With speakers split between support and opposition for a townhouse proposal at 630 Gorge Rd. W., Saanich council voted 7-2 to approve, rejecting calls to scale down the development and save four mature Garry oaks.
The Abstract Developments application to build a 25-unit complex, in five three-storey blocks terraced up the sloping property overlooking the Gorge Waterway, has been in the works since the company purchased the site of the existing Gorge View Apartments in 2017.
While several online speakers during the July 12 public hearing supported the proposal as a positive and appropriate replacement – including Vera Wynn-Williams, president of the Gorge Tillicum Community Association – in-person speakers opposed the plan for its removal of the Garry oaks that line the rear of the property, and the scale of the project in the primarily single-family home neighbourhood.
A speaker who lives at 640 Gorge Rd. W. said they were aware of the proposal when they moved in eight months ago, but wondered why so many units were being squeezed onto the property. Less units would negate the need for such reduced setbacks on all four sides, offer a chance to save the trees and give new residents “more room the breathe,” she said.
Couns. Judy Brownoff and Nathalie Chambers voiced environmental concerns before voting against the proposal.
Abstract representative Ben Smith was asked by Brownoff whether the company ever considered saving the provincially protected Garry oaks and was told staff did not consider them a sensitive ecosystem. On the absence of rentals in the project, she was told a housing agreement would bar future strata councils from restricting rentals for residential purposes.
Mayor Fred Haynes said on its own, the loss of the Garry oaks might have been enough to lose his support for the proposal. But such decisions are about doing one’s best to strike a balance between often-competing concerns, he said.
“We are bound as your council to look at all (district) policies and we need to have policy-driven decisions. Like many around this table, we have a love and affection for trees. But we are duty bound to follow our policies,” he said, citing the housing strategy, active transportation and other overlapping policies.
Haynes trumpeted Saanich’s environmental record, noting the district planted 2,500 trees last year and pointing to numerous examples of ecosystem and park enhancement, including the purchase of older homes to remove them and create more greenspace.
Coun. Colin Plant also spoke of the need to preserve balance among competing needs and noted the new structures would be far more environmentally friendly than the existing 1950s-era buildings.
Smith detailed the company’s work to compensate tenants and help relocate them beginning in late 2019. Some renters chose to move on in 2020, he said, and any new tenants were brought in at market-rate rents.
A neighbour who spoke against the application said one tenant had lived on the site for 50 years. The speaker said the townhome clusters as proposed were out of character for the area and argued that they would diminish, not add affordability in the neighbourhood.
Coun. Karen Harper took a different tack in her final comments. She noted the project, which will feature exclusively three-bedroom units, will provide family homes that will be attainable, especially for those unable to afford single-family homes in Saanich.
A covenant to be registered will secure the installation of an electric vehicle plug-in in all 25 garages, and make all units ready for solar hot water heating, and a community amenity contribution of $52,000 by Abstract for future upgrades to Gorge Waterway Park.