“It’s pretty amazing what Stew Young and council have done,” says Langford resident Brooke Somers as soon as we sit down.
“They’ve done a really good job, and I’m very proud to live here. But I feel alienated.”
She sighs. “I’ve never been personally directly impacted by the development until now,” she says, which is why she’s so conflicted about what’s happening behind her house.
Somers purchased her house in 2009 in the Thetis Heights subdivision beside the Trans Canada Highway off Millstream Road, and was told at the time there were no plans to develop the property between her home and the highway. But the bulldozers moved in some months ago and started clearing the land off the end of Bellamy Road for development, and she feels she missed an opportunity to have a say in that.
“They want to cut red tape and make development happen more easily, which I think is great,” she admits, but she wishes there was more clarity and transparency during the process.
Are they cutting too much of the red tape? Is there some middle ground so that developers don’t get bogged down in consultation but the public can still be informed? Somers says it sometimes feels as if the decisions have already been made and the process is just a formality – a rubber stamp at the end, as it were.
“I just want them to allow me to be a community member and participate in the process. That piece seems to be missing.”
According to Matthew Baldwin, director of planning for the City of Langford, this particular case is one of very few where development of property can begin without public consultation.
The land in question was acquired in the 1980s by the province to complete the highway project, which included the Millstream overpass, Baldwin says. The remnant pieces of unused land were sold off after completion of that project.
“The city could have purchased them and kept them as park land,” he says,” but it would have essentially caused a two-per-cent hike in people’s property taxes and we didn’t see that being a good use of public funds.”
The zoning of that property has technically been for residential development since 1967. And since it is being developed under its current designation and all requirements have been met to acquire a development permit – environmental assessment by a biologist to establish no sensitive ecosystems are being affected, for example – there’s no process or requirement in place for public consultation.
Baldwin says it would be unmanageable if every time someone wanted to do something on their own private land, it had to go to a public debate.
“If you have a proposal that meets the city’s guidelines (for what the property has been zoned for), then what’s left to discuss?” Baldwin says.
Langford Coun. Denise Blackwell chairs the city’s planning, zoning and affordable housing committee. She says the city’s public consultation process is actually more informative than many other jurisdictions. Municipalities are not required to announce bylaw or zoning amendments before the public hearing phase of the process, but Langford announces those details before a development even goes to committee to be discussed, she says.
Baldwin adds that Langford in is a situation where most developments require rezoning before they can move forward, which is where the public engagement process would happen.
Somers says she realizes it’s not a requirement for developers to notify nearby residents of their plans or actions unless they are planning something other than what the land has been zoned for, but she thinks it would be nice if they did, anyway.
She’d also like the city to be more transparent in the way it promotes growth happening in the community, as she feels the process is confusing and they’re not doing anything to remedy that.
“I’d just like them to take this opportunity to show they’re listening to people’s concerns. I’m pleased that they responded at all, I guess, but it doesn’t feel like my concerns are valued.”
More than anything, Somers says, she would like the City of Langford to engage the public more from an informational standpoint.
“It’s all about change management,” she says. “People need to be prepared for what’s coming so they can continue to be invested in the community. Change is happening, and it’s great, but even those of us who love it here and support the changes need to be filled in on the ‘why’ and ‘how’ of things, or they risk alienating us.”
Blackwell says it’s not that council doesn’t want to engage the citizenry, it’s just that they don’t want to give people false hope when their opinions won’t affect change.
“When people come to us, they expect us to be able to change things,” Blackwell says. “As long as (the developer) is complying with the zoning, there’s nothing that we, as a council, can do.”
From what she has heard, she adds, the developers of this property have been very good at listening to concerns throughout the process and taking nearby residents’ views into account.