Growing Pains: The West Shore’s identity crisis

As some municipalities welcome rapid development, others guard against an urban incursion.

In 1861, Edward Langford returned to England for good. 

The British settler, who had spent the prior decade overseeing new farms and early settler development near Victoria, had been briefly imprisoned following a legal dispute over property ownership. 

Starting with a disagreement with the colonial surveyor, the scandal led to an attack ad, a libel case and a series of allegations against Vancouver Island government officials. But after the dust settled, Langford’s reputation was the sole casualty. 

“Of course [Mr. Langford] may be right and the others wrong,” wrote Baron Blatchford, in response to Langford’s complaints against the government officials. “But charges brought in this studiously inexplicit shape, and behind the backs of the accused parties are, I think, generally untrustworthy.” 

More than 160 years later, Edward Langford has long been absent from what’s now called the West Shore, but property disagreements still dominate much of the civic conversation in the city that bears his name, and amongst its burgeoning neighbours. 

Located on lək̓ʷəŋən traditional territory, the West Shore includes ancestral lands of the Xwsepsum, Lekwungen, Sc’ianew, and T’Sou-ke families of the Coast Salish peoples. The area was included in an 1850 Douglas Treaty with the Teechamitsa Tribe of the Songhees First Nation, one of 14 controversial land agreements signed between 1850 and 1854. 

Those treaties, and the damaging legacies of colonization that come with them, extend across the South Island, as do questions around land ownership, growing populations and the future of natural space, particularly in exploding West Shore communities. Today the region includes the municipalities of Langford, Colwood, Metchosin, the Highlands and, depending who you ask, Esquimalt and Sooke. 

New buildings like this one at the corner of Peatt Road and Hockley Avenue in Langford are popping up quickly in certain parts of the West Shore. Photo taken on Oct. 27, 2020. Photo by Shalu Mehta/The Discourse

Rapid growth under a microscope

The Capital Regional District’s population is growing by roughly one per cent each year, but the West Shore is taking in a huge portion of newcomers. 

In 2020, Langford’s population jumped to 44,069 people – a 4.9 per cent population boost over the previous year, which earned the municipality the title of B.C.’s fastest growing community with a population over 10,000. Sooke came in second on that list, with a 3.5 per cent population boost to 15,083 people.

West Shore neighbours Colwood, View Royal and Sooke made the top-10 list too, with growth rates of 2.5 per cent and 2.2 per cent respectively. 

Construction zones, tower cranes and new builds across the region – particularly in Langford – mirror the fast-paced growth, both preceding and responding to an inclining population, and there’s no indication that the growth will slow any time soon. In 2020, the City of Langford received 496 subdivision applications – 2.6 times as many as the year prior. 

Southern Vancouver Island is expected to keep growing – roughly 20 per cent over the next 20 years – and the West Shore will remain a hot spot. 

Based on the region’s growth patterns, the West Shore’s population could swell to 117,800 in under 20 years – up 69 per cent from 2011 – according to projections in the CRD’s Regional Growth Strategy. And development growth could outpace population growth with 46,600 dwellings projected for the region in 2038, a nearly 75 per cent increase from 2011. 

And for the most part, data paints a picture of a younger population, with higher rates of people aged 30 to 34 and youth under 14. Statistics Canada data from 2016 reveals that 8.2 per cent of Langford residents and 6.8 per cent of Colwood residents fell in the 30-to-34 age bracket, compared to 6.4 per cent of the total Capital Regional District (CRD). Those numbers start reversing in the older age categories, with 21.7 per cent of the CRD aged 65 and older, compared to 12.4 per cent in Langford and 16.1 per cent in Colwood. 

Those numbers aren’t surprising to Casey Edge, executive director of the Victoria Residential Builders Association (VRBA). On the West Shore, young families can more easily find – and afford – homes, he says.  

Casey Edge, executive director of the Victoria Residential Builders Association. Photo courtesy of Casey Edge.

“We have a millennial demographic that’s almost as big as the boomers and they’re starting to have families,” he says. “Well, you need a home that’s going to accommodate a family [and] that’s not going to be a one-bedroom condo in downtown Victoria.” 

“I see the West Shore as the hub of the region.” 

The CRD’s Housing Needs Report also points to affordability as a population driver. Family-sized housing is desired in the core municipalities but is increasingly expensive and difficult to come by. According to data from the Victoria Real Estate Board, the benchmark value of a single family home in the Victoria core (Saanich, Victoria and Esquimalt) in March, 2021 was $968,700, compared to $746,300 on the West Shore. 

But the rapid growth of Langford, Sooke and Colwood isn’t mirrored across all West Shore communities. 

Between 2019 and 2020, the population of Metchosin – the rural district bounded by Colwood and Langford – dropped by 1.5 per cent to 5,049 people, according to BCS estimates. North of Langford, the District of Highlands lost 22 people in the same time period – a 0.9 per cent population decrease. 

Builders find opportunity 

In Langford’s Official Community Plan (OCP), developed jointly with the City of Colwood, the municipality celebrates the rapid growth and pending “transition from a suburban centre to a major urban centre.” It lists benefits like jobs, services and diverse housing, along with tax revenue for beautification, public amenities and new facilities.

“Generally, change has been accepted and even embraced,” the OCP states. 

Langford is, undoubtedly, leading the pack in population growth and residential development across the West Shore. In 2020, the city was the site of roughly 34 per cent of new housing construction in Greater Victoria, according to Edge. 

He credits a streamlined municipal development process and affordable lots, which make the West Shore community a mecca for developers seeking a sound investment. 

“If you bring a project to Langford and … it meets the planning department’s criteria, and you’ve invested all of this money and time and resources into this project, there’s a reasonable chance that your project will be approved,” Edge says. “That’s not the case in the core municipalities, like Saanich.” 

It can take years to get final approvals in the core municipalities, Edge says, but in Langford, getting a development project through the municipal system can take three-to-six months. 

An excavator sits near a construction site on Skirt Mountain in Langford. Photo taken on April 11, 2020. Photo by Shalu Mehta/The Discourse

Differing municipal procedures and cultures

Some of that has to do with building permits. Edge points to two-day permit applications in Langford and North Saanich, and a streamlined process for straightforward project proposals. But in general, Edge says the discrepancy comes from “municipal cultures.” 

“Each project is going to be different, but there is more certainty with respect to Langford,” he says. “So when Langford says ‘these are the criteria [that] applications must meet, in order to achieve approval,’ then the development community says, ‘OK, we’re reasonably certain that if we meet that criteria, that will be treated in a reasonable manner.’ That doesn’t exist in many other municipalities.” 

Edge points to an incident in 2017, when, after a five-year development process with the District of Saanich, Islands West Produce printed their disappointment on a sign, warning others to “start young or go to Langford” if they were thinking of developing in the district. As reported in Saanich News, the company said they were “pissed off” and didn’t intend to build or develop in the municipality again, citing the “extremely lengthy process” due to Saanich’s “inability to to process” a rezoning and permit application. In the end the rezoning went through, and the new facility opened in 2018.

“Transparency is really important when you’re talking about having people invest millions of dollars in your community,” Edge says. “And there are some municipalities that just simply aren’t interested in transparency.” 

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Some communities guard against growth

Even as Langford welcomes developers in, other municipalities are actively guarding against rapid growth. In Metchosin, building permit totals for new dwellings averaged at about 14.5 per year between 1995 and 2009. 

In its OCP, the district— home to several beloved lagoons and marsh ecosystems— makes note of the need for further environmental protections. Self-identified as a rural community, the district notes that agricultural practices “contribute significantly to the attraction of the community and help define the rural lifestyle.” 

The District of Highlands separated from the City of Langford in 1993 after a referendum where 80 per cent of Highlanders voted to incorporate as a separate municipality. In the years since, the municipality has implemented a markedly different approach to growth, increasing protected areas and discouraging further suburban development beyond current zoning. In its OCP, the Highlands notes that residents have purposefully chosen their rural lifestyle, and expect it to continue. 

The Highlands OCP points to the CRD’s Regional Growth Strategy, where the municipality is described as having “no role as an area for urban development.” 

Signs protesting O.K. Industries Inc.’s mine operation can be seen around the District of Highlands. Photo taken on April 11, 2020. Photo by Shalu Mehta/The Discourse

Community groups respond to growth pressures

But development-friendly community leaders haven’t gone uncriticized and residents have serious concerns. Is there a long-term plan to accommodate a growing population? What will be sacrificed to make way for the onslaught of new homes and commercial buildings?  These are some of the themes that came from a survey The Discourse put to West Shore communities in March, 2021.

Langford Voters for Change  – a community Facebook group with more than 700 members  – keeps a critical eye on new development proposals, galvanizing around a goal to see change in the way the municipality is governed. 

“I’m not asking for the city to stop development,” writes resident Dave Attwood in the public Facebook group. “I’m only wondering why Langford has to allow anything that casts a shadow to be blown up, bulldozed and mowed down to go at breakneck speed.” 

Residents in other municipalities have joined together to voice their concerns about development as well. 

Preserve Havenwood was formed by Colwood community members in response to a development proposal near Havenwood Park.

“Our goal is to preserve Havenwood Park by ensuring the City of Colwood’s guidelines promised in the OCP (Official Community Plan) are respected,” the group’s website reads.

In the District of Highlands, residents formed the group Not OK Strip Mine to voice their opposition to the OK Industries Inc. gravel pit operation in the South Highlands area. Group members are actively protesting outside of the mine’s entrance. The District of Highlands recently made a decision to appeal the B.C. Supreme Court’s decision regarding the applicability of district bylaws to the mine operation.

In Metchosin, over 4,000 people signed a petition to limit the subdivision of the Boys and Girls Club property. The District of Metchosin council ended up adopting a bylaw to that effect, the Goldstream News Gazette reports.

Environmental pressures top residents’ concerns

For many West Shore residents, pressure on the environment is a top concern. In a survey administered by The Discourse, respondents listed climate change, green space and deforestation amongst the threats and challenges that worry them. 

Related: Survey results: What you had to say about West Shore development

“Langford needs to designate green spaces, parks and playgrounds now before none [are] left,” writes one respondent.  

Another respondent writes, “We must develop with the climate and nature as primary consideration, not afterthoughts. We must change building heating/insulation regulations to reduce GHG emission, including mandatory properly funded retrofitting of existing buildings.” 

Chris Ling, head of the bachelor of arts or science in environmental practice program at Royal Roads University. Photo courtesy of Royal Roads University

Impacts of habitat and biodiversity are also top of mind for West Shore residents. In the last decade, warnings of rogue bears and cougars have been commonplace in West Shore communities. That’s not because they’re moving into human neighbourhoods, it’s because humans are moving into theirs, says Chris Ling, head of the bachelor of arts or science in environmental practice program at Royal Roads University.

“The way that Langford could do a better job on the planning side is to deliberately and systematically make more space for habitat protection and preservation in a way that they’re not really doing right now,” he says. “The West Shore is the place where development is going to happen. So the question is, how do you do it in a way that’s not going to have as great an impact.” 

West Shore feels the transportation pinch

When it comes to environmental planning, transportation is also a huge piece of the puzzle, Ling says. 

“Debates around rapid-transit type commuter transportation from the West Shore into Victoria have been going round and round in circles for decades,” he says. “But other than a fairly feeble Band-aid of a bus route on the highway, nothing has happened at all.” 

Highway 1 has certainly felt the pressure of the West Shore’s growth. As the only route into Victoria, the stretch of the Trans-Canada Highway that connects West Shore communities with downtown Victoria jobs, retail, arts and culture has been strained by commuters. In December 2020, CRD staff reported two core transportation problems for the region: traffic congestion and a largely built out regional road network that “constrains infrastructure solutions.” 

And while biking is popular in the CRD, 69.8 per cent of workers commute by car, truck or van, according to a 2016 Statistics Canada report. The average commuting time in the region is 22.2 minutes, just 7.5 minutes less than Vancouver drivers’ average commute.  And on average, commutes are longer for Greater Victoria residents who don’t drive. The average commuting time on public transit is 34.9 minutes, compared to 21.2 minutes for drivers. 

Highway 1 upgrades, including the nearly complete $96 million McKenzie Interchange project and highway widening between Leigh Road and West Shore Parkway, were implemented to respond to safety and traffic concerns, as was the 2020 South Island Transportation Strategy. But in November, West Shore mayors told The Discourse they felt that the regional strategy failed to offer a plan for traffic, commute times and alternatives to private vehicles.

Residents say they are concerned about transportation issues as development booms across the West Shore. Photo by Shalu Mehta/The Discourse

“My personal frustration is that we see massive promises for the Lower Mainland in terms of transportation-related infrastructure but we see nothing for the lower Island,” View Royal Mayor David Screech told The Discourse in November. “We need to start planning for the future and how we’re going to deal with it.”  

Ling agrees. Now would be the time to start planning something, he says, like restoring the E&N railway route and connecting the communities by train.

Related: Is there a future for passenger rail on Vancouver Island?

“The longer you leave it the more expensive it’s going to be to turn it back into something,” Ling says. “It’s now mainly a bike route, which is fine … but you know the number of people that are willing to commute on their bike from the West Shore to Victoria, it’s going to be a fairly small minority.” 

Another solution pitched by West Shore community leaders is a commuter ferry from Colwood to Victoria. To the dismay of Colwood Mayor Rob Martin, the project was listed as a long-term goal in the South Island Transportation Strategy. 

“Our ultimate goal isn’t the ferry,” Martin told The Discourse in November. “Our goal is that we have people using mass transportation and not relying on single-person vehicles to travel all over the region.”

And urbanizing the West Shore comes with its own challenges, too. 

“The problem is that, although most new homes are going to be on the West Shore, the good job growth is not going to be there in the same way and you’re still going to get a predominance of employment in the core areas,” Ling says. “And that just makes the currently pretty horrible commuting situation even worse.” 

And alternative options, Ling notes, just come with alternative issues. 

“If you’re in downtown Victoria, the alternative to expansion on the West Shore is to rapidly increase density for Victoria, Saanich and Oak Bay,” he says. “There’s no solutions here that are without challenges.” 

Housing demand is here to stay

With the average price of a single family home in downtown Victoria nearing $1 million, it’s unlikely that demand for homes outside the dense, expensive, core will cease soon. 

What comes next for the West Shore? How will this burgeoning, diverse mix of West Shore communities adapt and respond to an exploding population and the growing demand for attainable housing? 

In the coming weeks, The Discourse will report on the many nuances around development in the Western Communities. In particular, we will focus on what’s going well, where solutions exist and how insights from different communities might inform healthy, sustainable development on the West Shore. [end]

Subscribe to The Discourse’s West Shore newsletter to be the first to read our coverage. And tell your friends.

Editor’s note, April 21, 2020: This article previously referred to Chris Ling as the director of Royal Roads University’s School of Environment and Sustainability. He is actually the head of the bachelor of arts or science in environmental practice program at Royal Roads University. The article has been changed to reflect that.

This Delving Into Development article is made possible in part with funding from the Real Estate Foundation of BC and Journalists for Human Rights. Their support does not imply endorsement of or influence over the content produced.

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