Defending the "premium"

By Gene Miller, March 2011

Oak Bay doesn’t allow secondary suites, but there’s pressure to change that. Would anything be lost?

I recently woke up wondering: what passes for tectonics in Oak Bay these days? And there in the February 4th Times Colonist was the heaven-sent answer.

Reported under the headline “Secondary suite meetings plan sparks residents’ concerns,” were remarks from John Foxgord, lifetime Oak Bay resident and spokesman for the newly formed Friends of Oak Bay Neighbourhoods (FOBN). While he was not intentionally opening himself to parody from cheap-shot artists (fortunately, none such writes for this magazine), his remarks did carry just a whiff of Oak Bay “let them eat Tim Hortons.” Still, I understand this was not his intention.

But I get ahead of myself. Foxgord is quoted remarking: “Council has done a good job seeking input but they haven’t explored the impacts…The group is opposed to any huge change to the flavour of the community without well-reasoned and widely supported requirements.”

And: “Oak Bay isn’t necessarily a community of rich people but the people who move here pay a premium to live here. They want the simple quiet civility of a single family neighbourhood. To have such a broad and sweeping change disrespects that premium.”

I have only a tiny quibble with Mr Foxgord when he suggests that the folks living in Oak Bay aren’t necessarily rich but do pay a premium to live there. What are they, unnecessarily rich? Look, we are talking about a municipality whose constabulary in days of yore could be summoned on the phone by a concerned hausfrau to pick up her confused husband who had wandered downtown of a Sunday morning to breakfast at Scott’s Diner on Yates Street, dressed in his bathrobe and pyjamas. And pick him up and drive him home they did. Respectfully.

Talk about premiums! 

I understand, by the way, that the under-worked police may still be available for such services. But honestly, in light of the revelation that, in spite of the prohibition against secondary suites, an estimated 800 homeowners have these illegal suites, couldn’t the Oak Bay police be kept very busy busting them? It could be great theatre and resemble that scene in the movie version of Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 when “firemen” acting on tips burn hidden caches of books, and police arrest the owners. It might make a great reality tv show, something like: When Good Single-Family Homeowners Go Rogue. Or Suitebusters.

FOBN states that its mandate is “to protect and enhance the quality of life within Oak Bay neighbourhoods.” (Not the quantity of life.) Cleverly legalistic and circumspect in its public statements (these kinds of community utterances are always rich in code), FOBN challenges the municipality to define the objectives of its (currently non-existent) secondary suite policy, and acknowledge that secondary suites may just be one of a suite of appropriate responses in a housing strategy:

“A vital concern of the FOBN is that our research indicates it may not be possible for the municipality to require a home with a secondary suite to be owner-occupied. Legalization would mean that single-family homes throughout Oak Bay would be granted the option to effectively operate as duplexes. This would be an extraordinary departure from the Official Community Plan which states its primary objective as the maintenance of Oak Bay’s single family character.”

Next thing you know, all the Uplands mansions will be boarding houses. 

Were I the suggestively named Mr Oxgored, I mean Mr Foxgord, I would have had the balls to say:

We hate renters. We hate what they represent: transience, instability, chaos, and the end of civilization as we know it. We hate when they show up with their U-Haul trailers filled with lava lamps, folding card tables, mismatched china, tasteless “Hang In There!” posters in plastic frames, and other crap. We hate their 4x4s with the monster truck wheels and the “Gas, Grass or Ass—Nobody Rides For Free” bumper stickers and their beater Camaros parked on the street with the gold chain-link license plate holders and the “PRN KNG” vanity plates. We hate their socioeconomics. We hate the late-night pizza delivery. We hate how they remind us that but for the grace of God….

“Gene, stop that! This is Your Conscience speaking. You know perfectly well that Mr Foxgord means no such thing and has no such values. He makes perfectly reasonable points and besides, you’re no one to talk, you hypocrite. When someone camps in Beacon Hill Park anywhere near your place, you get twitchy and go all shoot-to-kill.” 

Okay, okay, I admit everything. But look, if Oak Bay estimates that there are 800 illegal suites already, you may safely double the number to get at the true math, since there is a universal condition of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” concerning illegal secondary suites. Everyone knows it’s rampant; everyone pretends it doesn’t exist. Neighbours don’t rat on neighbours either because they imagine their turn requiring a mortgage-helper may come some day, or because they don’t want to come home to find their corgies poisoned. 

Now, the prevalence of extra-legal secondary suites raises some interesting questions about the Big Three: Noise. Parking. Ambience. Let’s take them in order. There’s the open-ended issue of noise—specifically, what noise might someone living in a secondary suite make that someone living in a single-family house wouldn’t make? Do they slurp their vichyssoise? Laugh too fulsomely whilst reading Thackeray? I want to keep an open mind here, but I just don’t get it, unless it’s that secondary suites represent a threat to absolute silence, or to some mystical hum or emanation produced only by single-family neighbourhoods. 

Regarding parking, it seems to me that once you leave the absolute jungle frenzy of Oak Bay Village where cars chivvy about like rhinos at the watering hole, and where on occasion I have seen people race for parking spots in front of Athlone Court at the unconscionable speed of nine km/hr, things become quite manageable on Oak Bay’s side streets. But in the interests of disclosure I acknowledge that when someone parks in “my parking space” at the curb in front of my building, I have to handcuff myself to the radiator so I don’t leave a spluttering note on the transgressor’s windshield. So I’m prepared to give a little on this one.

But ambience…that’s the biggie. Atmospherics covers a lot of territory, and I would wager that this is what all the fuss is about. As Alan Foxgord notes above: “…the people who move here pay a premium to live here. They want the simple quiet civility of a single family neighbourhood. To have such a broad and sweeping change disrespects that premium.” 

Honestly, Mr Foxgord is defending a vision of invested-in propriety. He’s defending civility. He and the other knights of FOBN are pledged to defend “the premium.”

The holy premium—a noble quest. 

Who amongst us can claim that he or she is immune to the charms of Oak Bay, or the mysteries of a perfected life that it promises? Side street after side street of beautiful, well-tended homes. Landscaping taken to the level of manicure. The sheer good manners of these entire neighbourhoods. The sense that all is well with the world or, at least, that Chaos and Ruin have been fought to a draw at the borders…kept at bay outside Oak Bay. 

Let he who is free from Alan Foxgord cast the application for the first (legal) secondary suite.

Gene Miller is the founder of Open Space Arts Centre, Monday Magazine, and the Gaining Ground Sustainable Urban Development Summit.