I have been wondering about public participation in Kelowna’s zoning and development process and how it compares with other cities.
After searching through various websites, I decided to compare Calgary to Kelowna, even though Calgary is larger, has more issues and more resources than Kelowna.
I assumed both cities would use similar planning tools to engage the public to ensure rapid population and tourist growth does not adversely impact taxpayers and neighbourhoods, especially on environmental issues.
A comparison seemed natural since both cities must ensure they remain attractive and pleasant places to live, work and play.
Calgary’s approach uses the Calgary Planning Commission, which is a committee appointed annually by city council to act as the approving authority on all subdivision matters and as development authority on some development matters.
While meetings of the commission are open to the public, they are not public hearings. Commission recommendations relating to land use planning and rezoning are sent to council, where public hearings are held.
Development applications for new projects that go to the commission must be supported by assessments and analysis of how well they align with community goals and objectives in the official community plan (OCP) on such issues as land use, transportation, the environment, utilities and servicing, climate change resilience and stakeholder impacts.
A written stakeholder engagement report is required for most projects.
Applications are reviewed and evaluated by the commission to determine if they adhere to public policies, including land use, zoning and other applicable bylaws and to identify possible impacts on neighbourhoods and adjacent properties.
Projects also receive a preliminary review by Calgary’s Corporate Planning Applications Group, which is comprised of staff from city business units, including land-use planning and policy, development and building approvals, transportation planning, and parks.
Development applications that may impact the environment are flagged and circulated to other relevant city departments, including utilities, ward aldermen (Calgary has a ward system for electing council members), community associations and other special interest groups to review environmental documents.
In short, Calgary’s application approval process involves significant public participation in project evaluation. Reports to council on a project’s anticipated overall impact are made public in advance of hearings before council.
By comparison, Kelowna’s public engagement process appears to be minimized to prevent approval delays.
The process is not as robust as Calgary’s and lacks meaningful public input and oversight until a relatively late stage.
This is the case despite Kelowna council’s 2014 Engage Policy No. 372 which talks about achieving public engagement and lists five guiding principles: Inform using balanced and objective information; Consult to obtain feedback on analysis, issues alternatives and decisions; Involve to work with the public to insure concerns and aspirations are considered; Collaborate to partner with the public in each aspect of
decision making; and, Empower to place final decision making in the hands of the public.
Kelowna’s OCP 2030 Chapter 11 lists objectives and policies regarding when development permits, including environmental and hazardous area development permits are required and how they are reviewed. It allows developers to apply for environmental permits and bypass public review on environmental issues prior to public hearings on land use and zoning.
Thus, council may delegate environmental decision-making to city planning staff to determine the scope and detail of a project’s environmental permit requirements; to review and approve documents to determine if they meet federal and provincial requirements; and, to issue the permits. The reasons for staff decisions are not made public.
Lack of opportunity for public review and comment at this stage allows council to ignore public concerns on environmental issues, permit applications and approval responsibilities. The public can only request staff notes and project documents on environmental issues after development permits (the last step in the process) have been issued.
Kelowna’s process relies on the opinion of architects who design the projects that go to council to determine if their designs are sensitive and comply with the form and character of a neighbourhood or impact adjacent properties. Do you think this provides totally unbiased opinions?
Council reviews development permits as to the form and character of buildings but not on their environmental merits, costs or impacts.
The public may only speak to council on zoning variances at the (final) development permit stage.
In short, Kelowna’s process prevents the public from using environmental issues or design concerns to delay project approvals. Don’t city officials trust the public for whom they supposedly work?
David Bond is a retired bank economist who lives in Kelowna.