QB’s iconic Estate Properties to be replaced by sub-divisions?

A proposal by Rick and Linda Todsen to sub-divide a 6.5 acre portion of their land in the Estate Properties into 16 building lots is lurching its way toward approval by Qualicum Beach Town Council. For those who don’t know, the Estate Properties is the name the Town has given those large, wooded properties along Hwy 19A that flank Milner Gardens.

If Council approves this proposed development project, they will force a significant alteration to the Town’s Official Community Plan (OCP), and will be endorsing, and setting a precedent for, creation of small sub-divisions outside of the existing Urban Containment Boundary (UCB). (The UCB was established by the Town for the sole purpose of deterring the kind of urban sprawl that blights so many other towns and cities.)

A year ago, at a June 17, 2019 meeting, Council directed the Town’s planning department to draft the OCP amendment and zoning amendment that would be required to legalize the Todsens’ proposed subdivision, if the development proposal were to be approved by Council.

In his submission to the October 23, 2019 Committee of the Whole (COW) meeting (see pages 14 to 16 of the meeting agenda), Luke Sales, Planning Director for the Town emphatically told Council that “staff cannot support this application, as it conflicts with most of the Town’s policies regarding residential development and does not meet any of the housing needs that are specifically identified in the OCP.”

… or will it just create 16 homes for retiring golfers who can then pay for their green fees with AirBnB revenues from the proposed guest cottages and connected “rental” suites?

Sales went on to suggest that “If Council does wish to explore alternative uses for the area, it would be better to initiate a comprehensive plan for the entire estate properties area. That process would include consideration of all potential uses, including residential, institutional and commercial, as well as the road network and ecological values. The estate properties combined area is approximately 200 acres, which is twice the size of Vancouver Island University (92acres), approximately twice the size of Woodgrove Mall and five times the size of Nanaimo Regional General Hospital. The estate properties constitute a significant area in the Town, and this current proposal takes away a portion without consideration of what other possibilities exist.”

At the October 23, 2019 COW meeting Linda and Rick Todsen appeared before Council to promote the key points of their development proposal. The first and presumably strongest reason given why Council should approve subdivisions on these protected Estate Properties was the Todsen’s willingness to donate $300,000 towards the Perfect Storm Group for their campus of healthcare.

One might ask, “What has donating to that Group got to do with whether the Todsen’s subdivision development request should be permitted, allowing them to build 20 or so houses on a section of the Estate Properties that are now protected by our bylaws and the Official Community Plan?”

It just so happens that the Perfect Storm Group made a presentation to Council immediately prior to the Todsen’s appearance before Council, at this same meeting. Was it pre-arranged that these two presentations would appear, back-to-back, before Council? Or did the Todsens, lacking any strong or compelling reasons why the Estate Properties woodlands should be cut down, just seize on an opportunity to ingratiate themselves with Council (who had just, in that meeting, approved funding for the Perfect Storm Group)?

Or, was this $300,000 ‘offer’ the Todsens’ proposed Community Amenity Contribution (CAC) in return for a rezoning approval, per Town policy 3008-11? If so, that would seem to be a premature and inappropriate step given that, according to policy 3008-11, it is the Town planning department’s responsibility to determine an appropriate Community Amenity Contribution, then communicate the value and type of proposed CAC to the developer, then report both the proposed CAC and the developer’s response to Council, and finally to make the proposed CAC public before any Public Hearing. There was no mention of a CAC when the Todsens made their pitch to Council on October 23, 2019.

Council next considered the Todsen proposal at its November 14, 2019 COW meeting. The minutes of that meeting state that “Council asked staff to see what community amenity contribution, if any, would look like for this application. … Councillor Harrison noted that the target mark in the policy for community amenity contributions was 50% of the actual land lift… [i.e. the increased value of the land as a result of approval of the Todsen’s development request].  Luke Sales commented that the next step would be to have an appraisal done.”

At its December 16, 2019 meeting, Council gave first reading to the bylaws that would be required to amend the OCP and relax zoning restrictions for the proposed sub-division, and referred the Todsens’ proposal to the Town’s Advisory Planning Commission (APC).

Which brings us to the APC meeting held June 17, 2020. No public in attendance; only an audio recording exists ­– for now only. Apparently, according to Town staff, this recording will be destroyed when the issue is resolved.

To defend their request that the Town change its Official Community Plan (OCP) to enable them to clear-cut the Estate Properties land to build their sub-division, proponent Linda Todsen stated that “There are so many criteria in the OCP that no development will meet it. … We’re really running out of areas that can be developed.” In an attempt to demonstrate that “Somebody in the past had been planning that this kind of thing may happen at some time,” Ms. Todsen quoted from section of some ‘previous’ OCP. There is no section in the current OCP, which supercedes all previous OCPs. Commission chair Bill Scott chose not to remind the Todsens that the only relevant OCP is the current (2018) OCP.

staff cannot support this application, as it conflicts with most of the Town’s policies regarding residential development and does not meet any of the housing needs that are specifically identified in the OCP.”

Luke Sales, planning director, Town of Qualicum Beach

When time came for the Commission of five members to decide whether to side with the Town’s Planning Department’s recommendation to refuse the Todsen proposal, or to recommend that Council give it a green light, the APC voted 3-2 to recommend that Council approve the proposal which, based on past experience, will probably generate the usual 3-2 split on Council too. If you haven’t listened to the two-hour audio, spoiler alert, voting in favour of the proposal were APC members Bill Scott, Dawn Setter and Susan Hong. Voting against were Mark Johnston and Petronella Vander Valk. We provide this information, just in case the meeting minutes don’t provide a recorded vote.

Several readers have pointed out the following relevant principles and directives within the current Official Community Plan that have been discounted or ignored by the Advisory Planning Commission, or at least by the three APC members who voted to support the Todsen proposal, including:

  • “The Urban Containment Boundary (UCB) is intended to define the limits of urbanization.”
  • “Urban growth will be restricted to areas inside the UCB.”
  • “To primarily locate future growth within existing urban areas.”
  • “Additional urban development shall not be approved outside the UCB.”
  • “Town’s heritage is conserved, including buildings, landmarks, significant trees and forests.”
  • “The [Estate] lands are not within the UCB and form part of the Town’s greenbelt.”
  • “The [Official Community] Plan proposes to protect the Estate Residential lands as a large-lot forested area.”
  • “..it has established itself as part of the heritage of Qualicum Beach.”
  • “To retain low rural residential densities in the Town’s fringe area, including the Estate Residential area.
  • “To preserve the Estate Residential forest in order to retain a greenbelt around the Town’s central urban area, preserve the heritage values of Qualicum Beach and maintain the scenic gateway to the beach area.”
  • “Land designated as Estate Residential on map Schedule 2.1 of this Plan shall not exceed development densities of 1 dwelling/ha, with a maximum 2 dwellings for any parcel.”
  • “In addition to the tree protection bylaw, the Town shall explore further ways to preserve the Estate Residential forest.”

Integrated into the OCP is a Sustainability Plan “to guide future governance and community action towards this vision of a Sustainable Qualicum Beach.” Relevant directives in the Sustainability Plan include:

  • “All aspects of sustainability and their long-term effects should be considered before changing land use policies.”
  • “The Estate Residential properties provide a buffer between the sensitive land on the foreshore and the higher traffic on Highway 19A.”
  • “In consideration of the sustainability targets in this OCP, the physical constraints of these large properties make them unsuitable for an increase in residential density.”

Does this proposal address housing needs?

The residents of Qualicum Beach collectively have an opportunity, some would say a responsibility, to provide guidance to the on-going protection of our community and its assets. Periodically the community residents express their priorities and vision through updates to the Town’s Official Community Plan. In the 2018 OCP update cycle, the need for affordable housing, particularly rental accommodation, was a prominent discussion thread.

In expressing her support for the proposed housing on the 6.5 acre site, Advisory Planning Commission member, local realtor Dawn Setter, commented that “What the Todsens are suggesting is going to make it look a whole lot nicer than it does at the moment.” Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Some would say that QB’s future depends on how well it sustains its reputation, to quote the OCP’s Vision Statement, “as a charming coastal village surrounded by rivers, forests and farmland in the shadow of Mount Arrowsmith. Our small-town character, walkability, and year-round access to recreational opportunities support a high quality of life for residents and an attractive destination for visitors. The Town will innovate in response to the social, economic and environmental challenges of the future while holding firm to those qualities that make Qualicum Beach a unique and highly desirable place to live.”

Ms. Setter went on to say “Even though it’s counter to the OCP, I do believe that the OCP is a guideline .. I don’t think it [the OCP] is cast in stone. We have nowhere to grow. If we don’t have more growth for homes and secondary suites, we’re not going to have any affordable housing.”

Does this Todsen proposal ease the housing shortage enough to warrant fracturing the community’s long-standing aspirations for the Estate Properties, or will it just create 16 homes for retiring golfers who can then pay for their green fees with AirBnB revenues from the proposed guest cottages and connected “rental” suites?

This proposal confronts Qualicum Beach with some tough questions:

  1. How much, if any, of our protected urban forest will we clear-cut to make room for residential construction?
  2. Do we instead plant more single-family dwellings on large tracts of arable land that are capable of producing food?
  3. Or, do we, like most growing towns, make more efficient use of our limited building sites by growing up? Literally. Why not two 15 storey high rise buildings on the 6.5 acre Todsen site, plus fitness and recreation facilities, and an early childhood learning centre, with hourly shuttle service uptown to service the 1,000 occupants (instead of the 50 or 60 new beds currently proposed by the Todsens’ proposal), and with a covenant prohibiting short-term vacation rentals?
  4. Or, perhaps more fundamentally, do we instead hit the pause button to cap our population at current levels until we have some assurance of an adequate, long-term, sustainable supply of clean drinking water, in the face of climate induced changes to precipitation amounts, water retention and aquifer depletion?

Given the expected continued exodus of people and money from Taiwan, Hong Kong and other Asian communities, continued upward pressure on land values everywhere here on the Pacific’s north-east shores will likely persist and probably increase. Do we really need more land for construction or do we need to defend and reinforce the values and constraints of the sustainable future articulated in our Official Community Plan?

QB residents, as the stewards of our Town’s future, are encouraged to engage in our community’s resolution of this fundamental dilemma.

Observations from our readers welcomed as always.