Zoning for Certainty:
Neighbourhoods Without Area Redevelopment Plans
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Zoning bylaws organize patterns of development for the public good.
Zoning originated in the early 1900s to separate industry from homes and reduce crowding that led to epidemics of disease.
As cities grew, zoning became an important way to create certainty about development. Zoning lets the public, developers, and city staff know what to expect. “Zoning is thus at the heart of development control by which responsible governments spell out both their immediate and long-range land use goals.…[T]he main objective of zoning is to control the intensity with which land is used….The need for land-use controls is now well accepted in Canada…and has gained strength from the increasing awareness of the public that land is owned in trust for future generations and is not owned for immediate profit. This is also reflected in the awareness by citizens and public authorities of their respective rights and duties.”
In Alberta, the provincial government delegates planning and development power to city councils specifically “to achieve the orderly, economical and beneficial development, use of land and patterns of human settlement, and to maintain and improve the quality of the physical environment….” (Municipal Government Act, s.617).
The Municipal Government Act directs city councils to adopt a municipal development plan containing policies to address future land use, and then pass a zoning bylaw containing regulations consistent with the plan.
Edmonton’s Municipal Development Plan is ‘The Way We Grow,’ to be implemented by regulations in The Zoning Bylaw.
For the most part, The Way We Grow is a fine planning document. Time and again, it repeats the point that public planning and design are essential to any changes to zoning. Development should always “fit with the existing and planned neighbourhood context, to respect the scale, form, massing, style and materials of the neighbourhoods and to incorporate other design elements that create a transition between the new development and the existing neighbourhood” (126.96.36.199; see also Sections 3, 4, and 5).
The Way We Grow contains many policies to provide planning and design services to established neighbourhoods, to counterbalance development pressures. However, those planning and design policies are not being implemented. Instead, Council is primarily focused on implementing one sole policy: To grant 25% of development permits in established areas of the city, 75% in suburbs.
You will note that comparing percentages of permits instead of counting numbers of dwellings means that we don’t know – or care – where construction occurs, what kind of buildings are constructed, how densely dwellings are packed, and the overall effect of development on an individual neighbourhood’s density, capacity, aesthetics, and stability. Those are genuine land-use planning concerns; comparing percentages of permits is not a genuine land-use concern.
Comparing percentages of permits could be a starting point for land-use planning, but a starting point only. The planning would be a serious undertaking. The responsible approach would be to carefully develop a publicly-supported, defensible citywide plan based on evidence and measurable outcomes that would be implemented over time and evaluated for effect.
In reality, the 25% target for development permits in established neighbourhoods, which should be a means to a planning objective, has become the only goal.
Attempting to achieve the target has resulted in rapid, intensive changes to the Zoning Bylaw to make it easier to intensify land use in established neighbourhoods in an effort to boost the number of development permits issued in them.
The changes are driven by a document entitled The Infill Roadmap 1.0 – soon to be replaced by version 2.0.
The Infill Roadmap 1.0 appears to be based on a staff report that a small committee of councillors received for information in 2014. Receiving a report for information means taking no action. Therefore, the committee did not make a motion to refer the Roadmap report to a full Council meeting for a vote on its contents. In essence, Council did not direct staff to perform further work on the Roadmap. Regardless, staff went to work on changing the Zoning Bylaw to implement the Roadmap, and brought amendments to Council to approve. The Roadmap:
- Changed the RF1 Zone (Single-Family Residential) to allow lotsplitting to as narrow as 25 feet in all neighbourhoods. The other zones had already been changed.
- Changed all zones to allow garage and garden suites.
- Made it easier to build row housing in the RF3 Zone (Small-Scale Infill Development Zone).
- Revised the Mature Neighbourhood Overlay to reduce consultation requirements and make it easier to obtain a permit for variances to the regulations governing development in long-established areas.
- Approved dense development where public transit might occur (called Transit-Oriented Development).
At the same time, Council eased zoning rules to accommodate developers’ desired style of dwellings, which are taller, longer, wider, and often come with rooftop patios. These dwellings noticeably impact existing neighbourhoods.
Consequently, citizens have been constantly blindsided over the past 2 years by a reported 50 new and unexpected changes to the Zoning Bylaw, on which they previously relied for clarity and certainty about what sort of development they could expect.
All neighbourhoods are treated alike
Council’s changes are intended to affect all neighbourhoods the same way, regardless of the current differences between them.
On the contrary, responsible development is planned so as to celebrate the differences between neighbourhoods. For instance, “The City of Vancouver uses community plans to provide clear but flexible frameworks to guide positive change and development in neighbourhoods over a period of approximately 20 – 30 years….A community plan also recognizes the parts of the community valued by its citizens, and addresses the specific issues and initiatives of each area. Community plans are policy documents that provide guidance and direction on a variety of topics, from land use and urban design, to housing, transportation, and community facilities.”
Infill Roadmap 2.0
In Edmonton, instead of measuring the land-use effects of Infill Roadmap 1.0 on established neighbourhoods and using those measurements to develop a defensible long-term approach to Zoning Bylaw regulations based on the planning policies in The Way We Grow, Edmonton’s City Council has chosen to introduce Infill Roadmap 2.0, starting with the following motion:
“That in anticipation of Evolving Infill 2.0, Administration bring a framework to Committee for addressing areas where more diverse and affordable housing opportunities should be clustered – perhaps a “Missing Middle Overlay” (and/or base zone revisions) for mature areas where higher heights, smaller front setbacks, bigger building pockets and more flexibility for multi-family buildings could be warranted, such as: pre-war areas with taller existing homes, areas near transit nodes and corridors, areas with deteriorating housing stock that would benefit from revitalization, and/or areas with existing clustered ground-oriented multi-family zoning. Due Sept 6, 2017.”
Says the Mayor, ” ‘If (the new approach) works, you can move it into those other mature neighbourhoods over time….’ ”
Unfortunately, Infill Roadmap 2.0 sounds like an experiment, not responsible governance. Furthermore, Infill Roadmap 2.0 promises to continue to focus attention on rapid, blanket Zoning Bylaw changes while ignoring the mandates in The Way We Grow for sensitive, meaningful planning and design.
It is true that Council is not required to undertake any of the projects in The Way We Grow (Municipal Government Act, s.637). But, by contrast, Council should not take on projects that subvert the planning principles in The Way We Grow and the Municipal Government Act, as the Infill Roadmaps do, by substituting rapid, unpredictable change for orderly development.
We call on City Council to adhere to the land-use planning policies in the Municipal Government Act and The Way We Grow and to ensure that Zoning Bylaw regulations reflect those policies, to support the public’s interest in orderly development, as required by the Municipal Government Act.