Following a substantial policy directive from the provincial government, the process of reviewing and approving rezoning applications for new structures across British Columbia might potentially be hastened.
Municipal governments would no longer be required by provincial law to hold public hearings on rezoning applications if the proposed structures are consistent with the city’s approved official community plan (OCP).
For transparency considerations, each municipal government would be compelled to publish public notice of the rezoning bylaw before it is approved at first reading under the provincial government’s public hearing changes for rezonings already compatible with OCPs.
City councils would also be permitted to outsource minor development variance permit decisions to city staff.
These revisions are now in the form of a proposed law, but they are anticipated to pass the legislature, bringing much-needed clarity to the Local Government Act’s existing section 464, which explains when local governments can forego having a public hearing.
The public hearing stage with a municipal council is currently the final public input stage before a decision is reached in the rezoning process. They give homeowners and anyone who are interested in the proposed land use changes the chance to speak directly to elected municipal authorities about their thoughts on the rezoning, which usually involves proposing a new building.
Major rezoning applications in urban areas, particularly in Metro Vancouver, generally seek more floor area density through increased height, and could introduce a wide range of new uses, such as introducing residential to zoning previously deemed to be employment-only uses, or creating a new retail strip on the ground level of future multi-family buildings on a city block that is currently dominated by single-family homes.
“We are working with local governments, the development sector and housing advocates to streamline local development processes to help get more homes built faster for people,” said Josie Osborne, BC Minister of Municipal Affairs, in a statement. “By updating public hearing and certain permit requirements, we are giving local governments more tools to deliver the housing that communities need throughout BC. This is one important step in the work all orders of government must do to meet housing needs for people in our communities.”
The provincial government sees this as a step toward reducing barriers and costly delays in improving housing affordability through increased housing supply by eliminating the public hearing requirement for a proposed change in zoning that already complies with OCP allowances in land use, density, and height.
OCPs, as well as any revisions to these community plans, are already subjected to considerable public consultation, culminating in a public hearing. In other words, a rezoning application that requires a public hearing yet already follows the OCP is judged superfluous and weakens the OCP process as a whole.
These adjustments were made in response to the provincial government’s consultation process for the 2019 Development Approvals Process Review. Changes ordered by a city council might be difficult to accept because public hearings come late in the review process, sometimes after years of planning and large payments to architects and consultants for design.
Furthermore, according to the 2019 research, public hearings may be ineffectual in obtaining significant comment.
Similar issues were raised in a second 2020 assessment on housing affordability and supply in BC, commissioned jointly by the federal and provincial governments.
Following the formation of a new OCP or revisions to the OCP, the provincial administration stopped short of proposing steps to encourage municipalities to pre-zone areas. Spot rezonings have traditionally been preferred by cities in order to obtain additional public benefits from proponents.
“Public hearings tend to attract and empower well organized interest groups that may not represent the broad perspective of the community or even those who would be the most directly impacted by a decision. This can result in applications being denied despite being aligned with adopted community and neighbourhood plans,” reads the report. “Public hearings can enable NIMBY (an acronym for ‘not in my backyard’) which describes residents’ opposition to a development in their own neighbourhood, while raising no objections to similar developments in other neighbourhoods.”