A steeply sloped lot could become a unique housing development in Tofino equipped with a cable runway system to move residents up and down the property via a tram-like ride.
Council approved giving staff permission to proceed with the application during their Dec. 14 regular meeting, though the vote was not unanimous and several of those in favour raised concerns around the scale and feasibility of the project.
A roughly 16-home residential development dubbed Tofino Highlands is being pitched for two adjacent lots, 711 and 721 Campbell Street.
In a presentation to council, the land’s co-owner Bridget Reichert explained that the two lots are approximately 1.1 acres combined and are currently zoned single-family residential.
She said she invested in the undeveloped property with two other people to pursue her “own needs and dreams and wants to be living in Tofino,” but the land’s “sweeping slopes” forced increased creativity into the project.
“With some of the constraints of the site itself, we started thinking outside the box and, knowing some of the hangups Tofino faces with residential homes, we started thinking a little bit bigger,” she said. “We have a goal to develop a very unique multi-family, residential living experience.”
She said the site plan currently projects about 15-20 dwellings and presented images that showed homes on stilts. She suggested the project would include one parking spot per unit, surf and bike storage, communal spaces and outdoor spaces.
She added that the development’s target market would be people ages 25-45 and that it would cater to the “missing middle,” which she described as people who do not qualify for affordable housing subsidies and cannot afford multi-million-dollar homes.
“We really want to build something very authentic and true to Tofino,” she said. “The property will be developed to maintain old growth trees wherever possible and owners will enjoy forest, inlet and mountain views.”
She explained access is a point of contention at the site because of the sloping terrain and suggested the plan is to use a funicular, a cable runway system that acts like a tram, to ferry residents up and down.
Tofino’s Senior Planner Peter Thicke suggested the plan Reichert had presented to council was different than the application district staff received and that “significant additional detail” would be needed from the applicants before the project could move forward.
He said the proposal is supported by the town’s official community plan as the site is located in an area where development and high density housing is encouraged and that while affordable housing is the district’s highest priority, market housing sits second on the list.
“We’re looking for more dense housing in this area and the applicant is proposing more dense housing in the area,” he said.
He added the two lots contain “some significant old growth” and sit within a wildlife habitat development permit area, so an environmental impact assessment would need to be completed and mitigations implemented prior to any construction
“I’m sure council is all aware that this particular property has a significant slope to it,” he said. “It’s quite challenging topography to work with, very steep…It’s worth considering, in a large part, any construction on this property will be a significant exercise in engineering.”
He added that an affordable housing component would likely play a significant role in the rezoning process when it comes down to amenities.
“Staff are really hoping to work with the applicants to ensure that at least a couple of the units have some level of affordability associated with them,” he said. “The current market in Tofino has far outstripped the ability of most people in Tofino to afford a home here at market value, so we would be hoping to ensure that at least some of the proposed homes, should they eventually be built, are available to those within our community that might not otherwise be able to stay here long-term or afford a home.”
He said the two lots are zoned single family residential and that a “major benefit” of the Tofino Highlands proposal is that short term rentals on the properties would be prohibited and the units would be for long-term occupancy only.
“Typically the housing on these properties take the form of a single home, often with a suite and more often than not, in recent years, either the main home or the suite will be used as a vacation rental,” he said.
Coun. Duncan McMaster said he found the application “quite interesting,” and supported moving forward with further staff review, but noted his biggest concern was around how emergency vehicles would access the neighbourhood.
Coun. Britt Chalmers shared McMaster’s concern around emergency vehicle access and also questioned whether allocating just one parking spot per unit would lead to problematic vehicle overflow.
Coun. Cathy Thicke was the only vote opposed to the permission to proceed, expressing concern over the discrepancy between Reichert’s presentation and the application that had been handed in to staff.
“If you’re asking for a council to deliberate on a very serious matter and something that affects many people’s lives and could add to the housing stock in Tofino, but there’s a different sketch given, I have a problem with that,” she said. “I don’t know exactly what I’m being asked to give permission to. I don’t have a clear picture, I have two different pictures…I don’t feel at all positive about going forward with that.”
She added that she had concerns around the amount of homes being pitched for the size of land and its steep topography.
“I don’t know, looking at the lot and having walked on it, how it would be possible to get 16 units there,” she said.
She added that having just one parking spot per unit “would be a show stopper” in terms of her support if the application moves forward.
Coun. Al Anderson said the proposal “presents some great opportunities” and added he was not concerned that Reichert’s presentation had not matched the application to a tee, suggesting developments go through many iterations before a final plan is produced.
“These are not finalized proposals, they’re just ideas of how it might fit on the lot and, if we give permission to go forward, we’ll probably see another iteration come forward to council as they work through details and what works with engineering and what works with the site,” he said. “The site does have a lot of challenges and it’s going to be more difficult for the developers to develop on that land than other places.”
Mayor Dan Law called the proposal “intriguing” but expressed concerns around topography, access and parking.
“Families and children on a steep slope with a funicular on that corner with very little parking and very little pedestrian access or no pedestrian access, does pose problems for me,” he said, adding building homes on stilts might create safety issues in case of an earthquake.
He said he supported the permission to proceed, but was not 100 per cent on the project as presented.
“This is a cautious endorsement to work further with planning on this and we’ll look for some changes,” he said.
Thicke’s was the only vote in opposition for the permission to proceed.