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Comment: Housing legislation needs to be amended

Developing complete communities is complex and relies on many factors that aren’t simply about zoning.
An aerial view of a residential neigbourhood in Victoria. ADRIAN LAM, TIMES COLONIST

A commentary by a Nanaimo city councillor who is the former vice-chair and former chair of the Regional District of Nanaimo, and a practising urban planner.

The provincial government has put forward legislation that will result in significant changes to the local planning framework in British Columbia, yet has ignored input from local governments on how such changes can be appropriately and responsibly implemented.

Many of the proposed changes are ones that housing advocates, developers, urban planners and local governments alike have been calling for, and should be celebrated.

These include requiring local governments to update their official community plans (OCPs) more frequently, removing the requirement for public hearings when development proposals are consistent with OCPs, and accommodating long-term housing needs through the pre-zoning of land.

However, the yet-to-be-released regulations will also require municipalities of more than 5,000 people and within urban containment boundaries to update their zoning bylaws to permit three to four units per residentially zoned parcel, and up to six dwelling units per lot if within a certain distance of public transit.

Eliminating single-dwelling residential zoning will be crucial in repairing much of the damage done to our communities caused by past urban planning choices, but it is not the only element that should be considered.

Developing complete communities is complex and relies on many factors that aren’t simply about zoning. Infrastructure must be planned so it can accommodate certain densities.

Transit routes, among other items, are planned so they support the right type of growth. New development must contribute to offsetting the cost burden it places on municipal services.

Yes, there are problems with local governments turning down much-needed housing projects, especially missing-middle projects that are so desperately needed. Largely though, local governments and urban planners have advocated for meaningful changes to the planning framework to increase housing supply, streamline cumbersome processes, and build better-planned communities that respond to the needs of all residents, not just the loudest voices.

Building missing-middle housing must be done in areas that have the appropriate infrastructure and connectivity, and won’t result in slightly higher-density sprawl. Further, it can’t be implemented in a way that undermines the increased amount of multi-unit residential being built in many cities by incentivizing development at lower densities.

In municipalities, the proposed indiscriminate changes will see the under-development of well-serviced areas and the over-development of poorly serviced areas.

The tax burden of unplanned infrastructure upgrades caused by the new development will fall on existing property owners as local governments are forced to upgrade infrastructure in areas they had not planned for.

Efforts to create complete communities will be counteracted as growth is permitted indiscriminately across already-too-large growth containment boundaries.

The situation is equally perplexing for regional districts, which will be required to update zoning bylaws to permit one secondary suite or laneway home in all single-family residential zones.

Attempts by regional districts to develop regional growth strategies, intended to guide growth to certain areas while preserving rural values, will be subverted. And while imperfect, the Water Sustainability Act has attempted to limit development and growth in areas that cannot provide adequate water supply. Those efforts will essentially be undone by indiscriminately allowing further unplanned residential intensification in rural areas.

The Union of B.C. Municipalities has responded to the introduced legislation by saying they are listening to their members.

Now is not the time to listen. It is time for action.

Local governments need to immediately work together to draft amendments to the legislation to support responsible rezoning for missing-middle housing in municipalities, allow regional districts to determine which parcels should be permitted secondary suites, and reform infrastructure financing options through an expanded Development Cost Charges program.

It is not too late for the provincial government to amend this well-intentioned piece of legislation so it will be effective, beneficial, and consistent with good planning principles.