Vancouver city hall watcher decries elimination of public hearings as “endgame of developer complex”

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      On October 26, the B.C. NDP government introduced legislation to remove the requirement for public hearings on rezoning applications.

      In a media release, the province stated that the proposed amendment to the Local Government Act will speed up development and the delivery of new homes.

      The planned change would not cover the City of Vancouver, because it is governed by a separate law, which is the Vancouver Charter.

      This means that the new measure would apply only to municipalities outside Vancouver.

      However, Vancouver city hall watcher Randy Helten believes that the move to amend the Local Government Act is just a first step.

      Helten is a director with the CityHallWatch Media Foundation, a nonprofit that operates a website focused on city issues.

      In an interview, the city watchdog laid out how Vancouver is actually the intended “bull's-eye”.

      “This is the endgame of the developer complex, which includes powerful developers and their friends in government,” Helten told the Straight by phone.

      Helten explained that city planners are currently working on a future Vancouver Plan, which will guide the city’s future development.

      He claimed that the next step would be for the Vancouver Plan to be officially adopted as Vancouver’s official development plan or ODP.

      Take note that the Vancouver Charter empowers city council to adopt an ODP.

      Meanwhile, the Local Government Act, which applies to towns other than Vancouver, uses a slightly different term, which is official community plan or OCP.

      In the province’s proposed legislation, local governments will no longer be required to hold public hearings on zoning bylaw changes as long as these are consistent with OCPs.

      Helten asserted that the next step would be to change the Vancouver Charter, so the City of Vancouver no longer has to undertake public hearings for rezonings if development projects are in line with the Vancouver Plan or its ODP.

      “That will then do a complete end run around public process for any rezonings in Vancouver, as long as these fit in with what they claim is the official development plan,” Helten said.

      He said that if the provincial government eliminates public hearings for rezonings that fall under a community's OCP, that's “step one”.

      “It would be a short next step to amend the Vancouver Charter correspondingly,” Helten said. “Then, anything that is equivalent to an OCP or ODP would be under similar processes: straight to development permits with no rezoning public hearing.”

      Helten noted that he has yet to hear what city councillors think about what’s going on.

      When reached for comment, councillor Jean Swanson indicated that she has yet to look deeper into the issue.

      However, one thing is clear to the first-term city councillor.

      “It means that developers have got the ear of the province,” Swanson told the Straight in a phone interview.

      The councillor added: “I think developers want faster permitting, and I think they’re trying to get the province to force that on the municipalities.”

      However, Swanson also stated that while it’s good for people to be able to have their input in a rezoning through the process of public hearing, a case can be made that “sometimes it takes too long”.

      As for herself in particular, Swanson wants to see developments for social and nonmarket housing speeded up.

      Joseph Jones keeps an eye on development in his East Vancouver neighbourhood, and comments on city issues on his online Eye on Norquay site.

      When reached by the Straight for comment, Jones agreed with the view that the measure removing public hearings will make things easier for developers.

      Both Swanson and Jones indicated that based on the province’s official pronouncement, the change does not affect Vancouver.

      Community advocate Jak King shares the same opinion, but offers a different take on the matter.

      The Grandview-Woodland resident asserted that Vancouver has been doing what the proposed provincial legislation intends to do for other municipalities.

      “What they’re doing is catching up with what Vancouver has already done, which is to reduce public engagement as much as they can,” King told the Straight in a phone interview.

      King pointed out that while Vancouver does not have an official ODP or OCP, it has prezoned huge areas of the city through community plans.

      These plans cover Grandview-Woodland, West End, Downtown Eastside, Marpole, and Cambie.

      “Pretty soon, well have the Broadway Plan and the Vancouver Plan,” King said.

      The City of Vancouver has also adopted policies such as the one council approved on April 20, 2021, which shelved rezoning and public hearing requirements for six-storey social housing projects in certain areas.

      The change covered the following neighbourhoods: Fairview, Grandview-Woodland, Hastings-Sunrise, Kensington-Cedar Cottage, Kitsilano, Marpole, and Mount Pleasant.

      Prior to the April 20 decision by council, these areas provided for residential developments up to three to four storeys.

      Going back to Helten, the city hall watcher compared the situation to what author Naomi Klein described in her 2007 book The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism.

      Klein wrote about how a crisis is used to force through undemocratic processes.

      Helten believes that this is happening with the housing problem in Vancouver and many parts of B.C.

      “The crisis is partially created by a perfect storm of many factors, but public hearing for rezonings is not the major factor causing housing unaffordability,” Helten said.

      Helten added, “I just don’t think its fair, and it really shifts the balance of power in the wrong direction.”