Saanich votes to allow secondary suites in rural areas

Saanich council has voted to legalize secondary suites in homes in rural areas of the municipality, in what the mayor called a "somewhat begrudging" decision after the province forced its hand.

Saanich mayor Dean Murdock said it wasn't his or all of council's first choice — the first major dispute between the province and Saanich over B.C.'s efforts to increase housing across the province.

Murdock said he's worried the part of the municipality outside the Urban Containment Boundary does not have the infrastructure, such as access to transit and city septic or water lines, to service the additional residents.

However, he said if council refused, it could have allowed the province to set its own rules, unilaterally deciding the number of secondary suites and permitting additional garden suites on rural lots.

"If we weren't onside with the provincial legislation, there was a risk that it would allow for, in addition to secondary suites, an accessory dwelling unit," said Murdock, who noted Saanich is aiming to grow within its urban spaces, where it has the infrastructure to keep pace with demand.

In May, Murdock wrote a letter to Housing Minister Ravi Kahlon asking for an exemption to permitting suites in rural areas. Kahlon denied the request, stating it "contradicts the small-scale multi-unit housing legislation's core purpose: to support gentle density in communities."

With the province's compliance deadline set for the end of June, Saanich council voted 7-2 to permit the suites on 2,442 rural single-family lots.

Heavy-handed approach

Some councillors and residents described the provincial approach as heavy-handed.

"We're doing everything asked of us," said Judy Brownoff, a councillor who voted against legalizing rural suites.

"For them to bring down the hammer on us for properties within rural Saanich, which goes against all their philosophies about climate change and using public transit… I don't even know why we asked [for the exemption]."

In a statement, Kahlon said that the challenges brought on by B.C.'s fast-growing population mean "a lot more" needs to be done to ensure everyone can afford a home.

"I understand the concerns about the impact of these changes," he wrote. "However, we expect allowing secondary suites in rural communities will lead to the creation of more housing over a period [of] time, giving time for communities to adapt, while providing more urgently needed affordable housing options for people and families."

Winona Pugh, a rural Saanich resident who has lived on Prospect Lake for 25 years, is concerned the additional suites could increase traffic and impact local aquifers and septic fields.

"I think it really is down to the loss of municipalities to actually say what's best for their municipality," she said. "Unfortunately, it's been kind of heavy-handed enforcement from the province that's really destructive at this point."

A step toward affordability

Coun. Colin Plant, who supported the legalization of rural secondary suites, said it's a much-needed step toward housing affordability — something residents have been asking for for years. He says he believes the province felt Saanich could be doing more to provide housing across the city and had a different view than the municipality on what that should look like.

"The reality… has been a mixed bag of results," said Plant, who doesn't expect to see a flood of new legal suites entering the market in the wake of the decision.

Many rural secondary suites already existed illegally, he said, and lots of eligible rural properties aren't up to the safety standards needed to get a permit for a secondary suite.

"I'm certainly hoping it will provide another form of housing that is available to people. I'm hopeful that it will [help] those families who need a mortgage helper," Plant said. "But I'm not of the belief that it's going to radically change the housing situation by this one simple tool being implemented."