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R-C What? Establishing the value of public hearings for Calgary planning decisions

The call for further public engagement on certain aspects of Calgary’s housing and affordability task force recommendations was a common theme during the debate on the issue at Calgary city council.

The Housing and Affordability Task Force (HATF) report had 33 recommendations to be implemented in various stages, requiring multiple approvals from council – whether through bylaw change or budget decision.

Two primary issues emerged that many Calgary councillors felt needed to have another level of citizen feedback: Citywide rezoning to R-CG, plus the removal of parking minimums on future developments.

Initially, the item, heard at the June 7 regular meeting of Calgary city council, was defeated by a vote of 7 to 8. 

The following day, during a continuation of the prior day’s meeting, Coun. Richard Pootmans shepherded a reconsideration vote and then a set of alternate recommendations that ensconced further engagement on the primary friction points while allowing other points – most supported by a majority of councillors – to sail through.

Those recommendations passed nearly unanimously.

In those recommendations, it directed administration to bring forward specific actions that required further consideration and deliberation through committee to Council – which, in essence, means they are subject to public submissions.

A point of confusion for councillors was the process behind the original recommendations: Would there have been public engagement on it anyway? The simple answer is yes.

Ward 1 Coun. Sonya Sharp said she was concerned because the “blanket rezoning” was for administration to act on immediately.  Ward 11 Coun. Kourtney Penner said it didn’t change the land use immediately – it would have to go through the land-use bylaw renewal.

The City clarified on Friday the original proposed process.

Approval of the original recommendations would have sent the HATF recommendations back to admin for implementation – particularly on the R-CG rezoning. It would have come back to council for a public hearing and then council would have made a decision.

So, the public hearing process so vehemently sought was already a part of the process to begin with.

Clear as mud?

The desire for further public engagement

Ward 10 Councillor Andre Chabot (Ward 13’s Dan McLean in the background) during budget deliberations in Council Chambers on Tuesday, November 22, 2022. ARYN TOOMBS / FOR LIVEWIRE CALGARY

The public hearing process on residential planning matters in Calgary is often a predictable, if not rote exercise.  It is, however, required under provincial law to have public hearings on land-use matters.

Ward 10 Coun. Andre Chabot said, in this case, when you’re looking at upzoning an entire city the public has a right to be heard.

“It would be a great opportunity to, I guess, hear what the majority think as opposed to what some members of council think is the vocal minority,” he told LiveWire Calgary.

He said several members of council are under the illusion that everyone is OK with the density increase everywhere in the city.

“I think there’s going to be… an awakening as far as what the general public actually do want,” Chabot said.

He expects the submissions to be in the thousands for a future public hearing on the matter. (Aside from in-person speaking, email and other submissions are also entered into the record.)

Public engagement has been done on the housing and affordability file.

LWC asked the City of Calgary to define the public engagement that went into the Housing and Affordability Task force (both active and passive inputs) to derive the recommendations.

First, the City pointed to the 2023 Spring Survey results that showed 73 per cent of Calgarians would like to see the City of Calgary “invest more” in affordable housing. This was a survey, conducted by Ipsos Public Affairs from March 2 to March 26, 2023, of 2,502 Calgarians via landline and cell phone to obtain a random and statistically representative sample of Calgarians.

There were 5,200+ HATF web page visits from August 2022 to June 2023, including 1,800 after the recommendations were first made public.  There were 32 letters received, 17 public portal responses, 14 emails received, and 44 people engaged through the Council’s Board, Committees and Commissions.

There were also four media requests filled, 10 public members that served on the task force, along with 18 panel presenters to the task force that “live, work, study across the housing continuum.”

The City also said that thousands of citizens and stakeholders have been engaged as a part of the Westbrook and Heritage Communities Local Area Plans.

The evolution of public engagement

UCalgary political scientist Jack Lucas said the history of public engagement in municipal government is rooted in the urban reform movement of the 1960s and 70s.

“This is the era of Jane Jacobs stopping the expressway, the era of halting the construction of highways through historic neighborhoods, all of that stuff comes out of that period of urban reform,” Lucas said.

“That was a movement for democratic responsiveness and citizen engagement in how our cities look and feel and the kinds of services that are available in our cities.”

There have been lessons since then, Lucas said. First, there’s limited appetite for engagement in all manner of municipal policies. Trying to create community councils, feedback sessions or local advisory boards can be fruitless because they lack real authority, he said.

Lucas said more recently, backed by research on municipal engagement, that “the people who are able to or who are interested in participating in these activities are not particularly representative of the wider community, in many cases.”

Housing issues are particularly tricky, too, Lucas said. That’s because you’re not only making policy that impacts the people in that community but also those who may make that community their future home.

“That means that there’s going to be people who have the opportunity to move into a community who otherwise wouldn’t,” he said.

“Those people often are not involved in a community engagement process.”

Calgary’s public hearing process, though limited, has evolved. During Covid, they adapted to allow phone/online participation for public hearing presentations. This is something they’ve kept post-pandemic.  They also allow electronic submissions.

Still, there’s been much debate over the representation in local planning and development matters, due to it often being exclusive to those who can spend the time to attend, while not representing those who can’t.

To that end, Lucas suggested that, in the end, you elect city councillors to make a decision they feel represent the interests of their entire communities.

Process, process, process

R-C1 Zoning in Calgary (typically for single-detached dwellings)
Current R-CG zoning in Calgary, allowing single-detached dwellings, but mostly for row houses, townhouses, duplexes and the like – all with allowable secondary suites.

EDITOR’S NOTE: In Calgary’s new communities, there is an R-G land use, which is the new community version of R-CG. It looks like this. This wasn’t included in the original version of the story, but for clarity, it has been added to show greater density allowed in new communities.

Calgary’s residential planning public hearings are often – but not always – a binary discussion: Density versus preservation of single-detached dwellings, often accented by a desire to maintain a neighbourhood’s character.

To understand the implications of the proposed R-CG (Residential – Grade-Oriented Infill District) land use, LWC has included the city definition.

 “R-CG is a residential designation that is primarily for rowhouses but also allows for single detached, side-by-side and duplex homes that may include a secondary suite.”

Currently, any property that undergoes a land-use redesignation (from one type to another) requires an application that is heard during a provincially required, municipally-held public hearing.

The proposed HATF change to citywide R-CG would eliminate that step and presumably would allow a proposed development to go direct to a development permit application. The public is allowed to offer comments, but there’s no public hearing. (Developers are asked if they’ve conducted public engagement, but the quality of it varies from application to application.)

Single-detached dwellings are still allowed in R-CG zoning. They can still be built in R-CG (if a permit is approved.)

Meanwhile, virtually any residential property in the city can already be up-zoned through a land-use redesignation application. That requires a public hearing. Due to overarching city policy, and those established in a growing number of local area plans, these applications are nearly unilaterally recommended for approval by city administration or planning commission.

Nearly all are approved by council.   

(Of note, city council approved, in the same week, a revised suburban growth plan that eliminated the need for new greenfield growth development proposals to initially come to council for approval. They would be admin recommended based on a defined criterion before eventually being sent to council as a part of budget approvals.)

Rounding back to the desire for feedback on R-CG

Most of the councillors voting against the initial HATF recommendations cited the need for further public engagement as a big reason.

Even the mover of the alternate recommendations, Coun. Pootmans, said he was disappointed with the way the discussion unfurled on Tuesday.

“I went home thinking that I want the changes to baseline district, for example, to have a full public hearing, to have a full public consultation,” he said.

“We’re going to get that with the recommendations that are coming our way through to the Community Development Committee in meeting in September.”

Highly communicated public hearings have generated a significant amount of attention in Calgary in recent years. Many have to do with planning.

It’s often led to the mobilization of various different citizen-led, ground-level campaigns to provide perspectives on the issue. With this comes the use of select and often incomplete information and buzz phrases meant to sway opinions.

Frequently, you hear the same citizen voices in public hearings. It’s equally frequent to hear the same messages.

A March 2022 research paper by the British Columbia Law Institute cited the arguments against over-valuing the public hearing process. Of note, the paper indicated there is “little to no commentary making the case for the current legislative requirements for public hearings, in BC or elsewhere.”

A paper published in the US also looked at who participates in local government. (Full paper at the bottom of the story.)

“A wide body of scholarship in American politics suggests that more socioeconomically advantaged individuals are more likely to participate and to have their voices amplified in key policy discussions,” the paper reads.

It goes on to say that it favours the elderly, who have the time and resources to that allow for political involvement.

Measuring and weighing public attitudes

Lucas said that there are ways of measuring public attitudes that are more reflective and representative of the public and ways that aren’t. He said the task force report is of higher quality because there was work to consult more widely.

“If somebody asked me to go collect information on Calgarians’ attitudes about housing affordability, that was broadly representative of the community’s preferences in general, I certainly wouldn’t want to go have a meeting with 30 people who opted into showing up at a community hall,” he said.

“Having more broad-based kind of consult consultation, like the task force pursuit, is a good thing.”

Thinking harder about the inputs being representative of the preferences and interests of the wider community is much needed, Lucas said. He said there are ways to weigh the different inputs as well.

“It just means that we need to think about the representativeness of what we’re hearing because often it can be the case that what we’re hearing is a highly motivated minority,” he said.

“It could be that this is quite unrepresentative of the wider community and there are well-established practices for thinking about those things that really could be incorporated into community engagement.”

It shouldn’t be about the critical mass of interactions, or the number of events either, Lucas said. It says very little about whether it reflects the broad diversity of preferences in a community.

He said don’t discredit that work, but quality matters.

“I think that really does need to be a priority for how we think about community engagement, in all areas going forward, and particularly in the highly-charged, very difficult area of housing,” he said.

Who Participates in Local G… by Darren Krause