Oct. 20 civic election: Oak Bay mayoral candidates at odds on housing

Oak Bay’s two candidates for mayor agree their municipality needs more housing, but differ on the best ways to make it happen.

Nils Jensen, the incumbent, favours a step-by-step approach that begins with finishing bylaws and policies to approve secondary suites. Next would be moving to create regulations for converting homes to duplexes and triplexes, then converting large homes to apartments.

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His opponent, Kevin Murdoch, a two-term councillor, said areas suitable for townhomes, apartments and commercial space should be clearly identified in a single plan available to everyone. That would give developers, municipal planners, councillors and, most importantly, residents a good idea of what lies ahead.

Development within the District of Oak Bay is always controversial. Unlike neighbouring Saanich, for example, Oak Bay is essentially finished, built out. Any new construction takes place on land already occupied and usually involves demolition and a change in land use, prompting community objections.

Oak Bay United Church has run into a fight in its attempt to redevelop its 1.3-acre site with a four-storey apartment, including 96 units of affordable housing. The church has promised to preserve trees and the heritage church building, but still faces ongoing opposition.

Last year, Oak Bay council was forced to meet at Oak Bay High School to accommodate the crowd when it considered a four-storey, mixed-use building at Bowker Avenue and Cadboro Bay Road, a site formerly occupied by three houses, one duplex and a commercial building.

It took seven hours of public comment and debate for councillors to approve the building. Even then, the vote split narrowly 4-3. Jensen voted to approve the plan, while Murdoch voted against it.

Murdoch said the municipality is now locked into a process where land-use development always requires a one-time “spot” zoning. It would be preferable if a plan were hammered out to identify ahead of time where various housing and building types should go, he said.

“I feel quite strongly we need more housing options in the community,” he said. “The only way we are going to get it is to do the upfront work and produce some regulations.”

But Jensen criticized that approach, saying it would take at least two years. In the meantime, new building, remodelling or repurposing would halt.

“We have a housing crisis,” said Jensen. “I’m in favour of moving forward now.”

He said the municipality can undertake steps, beginning with a process already started and finish regulations governing installation of secondary suites. At one of its last meetings before the Oct. 20 election, Oak Bay councillors agreed to hire a consultant to help fashion a bylaw.

The effect would be immediate, in terms of creating more housing, Jensen said. It would also help make homes more affordable by providing rental income to owners.

Afterward, council can develop policies to turn existing single-family homes into duplexes or triplexes and allow in-fill housing on existing lots, Jensen said.

rwatts@timescolonist.com

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