Stew Young, mayor for 22 years, sees Langford’s gains and pains

Stew Young can’t stroll from one table to another at the Fountain Diner without seeing at least a few familiar faces.

“Hey boys, what are you up to?” Langford’s mayor of 22 years says to a pair of men sitting in the back corner with a zippered binder of documents between them. There are handshakes and pats on the back before Young takes his own seat under a wall of hockey jerseys, licence plates and Little League photos.

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It’s the kind of interaction that gave Young enough confidence to spend only $6.04 on his last election campaign. And part of the reason potential challengers don’t bother putting their names on the ballot. Young has been acclaimed four of his eight mayoral terms.

The diner, owned by his Alpine Group of Companies and home of the Five-Pound Alpine Burger Challenge, is the kind of place you’re more likely to find him in meetings than at his office in City Hall.

“I’ve lived here all my life. My family has been here 100 years. So everybody with a problem comes to me. I don’t even really keep meetings in my mayor’s office. It’s more like, OK, I’ll come over to your house or I’ll go here or there.”

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The same strategy raised eyebrows in Saanich, when newly elected Mayor Richard Atwell said he didn’t keep regular office hours. But it doesn’t seem to irk many people on the West Shore.

Langford isn’t the small town it used to be, however. The fastest-growing municipality in the capital region has more than doubled in population, to about 34,000, since incorporating in 1992. It’s transformed from the butt of jokes to a thriving place rife with amenities. It’s a community-sized underdog story if there ever was one.

Langfordians have plenty to be proud of, and many believe they have Young to thank. But growing pains are inevitable, as the city continues to blossom. And it begs the question: Will it outgrow Stew?

Before he was mayor

The Langford that Young, 54, grew up in was called Dogpatch. There were no sewers, streetlights or sidewalks and, more importantly, little hope for a good job.

It’s a period that remains a constant source of motivation for Young, who will always consider himself “blue collar,” no matter his tax bracket.

Work has featured prominently in his life, beginning with his job at Dairy Queen at 14. And it’s what forced most of his classmates with any ambition to leave town, after graduating from Belmont Secondary. Nearby mills had shut down and as new facilities popped up in Victoria and Saanich, Langford lay bare.

“It was just a mass migration out of the community. The only choice was to leave. You left Langford to get a job,” he said.

“That kind of pissed me off.”

Young went to Camosun College for almost a year, but dropped out of the accounting program when his father died unexpectedly. He returned to help his mother move into a motor home and bought one himself.

Working 16-hour days for nine years as a manager at both Dairy Queen and the Florence Lake Trailer Park gave him a nest-egg to do what he really wanted: Be his own boss.

Young knocked on doors to offer garbage pick-up services, but having been warned of high failure rates for new businesses, he hedged his bets by diversifying early on. “My philosophy was always, well, let’s do 10,” Young said. “If this one went sideways or the market went on that one, you could still do it. That’s how I started doing all the different things and adding them under the Alpine umbrella.”

The one-man enterprise has mushroomed to include more than 30 businesses in Victoria and the West Shore, as well as Duncan, Nanaimo, Kelowna, Trail, Castlegar, Creston and Grand Forks, with Stew Jr. now serving as general manager.

South Islanders will be most familiar with Alpine’s garbage disposal and recycling services, Encorp Bottle Depot, the Sidney Spit Ferry, as well as a slew of vehicle sales and services, and industrial services from fencing to welding.

But as he tried to get his business off the ground in the early days, he was frustrated with encounters with government. From costly business licences to cumbersome permit applications, Young felt local government was hurting him instead of helping him.

“I said, what’s wrong with this bloody town? We’ve got 25 per cent unemployment, I’m a young guy, I want to get involved in business and I’m road-blocked everywhere I turn.”

After enough complaining (Young’s own words), Langford’s then-regional director Rick Kasper had a suggestion: Why don’t you do it yourself?

Kasper had watched Young take a strong lead as part of a waste haulers’ association in the late 1980s, when the Capital Regional District jacked up landfill rates, crippling independent haulers’ who had already signed contracts with clients.

“He’s rough around the edges,” said Kasper, now a Sooke councillor.

“But I’m entering my 25th year of public office at three levels of government and I’ve learned that, sometimes, people need to hear that rough-around-the-edges talk. I think [it reflects] how a lot of people feel, when they’re reading the newspaper or watching the news and hearing about all the crap going on. That’s why Stew has been so successful in his political career.”

Young ran for council in 1992, the year Langford incorporated. He was elected mayor in 1993.

If you let them build it, they will come

Young’s success as mayor, as well as just about every criticism, stems from his unapologetic pro-business philosophy.

It’s the way he’s created a tax base that pays for bike lanes, recreation centres and affordable housing, without overburdening homeowners. Instead of increasing residential taxes, he slashed them. And when other municipalities scoffed at Costco, he welcomed the big-box retailer with open arms.

“There was the response, ‘Oh, he’s a business guy, he must be doing something wrong.’ But the point of the matter is that that guy’s business pays three times the taxes [that residential taxpayers do] and provides employment to the community. Without your business, your community will fail,” Young said.

It’s also a perspective that has led to the bulldozing of more than a few Garry oak meadows, to the ire of environmentalists. In 2007, activists took to the tree-tops in protest against the Spencer Road interchange, which they said threatened sensitive ecosystems and sacred caves.

As recently as February, neighbours of a woodland once protected by the Provincial Capital Commission bemoaned council’s approval of a rezoning application that will allow for dense development.

And Young’s perspective has prompted calls for more balance and sober second thought. While councillors in other municipalities hem and haw over new development applications and bylaw changes, Langford council can zip through 200-page agendas in 15 minutes, voting unanimously on each item.

During the 2014 election campaign, a slate of rookie candidates calling itself Neighbours of Langford ran under the banner “Time for Change.”

“While developers and their projects have, for the most part, added value to the community, regretfully the voices of taxpayers often have not had a receptive ear,” they said in their campaign material.

The slate called it a conflict of interest for Alpine to run the only garden-waste facility in town, saying there should be a public works yard instead. Young responded that there’s nothing stopping competitors from offering better rates. And, more importantly, he said, it isn’t fair to make some residents pay through taxation for a service they won’t use.

The slate was defeated and the entire council of incumbents was re-elected.

Balancing decisions between development and conservation has never been difficult for Young.

“My key marker is, if I’ve got people hungry for jobs who need to support their families, it’s a lot easier to make that decision. You know you’re actually going to help your family and community, rather than saying you’re going to save one or two trees.”

Young has a habit of using “me” and “I” when he speaks about Langford. He also repeats a promise he made early on: If a rezoning or development application is taking more than three to six months, bring it directly to his desk and he’ll personally look into it.

It’s a way of speaking that might make some question his respect for due process.

Coun. Lanny Seaton, who has served almost 20 years, has no complaints, maintaining the united front that is characteristic of Langford council.

Seaton talks about Young in glowing terms, saying he’s receptive to criticism. But there’s still a sense, in the language he uses, that Young is the one in charge. Asked about how individual councillors interact with staff, Young said staff have the latitude to pitch their own ideas.

“They can come to me and in lots of cases, they’ll come up with an idea and say, ‘Can you run it by Stew?’ ” Seaton said.

“He’s very, very inclusive and he always lets us know what’s going on.”

Growing pains and gains

There are bound to be growing pains.

Although the crime rate is on a steep decline, Langford still has one of the highest in the CRD. Since 2004, Criminal Code offences in Langford dropped from 2,516 to 1,731, peaking at 2,990 in 2006. But in 2013, it was still behind only Victoria-Esquimalt and Sidney in crimes per capita. In the West Shore, Langford had the most police calls per capita in 2014, according to West Shore RCMP’s year-end report.

As development fills in, property values have risen. When some of your biggest employers are big-box stores such as Costco and Home Depot, it means you need to house employees.

There’s also the question, as Langford outgrows its small-town character, of whether Young’s personal relationships could be perceived as inappropriate. In 2005, the B.C. Supreme Court found North Saanich councillor Bill Bird to be in a conflict of interest for participating in a discussion involving rezoning of a property owned by his friend. In Langford, Young refers to just about everyone in business as a friend.

Michael Prince, Lansdowne professor of social policy at the University of Victoria, said municipal conflict-of-interest laws are among the strictest in the country, but still require a direct pecuniary interest.

“You can’t deny a guy growing up in a community knowing people,” Prince said.

“He’s clearly got a read on his community. And I think the community has a pretty good understanding of who their mayor is.”

Prince said it’s not uncommon for councils to have speedy meetings if they give citizens’ committees significant power in determining policy before it reaches council, and have weighty staff reports to consult.

Prince pointed to former Saanich mayor Frank Leonard as someone who built a similar following. “As we saw with the Frank legacy, it’s reached its course. But I think in Langford, you’ve got a mayor who’s a strong mayor, but one who I think is also delegating.”

Back at the Fountain Diner, Young sits back in his chair. He’s freshly tanned from a visit to his place in Mexico (he also has a condo in Las Vegas).

“We did five days of fishing and got fish every single day,” he said. “Usually when you go fishing out there, it’s hit or miss. But it’s all about the temperature of the water, believe it or not. If it goes up one degree, the fish go out.”

The fishing description reflects Young’s understanding of the need to react to small environmental changes.

In January, a B.C. Stats report found growth was slowing in Langford, although it still remained the fastest-growing community in the region. The same month, Young announced an aggressive policy aimed at encouraging economic activity in Langford’s core, involving amenity-fee reductions for developers. He promised similar cuts relating to rezoning fees, development permits and building permits, as well as a 10-year tax holiday for affordable housing, seniors’ housing and provincial and federal buildings.

“When everyone’s making money, [businesses] don’t mind paying a bit more. When they aren’t, governments have to recognize that,” he said at the time.

“We lose a little on the pot of money, but we’ll probably gain on jobs. There’s a balancing act.”

At 54, he’s still young by most standards. But former plans for an early retirement around 60 have shifted since the birth of his second daughter three years ago.

Asked about the biggest change they’ve seen in Young over the years, friends and colleagues report that he’s mellowed out a bit and doesn’t work quite as obsessively.

But for Young, there’s no end in sight.

“We’ve come a long way. I’d probably say we’re at 70 per cent,” he said. “I believe Langford can move faster, can be able to provide more services and do it in such a way that it’s innovative.”

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