Sorry! Or, yes to no housing

The why of another vote ‘against’ housing

(6 min read)

Dear Tent-and-Van-Dwelling Tofino Workers,

This is an apology.

In a momentous decision last Tuesday, council voted 4–2 to halt a 10.8-ha (26.7-acre) development application from Woodsmere Holdings that included 116 apartments (phase 1), a 48-unit motel (phase 2), and 282 other units including rental apartments, single-family lots, duplexes and four-plexes—all to be built out, things going well, over the next ten years.

Woodsmere Site Plan

Woodsmere site plan (concept)

That build won’t happen.

Actually, it wasn’t even a decision on a build, it was a couple of big steps ahead of that. It was a decision on an Official Community Plan (OCP) amendment, basically changing our principal land-use bylaw to allow the increased density to occur on that site. It will stay the way it is for now: A2 Rural District (“large lot development in non-urban situations”).

And full disclosure, i was one of the two who pushed to let the process move forward.

* * *

THIS DEVELOPMENT’S striking feature was the large number of rental apartments—240 in total—which everyone agrees we need more of. They aren’t CMHC-defined “affordable” (30% of pre-tax income), they would have been market rent—and we aren’t cheap. But i’m guessing more that a few of you van-dwellers would have paid it to escape the damp Tofino winter. Sorry.

They were in four large, four-storey buildings, not terribly attractive but which the developer insisted were necessary to make his financial numbers work.

Woodsmere 64-unit rental building concept.png

Woodsmere 64-unit apartment building (concept)

As Councillor Thorogood pointed out, we haven’t had an apartment building built in Tofino since the 1970s, so i was willing to believe that some compromise on building form is necessary to get something built. Alas, now that Woodsmere, an established and experienced apartment builder, has been summarily turned down after spending “millions” (according to the proponent) developing this proposal, i fear we won’t see another attempt at apartments for another 40 years. I’m sorry for that.

Another looming factor in the decision was our water supply, tenuous at best in the summer and, by staff analysis, not up to another 398 units of housing. My thinking is that if we need more housing, which we undoubtedly do, we need more water. Whether it’s a Woodsmere build-out or something else, housing must be built, so we’d better get on the water situation. But Woodsmere was planned to be built out in phases, and each phase could be contingent upon having adequate water supply. So water wasn’t a show-stopper for me.

And as Councillor McMaster astutely pointed out, if we turn Woodsmere down on the basis of limited water supply, then to be fair and consistent we’ll have to turn down pretty much every future development proposal on the same basis—effectively putting the kybosh on any substantive housing builds until we increase our water supply (a long-term project). Sorry about that!

One unusual and contentious issue with the Woodsmere proposal was the developer’s insistence that, to make it work economically, he needed a 48-unit motel sited on Pacific Rim Highway. Other councillors were adamant about not expanding tourism facilities further down the highway (as the current OCP designates).

I was willing to make that compromise, given that there are already a couple of other motels in existence a hundred metres down the road, with no discernible ill effects. I was willing because of the supply of rental housing and lots for you van-dwellers, you folks who have for years wanted your own little Tofino pied-a-terre but despair of ever being able to afford one.

* * *

TO BE CLEAR, this application was not about seasonal workers, here for three or four months in the summer. That’s a whole different category of housing, one that could arguably be deemedmore of a business responsibility than the district’s. Tofino’s businesses have not exactly stepped up to combine their efforts on a town-wide solution here. They are more interested in solving their own individual staff-housing problems (which sort-of works for the bigger outfits that can afford it, but leaves our many small businesses hanging).

No, to me this development was all about residential housing, rental or ownership, for people who live and work here long-term—people like the dozen or two who came together on a Stone Island housing project before our real estate market blew the lid off that dream. I’m sorry for all of you, too.

All councillors were nervous about the sheer size of this proposal. Tofino has just over a thousand dwellings now, so another 398 would be a 40% increase—a daring jump in one fell swoop. I took some comfort from it being a multi-phase build, with at least some ability to adapt as the each phase comes on board.

Woodsmere site schematic

We hear from developers regularly about how difficult it is to develop in Tofino—expensive land, expensive labour, a demanding district council. Basic economics says that one way around this is scale: building bigger projects. I was willing to give it a try.

So, not without reservations, i argued for a “yes” to this application, allowing it to move into the OCP amendment process (with all its public input and discussion) and, if successful, then to a rezoning application (still more public input, plus discussions on affordability and other amenities). I fear that, with every disappointed developer we send packing, we are that much less likely to get what we want and need in coming years. I’m sorry about that, too.

* * *

THE WHOLE THING is not as simple as presented here, of course. It was a long discussion at Tuesday’s council meeting, but discussions have been happening since the application started some two years ago. The developer understandably went away angry.

Not me. I have no sour grapes about this, though i was disappointed. We are a council that says “no” an awful lot, to developers large and small.

I get that we are protecting something precious, but i also see that what we are protecting is cracking and crumbling around us, even as we so assiduously protect it.

I get that we are protecting something precious … but i also see that what we are protecting is cracking and crumbling around us, even as we so assiduously protect it. I think we need some decisive, positive action on housing, and this proposal, though not perfect, was good enough for me to want to move it forward, at least to the starting line.

Let me also state that I fully support council’s decision to defeat the application. Council is a single, continuing body, charting the town’s way forward. I myself am not the sole repository of wisdom on council or in this town, so i fervently hope that our decision was the right one. I’ve heard from many townsfolk, and a surprising majority agree with the decision. But i note that almost all of them are people who own a house in Tofino—sometimes more than one. Tuff City works, for them.

Who i haven’t heard from in numbers is you—all you retail and restaurant workers now living six-to-an-apartment or in cars, vans, tents, garages, back yards, or on Poole’s Land. Your plight comes up frequently at the council table and in sundry meetings around town. But it’s always mentioned by third parties—business owners, social workers, medical professionals, noting and lamenting our housing crisis.

Strangely, we almost never hear from the people who are living it. Rarely in the three years i’ve been on council have we received emails or delegations, or even had housing-challenged people in the audience at a council meeting. It’s weird. You’re all so busy living a tough life in Tuff City—working your 1/2/3/4 jobs, surfing and partying away, scrambling several times a year for whatever housing you can get at whatever cost you can get it—that you don’t band together to push your concerns forward at the political level.

* * *

SO TOFINO’S housing crisis now extends indefinitely into the future, with no ready resolution in sight. Maybe an angel developer with no profit motive will drop out of the blue. Maybe the Tofino Housing Corporation will cobble something together. I hope to heck so.

In the meantime, van-dwelling, housing-challenged townsfolk … i’m sorry.


EDIT: Clarified that “millions spent developing this proposal” is from a verbal communication from the proponent, and not any financial data.
GREG BLEE is a cultural observer, writer, and member of council in Tofino. He too has periodic housing difficulties.

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