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Elizabeth Murphy: BC NDP housing bills need to be withdrawn

Local authorities know more about their communities and the best ways to develop them
Housing Minister Ravi Kahlon has introduced contentious, sweeping legislation that moves control of many aspects of urban planning into the hands of the province. Province of BC photo

British Columbia is in the process of major legislative changes that take over municipal planning authority without a prior consultation process for municipalities or the public. Bills 44, 46 and 47 require major dictated densification(eight to 20 storey towers and multiplexes) without adequately increased infrastructure, removes public hearings and limits development fees, all with new provincial vetoes over municipal planning throughout BC.

Regardless of opinions on the proposed types of development, the main issue with the provincial proposals are the changes to municipal planning authority. There are many good reasons why current development planning is under municipal authority rather than the province. Municipalities know best what the local needs are, how much infrastructure capacity is required, and what their property tax base can sustain. Municipalities also have the planning staff and expertise that the province doesn't have. Yet the province is proposing a one-size-fits-all approach for development in every municipality across the province.

The proposed legislative bills, introduced November 1 that could be approved within the month, affect the Vancouver Charter for the city of Vancouver and the Local Government Act for every other municipality throughout the province, including the Islands Trust for the Gulf Islands. The bills are: Bill 44 (Official Community Plan provincial requirements, removing public hearings, multiplexes up to six units per lot, banning onsite parking requirements, removing heritage protections); Bill 46 (development fee changes and limits); and Bill 47 (transit-oriented tower development provincial requirements).  

Collectively these bills represent provincial overreach of municipal jurisdiction with enormous implications that have not been fully publicly disclosed or understood. Further there are separate provincial policy guidelines that have not been disclosed and will be established as an afterthought. Policy guidelines can be modified by the province at anytime without having to go back to the legislature to amend the bills and without municipal or public consultation. These bills have been created without any meaningful public process or real planning and the province is making it up as they go on the floor of the legislature.

These Bills 44, 46 and 47 should be withdrawn for reconsideration with proper input from municipalities and the public. This is a major structural legislative change being dictated by the province without a proper process. The primary input appears to be from the development industry. This huge proposed change of governance has many unintended consequences on land inflation, increased property taxes, lack of infrastructure, displacement and a loss of democratic process to address the variety of municipal needs that cannot be all the same throughout the province.

The bills change how development is approved and gives the province the power to dictate to the municipalities what is in their plans and the approval process. There has been no detailed information released by the province, only promotional materials, brief press releases, and one policy framework document on Transit Oriented Development Areas (above). The following summary outlines a few of the many proposals in the actual legislation and what it means. 

Bill 44 and its major changes to municipal planning proposes to:

  • change the approval process for municipal Official Community Plans (OCP) that must meet prescriptive provincial zoning requirements and gives the province a veto;  
  • eliminate public hearings for rezonings on proposed projects that match the OCP;
  • eliminate all public hearings in the City of Vancouver since there is no public hearing required in the Vancouver Charter for an OCP either;
  • remove onsite parking requirements for new development;
  • require all municipalities to zone for multiplexes of "Small Scale Multi-Unit (SSMU) housing", up to six units per lot over 280 sq. metres (3014 sq. ft. lot or 30' x 100') that goes beyond the city of Vancouver's recently approved in R1-1 zones, with further undisclosed prescriptive provincial policy guidelines to come (height, floor space ratio, setbacks, lot coverage etc.);
  • disallows conditional zoning unless for more units than outright, that makes Vancouver's RT character retention zoning illegal in Kitsilano, Mt. Pleasant, Grandview and Strathcona, even though these zones have substantial amounts of existing rental units; and
  • eliminates heritage protections that limit future development potential; and
  • eliminates heritage designated areas like Shaughnessy.

Bill 46 (development fee changes and limits) proposes to:

  • download the costs of provincially mandated growth related infrastructure to municipalities while  restricting how municipalities can raise funding from development;
  • establish a legislative framework for charging development fees under provincial control;
  • eliminates the use of negotiated Community Amenity Contributions (CACs);
  • replace CACs with a new Amenity Cost Charge (ACC) that aligns with an  expanded list of what development cost charges can be spent on;
  • allow development fees to be used for cost sharing of transportation, specifically for highway access, but presumably could extend to Transit Oriented Development Areas to pay for transit as contemplated in Bill 47.

Bill 47 (provincially mandated transit oriented tower development) proposes to:

  • provincially mandated tower development around existing and planned transit including bus stops, bus exchanges, and rail transit stations;
  • eliminate onsite parking requirements for new construction;
  • released policy guidelines for Metro Vancouver of  8 to 20 storeys depending on distances of up to 800 m from rapid transit and 400 m from bus exchanges (that could cover the whole city if this includes bus stops);
  • provincial guidelines for stations would cover the entire Broadway Corridor from UBC to Boundary Rd., 16th Avenue north to the water, and the Cambie Corridor, overriding current city and regional planning;
  • policy guidelines for Victoria, Kelowna and other mid-sized municipalities of 6 to 10 storeys 400 m from a bus exchange;
  • other smaller municipalities of 4 to 6 storeys 400 m from a bus exchange; and
  • once Transit Oriented Development Areas are designated, they could be open to provincial taxation that has yet not been disclosed but discussed in the past, and potentially could be added under Bill 46.

The province is responsible for providing affordable housing programs, transportation, electrical capacity, schools and large infrastructure. They have failed to provide these resources so instead are deflecting and downloading onto municipalities through mandated upzoning without the resources for infrastructure. The province has failed to provide funding for new schools in the Olympic Village and Fraser River District, even though the new developments have been completed over the last decade. This has more to do with the 2024 provincial election year than actually solving housing affordability.

Developers won't build unless they can make their profit expectations and bank financing requires demonstration of pre-sale strata and healthy rental profits. Market housing has limits on what can be achieved regardless of how much is rezoned. Developers don't build if they think they will lose money, instead flipping or holding the land until the numbers work. Market housing is dependent on the economic cycle that is currently moving into recession.

Planning is best left to each municipality in coordination with regional districts. The province should be supporting growth through providing the infrastructure that is under provincial responsibilities, like schools, transit, daycare, electrical capacity, etc., and not overriding municipal planning authority. Bills 44, 46 and 47 should be withdrawn to consult with municipalities and the public in a transparent process that allows municipalities to retain their planning authority while the province supports growth through providing resources for infrastructure. This one-size-fits-all approach to planning the entire province won't work. Municipalities should reject this proposed model and request the province to stay in provincial jurisdiction.

Elizabeth Murphy is a private sector project manager and formerly with the City of Vancouver's Housing & Properties Department, BC Housing and BC Buildings Corporation. [email protected]