City of Victoria proposed bylaw changes

By V Adams

Context for Change:

Today, more than 80,000 residents inhabit 19.4 square km of land comprising the City of Victoria. And 12,000 people live within one square km boundary of one of the City’s oldest and most densely-packed neighbhourhood, James Bay.

Over the next 30 years, the City is expected to grow to 100,000 inhabitants. More than 10,000 will have to be accommodated in three areas: downtown, James Bay, and a portion of VicWest, while another 8,000 will be situated in walkable town centres and large urban villages, many of which are located in the same areas.

With soaring home prices, restricted land available for development, older rental stock needing repair, and a vacancy rate approaching zero, there is recognition that residents, almost 60 per cent of whom are tenants.

With a growing diversity of demands on the public resources and funding, there is a greater need to address priorities that will serve the primary needs of residents, including their health and well-being.

Newspaper headlines almost daily reveal the lack of affordable housing in the city. Even more glaring was that the fact that no shelter was available for 1,300 of the city’s most vulnerable citizens

During this time, the City streamlined its development-approval process for multi-million dollar residential condo projects. Council and staff hailed the soaring permit values worth $140 million in June, up 115 per cent from last year, while endorsing its new Land Use Procedure Bylaw to change the rezoning application protocol. Why? To permit “shorter process with no public hearing”1. Is this is the City’s contribution to dismantling the citizen engagement process which gives residents a voice in policy development and decision-making to shape the City’s landscape?

Where Does Urban Agriculture Fit into the City’s Priorities?

The 2012 City of Victoria’s Official Community Plan (OCP) p. 33 underlines a “forecast growth of approximately 20,000 additional residents by 2041 [ which] is expected to reach Victoria’s capacity available under existing zoning for new ground-oriented residential and exeeds that for apartments, running the risk that housing will become increasingly more expensive as available capacity is depleted.”

Four pages of the OCP are devoted to “Food Systems”, with most of the emphasis on expanding recreational land use in the form the of urban agriculture, by increasing the number of allotment gardens, community gardens, and edible landscapes on City-owned land as well as other publicly-held real estate and private land. The OCP also entertains the notion of revising land use policy and regulations to accommodate a broader definition of small-scale commercial urban agriculture, and p.118 “17.14.3 Allowing commercial urban agriculture uses, including greenhouses, in commercial and industrial areas.2  Four years later, a new Mayor and Council are now pushing a change to OCP and bylaws to permit small commercial urban farms to operateand market their produce in all zoned areas of the city.

The City of Victoria staff report, “Growing in the City - Part 2: Proposed Bylaw Amendments to Support Small Scale Commercial Urban Food Production”, presented to Council on July 14, 2016, fails to demonstrate to what degree small-scale commercial urban food pruduction is compatible with urban land uses, particularly in residential and commercial zoned areas.

In high-density tenant population areas like James Bay, (with no restriction on the allocation of plots to neighbourhood residents), many residents will receive little or no benefit from these changes. It is likely that they will be negiatively impacted in terms of even more congestion and parking problems not to mention offensive noise levels, noxious odours, and light pollution,  increased pesticide and toxic fertilizer chemical use, or growing pest control issues. Does the neighbourhood really need an influx of temporary farm stands in addition to the existing the Saturday James Bay Market, Sunday Ogden Point Market, as well as local commercial operations like Niagara Grocery, and Red Barn which will open soon in the Capital Park complex?

Many Unanswered Questions Behind the Commercial & Recreational Urban Agiculture Issue

What commercial interests and how many urban farmers are driving the demand for more accessibility to the limited land supply to grow and market their products outside the existing industrial and commercially-zoned use areas?

Apparently adding a garden feature on land classified as commercial, utility, and industrial, will allow the property owner to benefit from a reclassification under BC Assessment to “recreational use”. How many current property owners fit these classifications in the City of Victoria?

Likewise, an individual property owner who operates an small scale urban farm in Fernwood, under the new bylaw, might well be able to claim a benefit through qualifying for provincial farm tax status.

Urban farmers have asked the City to set a low farm tax rate to encourage growth of urban agriculture. No property in the City of Victoria has been classified as a farm since 2008. Why, therefore, is the City pushing for expansion of urban agriculture in the interests of a few while the potential for shifting the tax burden on the majority appears to be a likely outcome?

How will the use of land for food production be balanced with the City’s key objectives for new housing and development? Where is the policy on this matter, and which uses will take priority in this competitive land use landscape? How will urban agriculture be recognized as “subservient to other OCP objectives for form, place character, use and density as provided in the OCP policy”3 if neither recreational nor commercial urban agriculture use require a developermit?

The Mayor has identified that the City’s public assets are worth $900 million? Where is the baseline inventory and map of City-owned land and its existing uses? What proportion and value of city-owned land is currently earmarked for “food production and improved coordination of food systems resources and initiatives in the City” 4? Why is City of Victoria’s land inventory and map listing 64 potential locations throughout the City for future community gardening projects not been made public? Have these city-owned sites been soil tested and are they contaminant free posing no health hazard to the public?

Since city-owned properties with gardening potential are not evently distributed throughout the City, staff have recommended increasing the competition for this land by expanding elegibility to all Victoria residents and beyond. To respond to this alleged pressure for more agricultural land, does the public land inventory also include school district properties,health authority land, provincial and federal property and Greater Victoria Harbour Authority real estate that is accessible and available for use by members of the public?

What are the costs associated with increasing the use of urban land for agricultural purposes:

Additional water and sewage/storm water management, soil testing and remediation, provision of utilities and services, licensing and bylaw enforcement, contract management, liability insurance, and signage, in relation to the potential revenue generation from land rent, business licenses and development permits in the case of large-scale commercial agriculture projects?

Certain industrial, commercial, utility and residential property-owners will be able to realize benefits from these changes, but the vast majority of renters who comprise almost 60 per cent of households in the City, will have little access to boulevard gardens in front of private residences. They will enjoy no tax savings and likely receive no noticeable increase in distribution of low-cost, home-grown food from these city-owned properties.

Staff may not be recommending that regulated products like medical marijuana be permitted as commercial agriculture products, but with the elimination of the development permit process and possible revision of Federal government legislation, the door is still open to sell such plants to interested consumers. How will this enhance the common good of the community?

What are the guidelines regarding the allocation and number of permits/business licenses to be issued for farm stands for onsite retail sales of commercial agriculture products, and those required for offsite retail sales?

If Council considers exemptions to certain types of development permits and delegation of approval authority to staff, how can residents express their concerns and resolve their conflicts related to urban agriculture issues if there is no transparency, accountability and dispute resolution mechanism? Has Council considered increased expenses that will be incurred with enforcing the new urban agriculture bylaw and increased property maintenance costs?

The Conclusion

One wonders if the rush to repurpose the city’s surplus of small vacant properties, by encouraging fruit and vegetable production, is designed to prevent their use as temporary accommodation to meet the needs of the growing homeless  population of Victoria?

Or, are the new urban agriculture policies and bylaw changes designed to reward certain property owners interested in reducing their tax bill, or offering yet another density bonus “green” amenity opportunity for multi-storey residential developers?

In light of the preceding questions, Mayor and Council should reconsider the proposed Urban Agriculture policy changes, particularly amendments to bylaws to promote small scale commercial urban agriculture. Is this truly a priority in the face of pressing social issues such as providing affordable housing and other services needed by thousands of low to moderate income households in the city?


1Working Together, Doing Business in the Capital City. 3rd Annual City of Victoria Development Summit presentation, June 13, 2016.

2City of Victoria, Official Community Plan, July 2012 (Updated: June 23, 2016), Section 17 – Food Systems, p. 118.

3City of Victoria, Committee of the Whole Report, “Growing in the City” – Part 2: Regulatory Amendments to Support Small-Scale Commercial Urban Farming, February, 12, 2016. p. 8.

4City of Victoria, Council Report,” Growing in the City” – Part 2: Proposed Bylaw Amendments to Support Small-Scale Commercial Urban Food Production, July 14, 2016. p. 7.