Tofino hosted a socially-distanced public hearing on July 20. (Andrew Bailey photo)

Tofino housing project criticized at public hearing

Town’s council hosts first public hearing since start of COVID-19 pandemic.

An affordable housing project being proposed by the District of Tofino received some significant scrutiny from the community last week as the town’s council hosted their first public hearing since the start of the coronavirus pandemic.

The July 20 hearing was held at the Tofino Community Hall to allow for social distancing that would not have been possible in council chambers. Seats were placed two metres apart and fire chief Brent Baker sprayed all attendees hands with sanitizer before they entered the building. Masks were not mandatory, but were available at the door and a vast majority of the roughly 40 residents in attendance wore one.

The proposal has been put forward by a partnership between the Tofino Housing Corporation and not-for-profit developer Catalyst Community Developments Society and, as currently laid out, would create 72 apartment units split between two, three storey, buildings as well as three duplex townhouses that would each have secondary suites attached.

The 84-unit housing complex would be located on district owned land at 351 Arnet Road, also known as District Lot 114.

The project is expected to cost $20.6 million and $1.04 million has been spent so far to progress the proposal along.

Before it can move ahead, the lot must be rezoned to allow for an affordable multi-family housing development on the property. The town’s council has endorsed the proposed rezoning through two readings of the associated bylaw, leading to last week’s public hearing where community members were given an opportunity to voice their opinions on the project.

READ MORE: Affordable housing project advances in Tofino

“Developments like this, there’s a variety of different hurdles or stages to get through, zoning is a very major one and this is where we’re at,” explained Tofino’s Planner 1 Peter Thicke during an information session held immediately prior to the hearing. “This public hearing part of the zoning amendment is definitely a critical part as we consider the actual application.”

He said the apartments would be subject to a future housing agreement that would determine who would be eligible to rent them and how much their monthly rent would be. The duplex lots would be exempt from that agreement and any revenue raised from them would go towards financing the affordable housing aspect of the project, according to Thicke.

Tofino Housing Corporation executive director Ian Scott spoke first at the hearing and said the Arnet Road property has been identified for a potential housing project since 2004.

“Study after study and survey after survey has shown a strong need for housing in this community, particularly rental housing. We’re talking about housing for individuals and households, this is not staff accommodation. We’re looking at housing that is both affordable and secure, long term with no fear of being kicked out or having to leave,” Scott said.

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He added that the housing corporation is confident it will receive funding for the project from the provincial and federal government if the necessary rezoning goes ahead.

“This, obviously, has been a long process and we’re happy to be at this point,” he said.

He acknowledged local concerns have swirled around the proposal, particularly in regards to cost, scope and environmental impacts.

“We know the area we’re developing is precious to the community,” he said. “That’s why we’re trying to keep the development footprint as small as possible.”

He also acknowledged concerns around increasing traffic in the area and said nearby intersections would be upgraded with stop signs and speed humps would be installed.

He said the apartment buildings would include 70 parking stalls and 96 bike storage spaces, noting that anyone renting from the proposed complex would be encouraged to walk or cycle.

READ MORE: Tofino driving for change in transportation methods

The first member of the public to speak at the hearing was Christine Lowther of the Tofino Natural Heritage Society, who suggested DL114 is “part of the remaining globally rare, ancient, temperate rainforests,” and urged council to preserve the lot’s remaining landscape after the proposed project is completed.

“We support affordable housing. We also speak for wildlife and its habitat and believe that developers who have so much altered and profited from Tofino should provide affordable permanent housing on already cleared land,” she said. “The village became a town and is now becoming a city. How much longer will the air and water be clean for families? How quiet and peaceful a refuge will the trails be now? How are we helping to mitigate climate change rather than add to it? The rainforest is the planet’s lungs and that’s our children’s and grandchildren’s lungs.”

READ MORE: Chris Lowther becomes Tofino’s second Poet Laureate

Several speakers wondered why the private sector has not played a larger role in tackling the community’s housing crisis.

“We need to get the private sector involved in what’s going on here,” said Harold Sadler. “I see a community with a huge need for affordable ownership and affordable rentals and wherever there’s a need in our society, there should be someone filling that need from the private sector, but there’s not and there’s got to be a reason for that.”

He suggested developers are facing too many obstacles in Tofino and urged the district to review its policies and adjust its attitudes towards developers.

Jack Gillie suggested Tofino’s district office has been bearish on approving development proposals from the private sector over the past 15 years and said more effort is needed to engage with developers.

“It’s kind of an abandonment of your responsibilities and I say that in a really broad sense,” he said. “We’ve come to a position where it seems like the powers that are invested in the municipality are the things that are becoming the obstacle.”

READ MORE: Tofino again rejects massive development proposal from Woodsmere

Steven Thicke suggested there are too many unanswered questions related to the proposal, adding the community remains “in the dark” about what the actual monthly rent for the apartments will ultimately be.

“My concern is that those who truly need help will not receive it through this development,” he said.

He called for a complete audit of the work done so far and said unanswered questions around funding and infrastructure must be clarified before it moves ahead.

Michael Mullin thanked the district for putting its efforts towards attaining affordable housing, but was adamant that the proposal being presented missed the mark.

“My mind absolutely boggled when I heard about this particular proposal. I think it’s an absolutely terrible idea and a really wrong use of village land. It’s the wrong place for a whole bunch of reasons,” he said. “You’ve got wetlands, you’ve got rocks to blow up, you’ve got forests to clear and old growth forests to destroy.”

He suggested putting the large housing complex at the end of town would lead to a heavy increase in traffic through currently quiet neighbourhoods and the development would cost Tofino some of its most prized landscapes.

“Tonquin Park is one of the gems of this town. We’ve already made significant public investment in the trail system, in the park, and this development is going to destroy half the value of that park, which is outrageous,” he said. “Do not allow this to proceed. It’s the wrong plan, the wrong place and really not a good idea for our town.”

Neil Williams said he and his wife had recently purchased a home in Tofino in pursuit of peace and quiet.

“We chose this area because it was really quiet and family orientated,” he said adding the increased traffic would change the neighbourhood’s dynamic.

He said providing just 70 parking spots for both apartment buildings was a potentially disastrous underestimation of need, suggesting the apartments’ residents would be forced to park on already congested side streets.

“Where do those cars go? They’re going to go in the local neighbourhood. They’re going to be tucked in here, there and everywhere,” he said. “I just think it’s a real shame the area that’s been picked. If one of the last beautiful areas around here. Everywhere I look in this town right now there’s bulldozers plowing through trees and knocking stuff down. People who moved out here because it was quiet and it had an energy that is only contained within the natural world and we’re just knocking it down. It just seems a real shame and there seems to be better places to put this.”

READ MORE: RVs bring congestion and angst to Tofino

Grant McCreath lives on Leighton Way and expressed similar sentiment about the project’s potential impacts.

“The street is a small street, it’s a family street,” he said.

Another speaker expressed concern over the potential increase in traffic and noise.

“I was hoping it would be much smaller,” she said. “We’re going to start to lose that small town feel if all of our trails are congested with people and the land is all cleared.”

Cathy Thicke also spoke against the project, calling its lack of parking stalls “completely crazy” though adding a smaller complex of about 40 units could be tenable.

“This idea about car free living, that simply is not true in Tofino,” she said.

Not everyone expressed opposition however, as Lyndsey Page spoke in favour of the project.

“I think it’s important to hear from the people who would be potentially living in this [development],” she said, adding she and her husband have lived in Tofino for over 10 years.

“We’d be happy to live somewhere that we can permanently rent and feel safe in. We do not feel safe and secure in our current accommodation and I feel like the majority of our friends are in the same situation,” she said. “We’re at the point where we’re discussing having to leave Tofino. This is our home, we don’t want to leave, but we are running out of options. So, we are in full support of this and hope you move forward with it.”

Jill Patterson also spoke in favour of the project and suggested concerns would be expressed regardless of its location.

“I feel like if not here then where? It’s always going to be controversial,” she said.

Melissa Ross said she was excited about the project when she first heard of it, but was disappointed to learn that the apartments would only be available for rent and she urged council to consider ownership opportunities.

With the public hearing now behind them, the town’s council will consider what they heard from their constituents and make their decision on the project at a future meeting.

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