Can a sustainable Oak Bay forbid the tide to come in?

It is fascinating to be engaged in the current local elections campaign. I have never before seen so much focus on one issue – many a one, to be sure, and each with its own coterie of devotees. I am being advised, from time to time, to vote for a candidate who will:

  • save the trees; or
  • oppose densification; or
  • oppose monster houses; or
  • make Oak Bay bike friendly; or
  • oppose the deer cull; or…

My problem is that I foresee many other important issues coming to Council. We are aware of some of them right now, so while a candidate’s stance on one issue or another is interesting; it cannot be the sole – or even the primary – basis on which I would determine my vote. Others issues are unknown to us now, but they will emerge in the next four years.

So the challenge is to know, not merely a candidate’s position on any one issue but, rather, what values, perspective, and aspirations a candidate has, and what evidence-seeking and decision-making process lead a candidate to any position on one issue or another. What evidence do we have that a candidate is committed to the concept of servant-leadership, is committed to engaging citizens, values diversity and respects everyone regardless of their age, gender, education, income, appearance, or intellect?

Oak Bay faces at least three large challenges.

One is that the infra-structure is aged and the District appears to have no Infra-structure Condition Report, and no Infra-structure Renewal Plan. We have no equivalent of a strata corporation’s Building Condition Report.  As citizens we have no idea about what or how much infra-structure needs to be replaced in the next 5 – 10 years (or more), or what will be the cost of replacement. There is almost certainly no “Greening” plan for Oak Bay. (That is, there is no plan to incorporate new standards of design and technology as they become the standard for attractive communities.) Given the prospect of major new infra-structure obligations in the next decade (i.e., for sewage treatment), the implication is that we will fall further and further behind in infra-structure renewal. Speculatively, we may be on the cusp of 30% – 40% increases in our property taxes in the next 5 – 7 years.

The other half of this challenge is that the province is increasingly the provider of funds to local government and that provision can change at any time, in a process that is beyond the control of Oak Bay (or any other municipality). What would happen to many seniors in Oak Bay if the province decided to end their property tax credit?

The second challenge is that Oak Bay has an inappropriate mix of property types. In addition, a red herring distracts us from an important conversation about this issue.  Densification is a boogeyman, for at least three reasons.  First, it may refer to changes in the density of housing or changes in the density of population.  A neighbourhood of higher density (population) 25 years ago may have lower density today because once young children have left home, leaving only their parents to occupy a 3 – 4 bedroom home.  Alternately, a low density neighbourhood may find density increasing simply because its existing housing stock becomes the preferred destination or large families. Second, densification is made to sound as though it is unplanned, preferential, and egregious.  It may be planned, preference neutral, and vital.  From an ecological perspective, there are good arguments to be made for planned increases in population density (if not an increase in the number of plots on the ground).  Third, a very carefully planned increase in density in specifically planned areas may be the best insurance against unplanned densification generally and unexpectedly.

As well, one way to moderate tax increases for single family residences would be to allow more multi-family accommodation and more commercial activity.  Similarly, some additional commercial activity, if locally oriented and carefully distributed throughout the District, would (likely) also support more pedestrian (and bike) activity. It would also have the incidental effect of facilitating “aging in place”, as the walkability index would improve for more homes.

To some extent, increased revenue can be realized by enlarging the tax base, rather than by increasing the tax rate.

The third, most serious challenge, is that Oak Bay seems content to maintain the status quo. Some citizens are complacent and some are anxious. Some of those who are anxious are anxious to maintain the status quo. It can’t be done.  The status quo is not sustainable.

Local government is no longer the master of its own house(and hasn’t been, for years). So the question is, what might the provincial and federal governments download or take away in the next four years. How would Oak Bay respond? What are our contingency plans?

Demographics, technology, and social expectations are changing, often rapidly. So the question is, how will Oak Bay respond to changed expectations about transportation, the “commons”, aging in place, and many other issues?

What Oak Bay needs at this time is a Council of diverse talents, perspectives, and experiences; a Council with energy, time, and the will to make hard decisions; a council of people who demonstrably believe in servant-leadership, respect for differing opinions, inclusion, evidence-grounded decision-making.

“Consider the future: you will spend the rest of your life there”.


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