What are the real solutions to prevent urban sprawl?
We often salute the good work of Vancouver's media, and we'd like to commend The Province newspaper for its cover feature on the battle between sprawl development and farming in the Fraser Valley. Reporter Glenda Luymes has successfully captured the issue in her report, and goes on to elaborate on some of her findings on her "Valley Girls" Province blog.
One of the concerning matters Luymes mentions is the upcoming vote by the City of Richmond which will have consequences for the use of farmland within city boundaries.
Richmond council will vote in two weeks on whether to scrap a controversial bylaw amendment limiting houses and outbuildings on ALR land to the first 50 metres of the property fronting the street. Over the summer, the city’s planning committee heard from hundreds of homeowners who had narrow properties and wanted to build beyond the setback. The overwhelming response led the planning committee to vote to put the matter before council.
Last year on CityCaucus.com I wrote about the Castles of No. 6 Road, and the pressure to development agricultural land in east Richmond.
Luymes on her blog explores some options on how to mitigate or prevent the problem of residential develpments complaining about farming from occurring. Of course, the real solution is to not allow any housing development to happen in these areas. So how do you prevent that? Luymes says:
Government also needs to take a more active role in encouraging smart development (by creating better buffers between rural and urban land and ensuring people who choose to live on the ALR are aware it is a place for farming, not simply a site for an idyllic country estate).
Professor Christopher Leo from the University of Winnipeg has been on our CityCaucus.com links since we set that page up last year. Leo writes about how cities are ill-equipped to resist the temptations of development – the political influence and the easy-money. The professor has been developing a policy paper in response, which you can read about on his blog.
Vancouver has a somewhat unique model that might be copied more widely to prevent bad development. The Development Permit Board is that tool which helps Vancouver to succeed on this score. Here is how it works:
The Board comprises the Director of Development Services, who is Chair, the General Manager of Engineering Services, the Deputy City Manager and Director of Planning. The Chair does not vote except when Board members present at a meeting are equal for and against a question, in which case the Chair shall have the right to exercise the casting vote.
Each Board member, except for the Director of Development Services, has an alternate or alternates. If the Director of Development Services is unable to attend a Board meeting, she may appoint a Board member or any alternate of any Board member to act as Chair at that meeting on behalf, and in place, of the Director of Development Services.
The Board makes all decisions but is given advice in all deliberations by an Advisory Panel consisting of nine members appointed by City Council. Two members represent the development industry, two are from the design profession, one represents the Vancouver Heritage Commission and four represent the general public. As advisors to the Board, Panel members are polled for their opinions but do not vote.
The DPB advisory committee are non-voting members, and the ultimate decisions are made by staff and not elected officials. This is a critical difference. Keeping the final decision-making away from politicians, and leaving it to professionals on staff, while including the advice of the public through the advisory committee has worked well.
While no system is perfect, Vancouver's model has prevented more often than not the overriding influence of money and the development community. There are other aspects to the Vancouver system, such as the community visions, which help frame the higher goals of the community, and the existing zoning guidelines.
If such a system existed in places like Abbottsford or Chilliwack, would the community deliberately choose to threaten farmland? It's quite likely by taking these decisions out of the hands of those who cannot possibly be impartial, that you can reduce the likelihood of bad developments.
Sprawl is a cancer. It's estimated that in BC we're losing five square feet to greenfield development every second! Cities in Metro Vancouver are contributing to this problem by opting for short term financial gain over long term problems caused by this kind of development.
Thanks to the work of Professor Leo and The Province's good reporting, more of us are involved in the debate. But for the City of Richmond and other parts of the Fraser Valley, it will take motivated citizens to help prevent more bad decisions from happening.
- post by Mike