“Our processing time is one of the lowest in the region”
Gary Buxton, the general manager for community planning and infrastructure for the district, talks about trends in construction, processing time for building permits, and the challenges district faces as it deals with a construction boom in town.
Can you give some sense of construction trends in Squamish?
Well, the vast majority of construction is in residential sector. There is some commercial, some new industrial projects in concrete buildings have popped up in the last two and a half years that I have been here. There has got to be some three or four significant buildings in the business park and more are planned. There is one on Queens Way, just south of Carneys and then you have all the Solterra projects north of Ford, and they tend to be divided into individual bays and then rented by a bakery or an individual contractor.
But the majority is residential?
Yes, the vast majority of construction has been residential. It was discovered post 2010 that it’s possible to live in Squamish and work in the Lower Mainland and we have had major developers who worked in the city now who are buying land and building residential projects here. In terms of how many projects are in the pipeline, it’s difficult to quantify because even if you have a residential project that is zoned and ready to go, it doesn’t mean it’s coming to the market. We have all the units in the Oceanfront and then we have the Waterfront landing project that are in the ‘pipeline’ but they won’t be coming to market in one year. That is five or seven year work for the company. Rather than look at the units in the ‘pipeline’, a better indicator of construction is the building permits. In 2016, there were 246 building permits were issues. In 2015, that number stood at 222. A year before that in 2014, the total number of building permits issues was 171.
What are some of the challenges the district faces with this boom?
There is the staffing challenge and we have hired more people in engineering and planning and in some people in administration and that has helped greatly with the timelines. There is the simple logistical challenge in keeping that much paper moving and it adds to municipal infrastructure, new roads, new sewer pipes, and you have to coordinate that with existing infrastructure, and in some cases, it results in offsite work needed to be done. The best example is the sewer line that we have to build across the highway, between Chief View and Tantalus Road and that will serve the Skyridge lands and the Cheema Lands and that is a $2 million project. That will be paid through the Development cost charge bylaws, and there is dozens of projects in that list. If it’s water, storm and sanitary sewers, those are literally entirely funded by developer contribution. If it is roads and parks, then the municipal contribution is quite a bit higher, the roads can be 55 per cent paid by the developer, and 45 percent is the district. We have good robust plans on water and sewer and what we need in terms of infrastructure needs for this construction.
The district of Squamish recently introduced new surcharges for unauthorized construction, land clearing, or site preparation? How serious is this problem?
There is not a massive number and it’s not endemic or epidemic, but there are a few small ones that each take a lot of time to address. They don’t tend to be in large in number but these files can take a lot of time to address and resolve. It would mean we are out there for multiple times, might have to file orders, section 57 to put on titles, got to get councils approvals, and it’s very time consuming to do with enforcement on the building side. Every hour spent on that is a time not spent processing files and doing inspections. Enforcement has gone up but we haven’t seen a spike in any such files. A vast majority of contractors are complying with the law.
There is concern around processing times for building permits?
Our processing time is one of the lowest in the region. Two years ago, the time frame was 13 to 14 weeks, but we have more staff now and in the last six months it has dropped from 13 to 14 weeks to 8 to 10 weeks. Occasionally, we do allow people to get some limited amount of work done in terms of site preparation prior to actual building permit. So, we are flexible with that and we haven’t really seen a huge spike in people who say this is taking too long and we are starting with this without the permits. Two years ago when we were at 12 weeks, I did hear that a little more. We have brought in a plan checker, who makes sure files are set up correctly and are ready for review and so all of that more administrative work is now being done by a plan checker before it goes to the planning or building.
What sort of incentives is the district offering?
We have waived the DCC charges and the building permit fees for accessory and carriage houses and we have seen an increase in the number of units being constructed, so people have been taking advantage of that. It’s very difficult to actually quantify, but we have seen an increase in the number of people using this incentive. We also have meeting soon on code changes that are coming that are approved within the building code changes, and now it’s up to the municipalities to decide what steps they want to set the local standards at and we need to do that before December.
Why doesn’t the district allow mobile tiny homes in Squamish?
There is some gap between tiny homes and provincial legislation, so we are trapped in that gap. If you can meet BC building code with minimum area, then you can build a mobile home but you would have to connect it to water and sewer in the right way. It’s a basic public health issue, we need to get rid of sewer, and have access to water and we can’t have people move around the community in RV type. If you want to build a tiny home and deal with water and sewer properly, you can do that. The mobile tiny homes takes you in the area of RVs.
There is some anxiety in the community to the pace of development?
Lot of change in town, and people notice the change in the way traffic move, intersections get busy, and they notice change and disruption. Part of the change is driven by the market and there is demand for homes and it’s fairly typical for residential to precede commercial and industrial, and it’s quite common. We are ensuring we have commercial and we haven’t been rezoning our older industrial land. A lot of developers will tell you we are not doing residential fast enough and we don’t allow a lot of stuff to come to market. We could staff up and make this thing go even faster, but we have reached that point where there is a sense of discomfort about the pace of growth in the community. The flip side is that if you start to regulate the pace of development, which you can, that has the effect on the market. You reduce the supply and the prices go up. That can be done but you have to be careful.