July 16th, 2024

Zoning flexibility would get us off the planning merry-go-round

By Medicine Hat News Opinon on August 10, 2017.

A tiny spot on Allowance Avenue gives a glaring example about how the public and official debate about zoning can go well off the rails.

It also shows how “plans” put forward by the city’s planning department are not only misunderstood, but are a too-easy target.

Council this week heard an application to rezone the parcel in the South Flats neighbourhood to allow a home extension.

It shouldn’t be that complicated, any reasonable person would say, but that same person should listen to the explanation.

Well, in 2011 the street was denoted as a neighbourhood commercial zone in the River Flats Redevelopment Plan. The plan as a whole suggests a future for the aging and in some cases rapidly deteriorating community, involving new growth, certain protections, infill housing and small businesses.

And though scoffed at in some circles as pie in the sky, it’s worked to a degree. If not for the 2013 flood putting a halt to a localized boom, it would be more advanced.

However, some parts are obviously moving slowly, and other parts create hiccups for existing residents.

On the block in question on Allowance Avenue, the existing homes are grandfathered, but the new use is commercial. That puts the plans to renovate and expand in a sort of catch-22.

To break the loop, the planning department suggested a one-off change for the lot back to a residential zone.

City councillors however took the opportunity to wonder at length:

Why can’t the whole street be done at once?

Why was it done in the first place?

What were planners thinking?

In the end the change went ahead, but not after a tutorial in zoning. (This is nearly four years into the current term, remember.)

An alternate view is that the issue is more about how zoning is viewed by residents, property owners as well as politicians.

Part of the problem here is the term “plan” — the definition of which is different in the mind of the public and bureaucrats. People hear it and think of it as a course of action, tangible steps that will occur on a schedule or at least in order.

Area redevelopment plans, like those in River Flats, Herald Area and soon to be introduced for Riverside, change zoning but based on a picture of what could happen in a community in the coming decades and lay down rules to mold it in that direction.

The plan, however, has no deadlines, and the marketplace decides when building will take place, not planners with bulldozers at the ready.

Development commissioner Stan Schwartzenberger hit the nail on the head Tuesday when he told council that transitioning neighbourhoods is “messy” and happening bit by bit in changing communities when conditions are right.

“It doesn’t happen in one fell swoop,” he said.

And in case you felt there is no plan behind the plan: The current philosophy is to buffer single-family housing from major roads or commercial zones with multi-family housing (think strip mall to apartments to homes block by block).

There is also a premium placed on density, and for good reason. The more people who use existing services (i.e. water lines, sewers, roads and bus routes) cuts down the cost to all.

That’s the “plan” anyway, though any number of efforts in this regard have been backtracked by council at the behest of citizens who regularly object to the idea of any changes to their neighbourhoods.

The easiest, albeit wordy, solution would be to include some flexibility in zoning either to allow repair for structures in relation to their original use.

It’s simple and doesn’t require endless debate, and it would get us off the merry-go-round.

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

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