think ahead a little bit further without that being on the side of a desk.”
He added that development fees have been “increased across the board” to help pay for the added salary costs.
He said bringing in a new staffer should help decrease the delays potential developers are facing as they wait for their applications to be processed, adding the planning department has traditionally dealt with roughly 25 applications at a time, but that number is growing.
“As we start to climb into the mid-40’s. It gets busier and what busier means is it’s slower for the person on the other side of the desk. For an applicant or a resident coming in to do something, busier for us means slower for them,” he said. “We’re looking at at least two years to get through a decent sized zoning application and sometimes a little bit longer, so I think there’s probably some concern out there over that. A senior planner would be able to lighten that load a little bit by stepping in and taking on some of the bigger, more complicated zoning applications.”
He added that there’s reason for optimism in town as the Tofino Housing Corporations two projects at Sharp Road and District Lot 114 get underway and Woodsmere Holdings Corporation’s application continues to amble forward.
“I would hope that in two years from now we have almost 100 new units of affordable rental housing so if that happens that’s pretty amazing and hats off to the Tofino Housing Corporation and all the past councils that will have got us to that step,” he said noting Tofino has not seen a significant residential development since the Tonquin Apartments were built in the 1970’s in an effort to tackle the town’s affordable housing shortage at the time.