In my years observing what goes on at Victoria City hall, I’ve always tended to focus more on committee (e.g., Governance and Priorities, and Land Use and Planning as the main two) than Council meetings. I do this because a) in my experience Council is hard to follow and b) committee meetings are where the most substantive conversation occurs and decisions are made and later ratified at subsequent Council meetings.
So How Was Council on Feb 12?
On the issue of comprehension and accessibility of Council proceedings, I made sure to review the agenda beforehand so that I had a sense of what to expect. New Mayor Lisa Helps has also implemented some new practices since she was elected to aid in meeting comprehension. Video of the meeting is available here.
Main steps taken by Helps thus far seem to consist of her providing an introduction to each agenda section and also now requiring Victoria City Staff to provide a brief overview of each Public Hearing item – so that anyone watching the meeting has summarized at an abstract level just what it is that Council is “considering” during the Public Hearing.
Meeting Process Facilitation by Mayor Helps
Siting in the audience on Thursday, I found that Helps’s introductions to issues would have been more useful if as an audience member, you could actually see who was speaking. But you cannot because in the spirit of “equalitarianism” as an individual sitting beside me onThursday so dismissively put it, Helps does not sit in the traditional mayor’s chair. Instead, she sits in the same floor level horseshoe as everyone else because as she later tweeted at me, she doesn’t quite embrace the “pomp and circumstance” of the Mayor’s seat.
Public Hearings in Victoria
On the matter of staff presentations in advance of Public Hearings, I took a look at the Victoria Council Procedure bylaw to see what it says about Public Hearing procedures but was surprised to see it silent on such matters. If in fact you want to learn more about the actual procedural requirements and costs of bringing a development through to a public hearing, you have to view the Land Use Procedures Bylaw (09-048) and or the regular rezoning application application package or small lot house rezoning package as appropriate.
So why do I mention this?
I mention this because, if you look into either of these documents, you will quickly see that many steps and many reviews are built into the process so as to ensure that any developments that get approved are theoretically consistent with the standards established by the City Official Community Plan and Zoning Bylaw – two main foundational documents for ensuring that all new developments are consistent with the City vision for its future.
Some of the many steps included in these checks and balances – that must be met before a development can move forward to public hearing – include a requirement to notify neighbouring residents and host a meeting with the local Community Land Use Committee, various meetings with staff and then, conventionally it seems, more than one review by the Planning and Land Use Committee (e.g., Council with their land use hats on). All proposed developments are also required to have a large standard notice board placed on their property notifying all those who pass that a public hearing is coming up.
This is to suggest (emphasis mine) that by the time an item comes to Public Hearing, it should be very clear to Council and clear to the public what is being proposed, what the history of the item is (e.g., how many reviews has it already had by council), what the proposed item will look like, and most often, how the proposed item will be used.
This doesn’t seem to be the case in Victoria for various reasons. But one main place where they really fall down in this regard, is how they store all information and records related to any given proposed developed online. It you want to find associated Public Hearing items here in Victoria, you have to either dig through Council agendas or minutes and where a list of upcoming public hearings is available on the City of Victoria website, the pdfs that link off of that page do not provide any direct access to staff reports or design information. Nor is any general information about the Public Hearing process easily available.
If we look to our neighbours at Saanich, they have what seems to be a very simple and efficient system for managing public hearings. They post all relevant development materials by neighbourhood in what they call an Active Planning Application section and then when you click on a neighbourhood, you see applications listed by address, and within the section for each address you find a description of the proposal, relevant legal and contact information, and you also find proposal materials, meeting minutes, and staff reports hyperlinked.
Want to know the Victoria equivalent?
You have to first sign into a really clunky program called VicMap which is prone to crashing and then navigate through to the Planning and Development tag and then click on Development Applications. And when you do, this is what you get:
Have I mentioned that the District of Saanich also holds their Public Hearings on a separate day from Council, and notices and minutes of public hearings are compiled and presented separately. Sounds glorious doesn’t it!
Back to Observations on the Feb 12 Council Meeting
As mentioned above, a new initiative by Mayor Helps is to have planning staff attend Council meetings and at the start of each public hearing, provide Council with a brief summary of the proposed development and highlight exactly what features Council is supposed to consider. From a legal perspective, this is an important reminder as Part 26 – Planning and Land Use of the Local Government Act is quite specific about how each step of a land development should be considered, and just what is appropriate grounds for decision making. At Council on Thursday the following points were communicated by staff as context for each item:
- For the Jawl brothers development on Douglas, Council was to focus on the appropriateness of the newly proposed density for rezoning, the acceptability of the proposed amendment to the OCP (e.g., the adoption of the Downtown Core Area Plan for the site which btw has already been approved as a full document), the appropriateness of the newly proposed master development agreement, and finally as part of the Development Permit they were to consider the suitability of the building design, the building materials and finish, and the landscaping for the application.
- For the property at 2340 Richmond Avenue, Council was to focus on the suitability of the proposed additional uses, and the form and character of the building for the associated development permit requirements.
- For a development variance permit at 1637 Hollywood Crescent for a new single family dwelling that is larger than permitted by the existing zoning bylaw, staff reminded Council that the matter for consideration is the appropriateness of the additional floor area (e.g., addition to basement where the building meets the floor space maximum of the upper floors.
- For the Development variance permit for 605-607 Marifield, staff instructed Council to focus on the appropriateness of a proposed parking space in a front yard
So What Happened After This at The Hearings?
Council spoke at length of how the Jawl brothers development marks a new standard of development for downtown, they expressed concern about authorizing new uses at the Richmond site because it is not yet known how the site will be used, they took a really long time to understand what they were being asked for the Hollywood Crescent item, and they praised the Marifield developer for taking the time to upgrade the existing house and not just tear it down.
In short, they didn’t seem to be paying attention when staff spoke.
What Would I Like to See Instead?
Related to my immediate point above, I think it would be really great if Victoria development staff could focus on producing more accessible information related to prosed developments. But before they even work on establish a simple system like the one I described from Saanich above, they really need to focus on producing staff reports that are concise and easy to read.
If you take for instance this staff report that accompanied the Jawl brothers proposal, I bet that your eyes will glaze over soon after opening all 81 pages of staff recommendations, Council resolutions and legal jargon. Go on, I dare you!
What About the Rest of the Meeting
I’m afraid I don’t have much of a summary for the rest of the meeting. Council meetings are harder to tweet about than committee meetings and I must admit I was somewhat drowsy throughout most of it due to the five hours of GPC that occurred earlier that day. Looking forward, I’m going to be working on producing some schematics though for making it easier to track and summarize the histories of items that come before Council.
Happy Valentines Day!