April 21st, 2018

Zoning decisions consistent only in their inconsistency

By Medicine Hat News Opinon on January 12, 2017.

Land development remains a topic of much confusion in Medicine Hat, and this week’s rejection at council of a plan to subdivide a church parking lot should raise at least one eyebrow, if not two.

The issue was dealt with in a lengthy and emotional public hearing on Monday, with a unanimous rejection the result.

Officials with Unity Lutheran Church said selling an unwanted portion of their parking lot as four large house lots would retire the mortgage.

Neighbours on the other side of the cul-de-sac and others in Parkview community say it will “destroy” their view, create disruption and mar the entrance to the prestigious community. They bought homes believing that the area would not see further development.

This is probably the most common argument in any zoning issue, but also the most erratically decided issue when such disputes arrive at council.

The question is whether property owners can depend on set zoning to protect their interests from inappropriate development.

However, that is countered by a property owner’s right to manage and develop their own property in their own best interest.

It’s a tricky balance to achieve, certainly, and issues are rarely resolved to everyone’s satisfaction.

However, council appears to impose consistency in community planning by inconsistently applying rules they themselves set.

What measure of reassurance does that give residents or the development community?

Let’s sidestep the myriad issues introduced in the Parkview controversy — including theories the congregation infighting and sales figures of the city’s land department.

The basic proposal was to develop four single-family homes across the street from seven existing single-family homes, which face a beautiful church, its parking lot and a scenic bluff.

There are some technical issues, such as on-street parking, cited by councillors in their decision making, but a main factor appears to be well-organized community opposition.

A handful of recent zoning decisions show varying amounts of weight given to neighbour concerns.

A Southwest Hill resident was recently told that living two blocks away from a proposed law-office meant she had no vested interest.

In 2014, another law firm sought to convert a historic home on First Street south. There was strong opposition from neighbours, though the Chamber of Commerce and several residents of Crescent Heights sent letters of support.

Council eventually decided it didn’t have enough guidance in existing plans to deny the application and approved it.

Unity Lutheran’s plan didn’t contravene the bylaw, was recommended by planning staff and forwarded though the municipal planning commission, which is decidedly pro-development.

At council, it fell with several council members saying they consistently side with majority of neighbourhood input from whatever area is being discussed.

Properly informing neighbours and answering questions is a reasonable expectation, and there is no indication rules were not followed. Critical, it seems, in gaining some measure of support.

Yet, it’s very difficult to see a nefarious end game here from the church, such as the possibility of stacked duplexes, as suggested loudly by one neighbour.

It’s much easier to believe that 50-x-150-ft. parcels in a desirable neighbourhood like Parkview would have led to higher end development.

That sort of construction has been called for by both city politicians and their critics for years.

Zoning can be filled with unique circumstance, nuanced arguments, and site specific requirements.

However, imagine the reaction if any business owner in this city was told construction must halt because a view would be impaired?

The issue should leave all residents, including those in Parkview, wondering exactly how development decisions are made in this town?

(Collin Gallant is a News reporter. To comment on this and other editorials, go to http://www.medicinehatnews.com/opinions.)

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