Tofino’s municipal council approved a zoning bylaw last week that paves the way for a controversial affordable housing project to move ahead, though they left some wiggle room to alter the current plan if better options pop up.
“In my opinion, I won’t be endorsing the proposal as it stands, but I’m certainly intent on supporting this land-use decision,” said Coun. Tom Stere during council’s Aug. 11 regular meeting. “That’s not to say that I don’t have concerns with the proposal, but the intent of the use of this land, I think, is appropriate.”
Council unanimously approved rezoning the district owned property at 351 Arnet Road—often referred to as District Lot 114—to allow for a multi-family residential neighbourhood, but seemed somewhat divided on the specific housing project that’s currently being proposed.
The proposal has been put forward by a partnership between the Tofino Housing Corporation and Catalyst Community Developments and would see an 84-unit housing complex built, including two apartment buildings and three duplex-style townhomes.
The project is expected to cost roughly $20 million and the THC has spent $1.04 million on the proposal to date.
In order to pay for it, the housing corporation is heavily depending on potential funding from B.C. Housing, but needed the rezoning to be approved before it could put in a suitable grant application.
A public hearing was held on July 20 where the project faced heavy criticism from the community and, during Aug. 11’s meeting, the district’s Planner 1 Peter Thicke summarized the feedback the district received, suggesting that of the 34 verbal and written submissions from the public, 29 expressed opposition.
He said the key concerns raised were around the project’s cost, whether the units created would actually be affordable to residents, environmental impacts to the area, increased traffic and whether local governments should be involved with housing projects.
District staff recommended council approve the rezoning, though the town’s CAO Bob MacPherson noted that staff’s recommendation was not centred around the specific proposal, but rather land-use and whether council would like to see the property used for a housing project.
Tofino mayor Josie Osborne suggested the amount of negative feedback received about the project did not necessarily reflect the community’s will.
“We don’t often get that kind of participation in a public hearing and it’s an indication that there’s a lot of interest in this and that there’s a lot of perspectives and opinions on it. I do think it’s important to note that a public hearing is not a de facto referendum,” she said.
“We have a duty to consider the voices that weren’t present in the process and to understand that not everybody is able to come forward and say what they think and that it is our responsibility as a group to include those voices to the best of our ability and consider those opinions.
She added that council must also consider the “technical information” it had received throughout the process, including environmental and traffic assessments and a 2015 Housing Needs Assessment.
“The private sector cannot solve this problem alone. We need both,” she said. “It’s an investment in people’s health. It’s an investment in public health, it’s an investment in the town’s economy, it’s an investment in our own political leadership…We do have to start somewhere and I think this is a really amazing and excellent start.”
Coun. Duncan McMaster agreed and voiced his support for the project.
“This isn’t going to be the solution to Tofino’s housing problem, but it’s going to be a start…Wherever we go, whether it’s DL114 or anywhere, someone’s going to complain that it’s not in the right location, but we’re limited in possibilities,” he said.
“As has been said many times, it’s going to upset some people, but it’s going to make a lot of people happier and provide them an opportunity, especially young people…I think we have to do this. I think it’s time to put the umbrella down, look at the sky and move forward.”
Coun. Britt Chalmers said she disagreed with the idea that local governments should not be involved in housing projects.
“It is a basic need that is not fulfilled in this town and it hasn’t been addressed,” she said. “We can’t be everything to everyone. We need to start somewhere and, if we try to muddy the waters too much by trying to be everything, then it won’t get off the ground.”
Coun. Andrea McQuade said she was “strongly in support” of the proposal.
“I understand and want to note that I’ve heard and thought critically about the concerns and encouragements that were voiced at the public hearing, just as I’ve listened and thought critically to the concerns and encouragements of the community outside the public hearing. Both bear upon my decision to move forward with this rezoning,” she said. “I strongly believe that this rezoning is another huge step in providing affordable housing for current and prospective residents of Tofino and it offers us, as Tofino council, an opportunity to move meaningfully towards contributing to a long-range, functioning ecosystem of housing here in Tofino…For myself, this is a moment for progress.”
Coun. Dan Law said he was in favour of creating affordable housing, but was not convinced that the project being proposed was the best way to tackle the issue.
He asked if changes could be made to the project, like eliminating one of the apartment buildings and replacing it with an assortment of townhouses with some being available for purchase to potentially create affordable home ownership, rather than strictly rentals.
“I don’t think that it would reduce the number of tenants so substantially that we would not get what we want…A lot of the community opposition, I think, would be assuaged and a lot of the people that came in support I think would support it more. I personally think that it wouldn’t be that hard to do,” he said.
“With some changes, this development could be better, more livable, more environmentally friendly and could actually succeed in being something almost for everybody.”
Osborne suggested changing the proposal could lead to “a real opportunity lost” because delaying the rezoning would likely nix the Tofino Housing Corporation’s ability to meet B.C. Housing’s application deadline for funding.
“At this point, to pause and change things and then bring it back to council and possibly a public hearing, would be very difficult,” she said.
McMaster feared that missing the application deadline could lead to a lengthy delay as, he suggested, future funding opportunities would likely be scarce due to the coronavirus pandemic’s global economic impacts.
“I’m really concerned about missing any funding opportunities, especially with the way the economy is now,” he said.
“If we attempt to make this perhaps more palatable to the people who opposed it, we run the risk of losing it entirely,” she said.
Law expressed frustration that the public hearing was held so close to the application deadline.
“It really limits our ability to make changes. I find that a little tough,” he said. “It’s just too bad that changes can’t be made at this time.”
Chalmers noted that rezoning the land to allow for a residential neighbourhood would not automatically mean that the proposed project would move ahead exactly as proposed.
“Just because we’re doing this, doesn’t mean it needs to happen but, down the road, as town grows, we have the opportunity to be able to build it,” she said.