Calgary city councillors approved one of the first in a series of controversial land use changes that will open southeast riverside land to housing development.
A series of land use changes were recommended for approval in the Ricardo Ranch Area Structure Plan, one of the final hurdles before development can begin. This has been a contentious issue since the ecologically sensitive areas were allowed for development in July 2022. Shortly after the issues were raised, developers defended the work that was done.
The changes, which were covered in 12 pages of environmental and other conditions, were approved 11-2 in Tuesday’s Public Hearing meeting of Calgary city council. Couns. Kourtney Penner and Courtney Walcott were opposed.
Ward 12 Coun. Evan Spencer, whose area covers the upcoming development, said that midstream changes to a development plan approved several years ago wouldn’t be working in good faith with industry partners.
“I think ultimately what’s before us today is predicated on the sandbox that past councils have created,” Coun. Spencer said.
“There’s probably more that we can do in the future. But I do think there are pretty massive implications about making a big pivot in the middle at this stage on the planning continuum.”
He said the specific Logan Landing plan was a good one given where they’re at in this stage of the process.
“For us to change the rules right now would have massive implications and trade-offs down the road that may actually work against some of the outcomes that the environmental advocacy community is pushing for,” Spencer said.
Ward 12 Coun. Kourtney Penner said the City’s open spaces guidelines are 20 years old and undergoing a revamp. She respects her colleague’s perspective that we can’t change the rules part way through – but she disagreed.
“That is actually the prerogative of council that we can stand up for the things that we believe in and put those things forward,” she said.
Public response to proposed changes
Several members of the public spoke during the public hearing. There were also 52 written public submissions included in the public hearing agenda package.
Most of the speakers represented groups that formed a coalition and penned a recent op-ed for LWC’s Perspectives section. They asked Calgary city council to start walking the talk on its climate commitments.
Nathaniel Schmidt has been outspoken on the issue since last summer. He raised Ricardo Ranch into the public eye a year ago. In council on Tuesday, Schmidt took issue with the characterization of theirs being “no growth, emotional, philosophical arguments” to the plan.
He said they’re not opposed to the plan overall, just the parts that inch as close as possible to environmental setbacks. Further, by approving it intact, he said the city isn’t acting like there’s a climate emergency (which they declared in 2021).
“I firmly believe throughout this process that I’ve been reasonable, and I have been open to collaboration with everybody involved, and that what these 12 conservation groups full of experts, full of people who care deeply about the city who have put in the time to preserve what little we have left is not emotional, it is practical,” Schmidt said.
“It is a recognition of the reality that is before us today.”
Most of the speakers urged Calgary city council to pause the plan for further ecological review – particularly for setbacks around a blue heron rookery and a bank swallow population. They also expressed concern about the natural wetlands and the carbon sink the area provides, plus general building along the escarpment.
Schmidt said that if council does approve the plan, there has to be accountability for the environmental actions prescribed in the area structure plan.
“Weaselhead, Nose Hill, Griffith Woods, they’re all suffering there. With the exception of the Weaselhead, the (other) two of them are not really that biologically rich anymore because of all of the things we’ve let lapse over the years,” Schmidt said.
“We have to ensure that doesn’t happen here.”
Public engagement helped shape the plan: Consultant
Kathy Oberg, managing partner with B & A Planning Group, said that they’ve engaged the advocacy group wanting more stringent environmental protections. They met with Schmidt one-on-one, plus they held virtual sessions that 58 people attended and were later viewed by another 320 people.
“Everything from concerns around flooding questions, around setbacks – the heron rookery was definitely top of mind as well as the bank swallow,” Oberg said.
“We had our technical team and we tried to be as transparent as possible with the information that we had. So, we shared that.”
Oberg said through the conversations with the environmental groups, they discovered a handful of other ideas they could potentially implement. One of those was a dark sky policy, she said. They’re open to more.
“I’d like to put that out kind of formally to say we’re definitely interested if there are groups that would love to give us some feedback,” she said.
In debate, Coun. Penner said that there’s been extensive due diligence in this plan. There’s a great mix of housing. The problem lies in that the city hasn’t changed its parks and open spaces policy since 1984. That’s created much of the environmental conflict and this kind of development wasn’t contemplated 40 years ago.
“We, as a city, have failed this area. It’s not because of anything that the developers are doing,” she said.
In his close, Coun. Spencer said that he believes this development matter has sparked a better conversation on the city and its relationship with the land.
“I hope this unlocks a conversation about a restorative relationship with our natural assets in the city,” he said.
“I hope to be sitting at a table with members of our citizen advocacy group here in town. I hope that administration is hearing this loud and clear and is excited for the challenge ahead.”