During the last municipal election campaign and since, I have talked often about the need for qualified planning expertise in Oak Bay. And it seems I am in good company. Over the last year, I have heard from Oak Bay residents, professional planners who live in Oak Bay and in the region, Council colleagues from other municipalities, architects, builders and others involved in land use generally, who ask me the same question I asked when I first returned to Oak Bay — why has Oak Bay never had a qualified planner on staff?Whenever I raise the subject, I am told that we already have a planning department and it’s true, we have dedicated staff who work in the Building and Planning Department. They do the best job they can and work hard to serve the needs of Oak Bay. But as many of you know, a qualified planning credential requires a post-secondary degree, specialty training in planning and a professional designation, that is, recognized qualifications unique to the profession. Common arguments about why Oak Bay has never had a qualified urban planner range from “we don’t need it, we have no raw land or development here” to “it costs too much money and taxpayers don’t want a tax increase.” Fair enough. But I would argue that neither of these observations is entirely valid. If we have no development in Oak Bay, then how do we explain major land use projects such as the Oak Bay Beach Hotel, Carlton House, the new Oak Bay High School, the proposed Clive re-development, a proposed duplex development at Estevan, new home construction and the Oak Bay Lodge proposal? All of these represent major land use and re-development decisions made without the benefit of a qualified planner on staff in Oak Bay. In last year’s Times-Colonist article illustrating tax breakdowns across the region for each of our thirteen municipalities, Oak Bay was prominent, not because it boasts lower taxes, but because it was the only municipality that spends zero $$ on planning. And we still have some of the highest residential property taxes in the region. In September 2012, I wrote to my Council colleagues and shared with them my concerns about planning, land use and the lack of qualified planning expertise in Oak Bay. I described what I call “the planning spectrum.” At one end is compliance and regulation and at the other end is vision. The planning function connects these two elements to provide a balanced approach to making land use decisions on behalf of our community; the backdrop to all development/re-development proposals, against which the merits of each proposal are measured and evaluated, is urban planning, that larger vision that speaks to community development now and for the future. To date, Oak Bay still has no qualified planner, although I continue to advocate for the position. But today, I appear to have further community support. A neighbourhood group, known as the “Clive Consensus,” are openly advocating to Council for a qualified planner, primarily to assist the municipality and the community with a proposal to re-develop the Clive apartments at the corner of Clive Drive and Oak Bay Avenue. I am especially grateful to these residents for their foresight and effort to bring a balanced approach to addressing not only this proposal but the broader community need for housing options. I believe that many of them share my vision for Oak Bay as a community that embraces positive change, diversity and inclusiveness, all of which enhance what we love about this municipality. The support for qualified planning expertise for Oak Bay should not be construed as support for development, re-development, infill or anything else that puts at risk the characteristics and quality of life we value. In fact, in my experience, the vision a qualfied planner brings to community development often serves to more adequately preserve the assets we cherish. Take the metaphor of a long road trip across the province, country or continent. Would you leave home alone without:
- planning the details of your trip first (time, distance, speed, stops, places to visit and stay, emergency preparedness etc.);
- researching information about your route and destination(s);
- developing a greater understanding of the geography you will travel; or,
- taking a cell phone, map or GPS to guide you so that you do not lose your way?
Probably not.Community planning and development are not that different from the road trip metaphor. Simply put, my support for a qualified planner on staff in Oak Bay is based on my understanding of the needs of this community and its future, needs that many of you have expressed to me during the last sixteen months. I believe that Oak Bay must carefully manage the change it wants, to avoid unwanted change, and this will take a qualified planner on staff to guide us to the future. Stay tuned…