FOI Requests - Results May Vary T-C Feb 16, 2019

You can read the original article here. The District of Oak Bay takes months to reply to FOI requests, as does BC Housing. Is it time they lifted they complied with the spirit of the law?


With the campaign for open government focused on vows to peel the curtain back at the legislature, it would be easy to miss the small victory celebrated by environmentalists in Parksville last week.
There was a fuss in the mid-Island community over access to an environmental assessment filed by the developer of land by the French Creek estuary.
A residents group, worried about the impact on a salmon-bearing creek, wanted the Regional District of Nanaimo to give them a copy of the assessment. No, they were told, professional reports submitted as part of an application could not be copied without the permission of the applicant. The documents could be viewed at the regional district office, but that’s it.
Backed by Emilie Benoit, of UVic’s Environmental Law Centre, the residents pushed back. How are scientific and legal experts, many of them in far-flung locations, supposed to evaluate a single document that may only be seen in a Nanaimo office during business hours? They argued that the province’s freedom-of-information law requires the immediate disclosure of such info.
The regional district relented. The RDN’s general manager of strategic and community development, Geoff Garbutt, readily acknowledges the initial decision was wrong. When the mistake was pointed out, they fixed it. The regional district takes pride in being open to the public, he says.
Ah, but that’s not always the case elsewhere. In fact, the UVic centre’s legal director, Calvin Sandborn, finds it frustrating to keep Groundhog Day-ing this story all over B.C., going over the same territory time and again.
Too often, he says, government bodies are reluctant to make readily available information that should be public. It frequently takes a drawn-out freedom-of-information application to extract environmental reports that people like Sandborn argue should be posted online as a matter of routine. Too often, agencies refuse to release third-party reports filed with government, treating them as private property, none of your business.
At the heart of the matter is a section of B.C. law that says government is supposed to proactively release — without requiring an official FOI request — information that is in the public interest. The problem, critics say, is that “public interest” was long defined so narrowly that much information is routinely withheld. Even after B.C.’s Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner provided a broader interpretation, agencies stuck to the old ways.
The environmental law centre has fought to change the landscape. After several Oliver-area houses were destroyed by a mudslide in 2010, the UVic-based body — one of those outfits fuelled by young, idealistic law students — successfully complained to the information commissioner that the government should have disclosed reports warning of the danger. After 2014’s Mount Polley Mine disaster, another complaint forced the release of dam-inspection reports the government had balked at giving up.
Similar intervention in 2016 resulted in a knuckle-rapping for the Environment Ministry, which, instead of simply handing over test results related to contaminated drinking water near Armstrong, had demanded an FOI process (complete with fee) that took months to complete. (Sandborn says that when the law centre asked the Oregon government for the same sort of information, the public servant who answered the phone replied: “Tomorrow’s a holiday. Is the day after soon enough?”)
In December, the information commissioner’s office released guidelines clarifying what “in the public interest” is supposed to mean. That’s fine, but there’s often a gap between what that office says should happen and what actually takes place on the front lines. Note that in an op-ed in the Feb. 14 Times Colonist, Larry Pynn wrote about being blocked by a municipal staffer recently when looking for Cowichan Valley logging plans.
It’s great that, in the wake of the uproar unleashed by Speaker Darryl Plecas, the legislature is finally being dragged under the umbrella of B.C.’s information rules. It will be even better if the keepers of the information make it available proactively, without needing a nudge.
It shouldn’t take prodding and coaxing to get public bodies to disclose the kind of information that allows people to make educated decisions and question the actions government takes in their name.

Problems with densification - TC June 30, 2018

The following article from the Times-Colonist points out many of the problems caused by densification:

Victoria’s aggressive densification plan is unnecessary and unfair, causing people to ask: “Is accelerated densification being pursued for the right reasons, in appropriate locations, following an honest public process that puts people who live here first?”

In Fairfield-Gonzales alone, at least 10 groups have arisen from these concerns, people willing to consider sensible proposals, but fed up with what they have experienced as an unfair process. This phenomenon is happening across the city.
Unfairness has occurred in numerous ways:
• A questionnaire asks leading and misleading questions.
• Meetings are poorly publicized and held at inconvenient times, such as during summer.
• Anyone from anywhere is allowed to participate, diluting input from people living here.
• City consultations have been far more sales job than sincere collaboration
• Developers are involved in what should be public decision-making.
• Community associations and land-use committees are used to promote approval.

Many criticize the process as undemocratic and question the role of developers. Some seek provincial review. Others are organizing for November’s election, seeking to ensure mayor and council put community interests first. Community associations and land-use committees are being challenged to restore independence and public representation.
And questions abound about the need for expensive new plans. Significant growth has occurred over the past 15 years under existing plans. During the same time, the city failed to expand services or facilities to accommodate growth. What will be the cost for additional police, fire, roadwork, etc., and who pays? Will accelerated growth worsen existing problems such as the shortage of family doctors?

My Gonzales neighbourhood exemplifies why accelerated densification is not needed.
• Between 1991 and 2011, our population increased by 27 per cent, more than twice Victoria’s overall rate of 12.5 per cent. Single-family homes decreased from 74 to 54 per cent, duplexes and secondary suites increased from 18 to 27 per cent, and apartment buildings from seven per cent to 18 per cent.
• At the same time, no appreciable improvements were made to meagre infrastructure or services, nor did the city deal with increased traffic and parking problem.
• Heritage homes were permitted to be destroyed and replaced by oversized out-of-character houses
Gonzales residents have done more than their share and overwhelmingly reject accelerated densification. Most oppose proposals that will dramatically change the neighbourhood, including a multistorey Fairfield Plaza and redirecting traffic from Richardson Street to busier Fairfield Road. Urban villages are regarded as Trojan horses for more development.
Is it reasonable for everyone who wants to live in Victoria to do so? That’s not possible, unless the rest of us are willing to accept increased traffic and pollution, reduced greenspace, more pressure on already insufficient schools, health services, roads, parks and recreation and the increased costs to maintain and expand them.
Finally, let’s stop the accusations levelled against residents, who have a different vision for Victoria than canyons of high-rises, more traffic and pollution and greater pressure on our limited amenities.
This fight is not about privilege or an intergenerational conflict. Victorians are supportive of help to people confronted with soaring housing costs, but accelerated densification raises serious questions that are not being answered about where, how much and for whose benefit.
It’s time for mayor, council and city staff to work with neighbourhood groups in good faith.
The most reasonable option is to update the existing 2002 plans, which are doing their job. At the same time, let’s fix other problems.
• The official community plan is easily exploited for its loopholes.
• Spot re-zoning is too easy and lacks meaningful community oversight.
• Neighbours have too little input during approval of developments directly affecting them.
• Developer involvement in local politics and planning contradicts transparency and fairness.
And while we are making our civic process more democratic, the mayor and councillors should live in Victoria. Otherwise, are they truly accountable to their neighbours and fairly sharing the burdens of the decisions they seek to impose on others?
How many more people does the city plan to shoehorn in, for whose benefit and at what cost? It should be up to the people who live here to decide Victoria’s future not developers and politicians pushing accelerated development for their own reasons.
Michael Bloomfield is a sustainability advocate and a resident of Gonzales.

counter-protest - Oak Bay News March 14, 2018

Neighbours wake to shocking signs on their lawns

Densification debate heats up in Oak Bay
Oak Bay discussions around infill housing, affordable housing, and the legalization of secondary suites has created a divide in the community. Many residents have attended council meetings and written letters to the editor to voice their support or concerns around the densification of Oak Bay.
The situation got more heated on Sunday morning when a few residents woke up to find signs on their lawns that they describe as “offensive and obnoxious.” The signs read: “We support class-based segregation” and “I fear poor people.” The Oak Bay Police were notified.
The signs that appeared overnight were staked in next to lawn signs that the homeowners had previously put on their lawns that read “Stop Over Development. Respect Neighbourhoods.”
The homeowners’ signs are part of a campaign by local residents concerned about how a redevelopment of the Oak Bay United Church site would affect their neighbourhood. As part of their “Neighbourhood Outreach Initiatives,” the Concerned Citizen Network has distributed lawn signs “showing support for neighbourhood respect.”
The citizen group says it is not opposed to affordable housing.
Read the online article here.
Comment: No one stepped forward to claim responsibility for these signs but given the lack of transparency through the entire proposal, that was unsurprising.

What we had hoped for


Listen to the community.  We're here to provide good, useful advice on how to make the project fit into the neighbourhood.

This report from the CBC Ottawa is what we hoped would happen in Oak Bay.

Developer's approach a model for others, neighbours say

Chenier Group consulted the community, stuck to height limit laid out in design plan

Laurie Fagan · CBC News · Posted: Aug 25, 2018 5:00 AM ET [Link here]

Peter Ferguson, chair of the Lowertown Community Association's planning committee, praises Gaetan Chenier for preserving elements of the old house at the corner of Rideau and CoBourg streets. (Laurie Fagan/CBC)

Peter Ferguson, chair of the Lowertown Community Association's planning committee, praises Gaetan Chenier for preserving elements of the old house at the corner of Rideau and CoBourg streets. (Laurie Fagan/CBC)

Peter Ferguson and his comrades with the Lowertown Community Association have fought countless battles with developers over infill projects in their downtown neighbourhood. 

Sometimes they win, but often they lose. Whatever the outcome, the combatants always seem to emerge bloodied and battered.

Imagine Ferguson's relief when they came up against Chenier Group.

It’s a model for public consultation around the development process, and there’s no reason why others can’t be doing the same thing.
— Peter Ferguson, Lowertown  Community Association

The builder wants to construct a nine-storey apartment building at 541-545 Rideau St., a deep lot at the corner of Cobourg Street that's currently occupied by a 150-year-old red brick dwelling.

Chenier Group's proposal conforms to the Uptown Rideau community design plan (CDP), a council-approved document that's meant to guide growth, but which developers ignore more often than not.

The building would also add much-needed rental units at a time when the city — and this neighbourhood in particular — are grappling with record-low vacancy rates.

Collaborative approach

"The nine-storey ceiling was particularly important to us," Ferguson said. "[Company president] Gaetan [Chenier] was determined that he was going to stay within the limits of the [community] design plan, and good for him, he did." 

The Lowertown Community Association has opposed several developments along Rideau Street for exceeding height limits set out in the CDP. Those include The Charlotte, a condo tower proposed for a vacant lot across Rideau Street from Chenier's site.

Shortly after buying the property, Chenier, acting on the advice of Ottawa architect Barry Padolsk, approached the community association to discuss his plans and ask for feedback from residents.

"My approach has always been a collaborative one," Chenier said. "I recognize this is a community development process, so get the community involved so they can give input."

Praise from councillor

The community did offer its input, and compromises were made on both sides, Ferguson said.

"[Chenier] was very forthcoming," he said. "In our minds, it's a model for public consultation around the development process, and there's no reason why others can't be doing the same thing." 

Chenier's approach also won praise from Rideau-Vanier Coun. Mathieu Fleury, who submitted comments to the planning committee. 

"There has been a conscious effort on the part of the applicant to engage the community in all aspects of this project," Fleury wrote. "This can be seen in the number of times the applicant has reached out to the community stakeholders to gain feedback since the initial submission of the project."

But it's what the developer has planned for the original building, constructed shortly after Confederation, that's winning him special praise for going above and beyond the city's requirements.

Brick by brick

Built in 1870 as a single-family home, the building that now occupies the property was converted to apartments after the First World War. Until a few years ago the ground floor served as a coffee house and catering business.  

The building, which has undergone extensive renovations and additions over the decades, doesn't have official heritage designation, but the city hoped to see some part of it preserved nonetheless.

Chenier first proposed incorporating the red brick facade into the new apartment building. When he discovered that plan wasn't viable, he hired engineers to determine whether the original building could be moved. That, too, was a no-go.

Instead, Chenier now plans to dismantle the dilapidated structure brick by brick, using the materials to construct a duplex that will replicate the French Second Empire architectural style of the original building, complete with a concave mansard roof and dormer windows.

The new duplex will retain significant architectural features of the original building. (Chenier Group )

The new duplex will retain significant architectural features of the original building. (Chenier Group )

Fits in 'beautifully'

The duplex is designed by Padolsk, who specializes in heritage projects, and will sit next to the apartment building, facing Cobourg Street.

Ferguson said the duplex will fit in "beautifully."

"We're happy with this," he said. "This is something that he did not have to do, and he's volunteered to preserve the building." 

Chenier, who moved to Ottawa from Cornwall, Ont., eight years ago, plans to move his office into one half of the newly built duplex. The other half will be rented out. 

"The house is a costly endeavour, and there may not be a lot of profit in that," Chenier said. "But overall in the long term, the house will be highlighted as a separate structure, and it will stand out on its own." 

Advice for developers

Chenier hopes the duplex will be finished by the end of 2019, and the apartment building ready for tenants by the following spring.

A rezoning application is scheduled to go before the city's planning committee Aug. 28. It's expected to pass.

Chenier's advice to other developers is simple: "Whatever the community had planned, just go for that," he said.

Ferguson believes other builders could learn a lot from Chenier's approach.

"Listen to the community." he advised developers. "We're not there to pick fights. We're there to provide good, useful advice on how to make the project fit into the community."