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A Better Community Plan

The draft Official Community Plan (or “OCP”) is a long and challenging document to read and understand. Quite frankly, it is so long that the vast majority of City residents will never read it. City Hall believes that residence are either supportive of the draft OCP, or in the alternative indifferent to its outcome. A working document like the OCP should be short, precise, effective and definitive. Above all, it should be easy to understand.

The Draft OCP in its current form is similar to an auction booklet at a Richie Brothers event. It tells you mostly how much densification is being proposed and where, and then immediately identifies various caveats which in essence say, “…but the sky’s the limit, bring your cheque book, everything is negotiable…”

Councillor Clark recently drew attention to this fact when he said that he would not support a density bonusing policy which allowed more than a “…25% increase above those values setout in the OCP…”. Meaning the FSR and height restriction values as setout in the OCP represent the “floor” of developmental opportunity, and the “…sky is the limit…”. We’re North Vancouver City, and we’re open for business !

I, like Councillor Clark, oppose a free reign over density bonusing, and I believe the OCP should draw hard lines and represent hard limits on design and densification in each area where residents want those limits. This in turn leads me to the crux of the problem with the OCP. The process demanded the addition of densification to the working maps employed by participants in the City’s OCP workshop processes. A refusal to place all the density on the working maps as desired by City staff was not an option. Therefore, it can honestly be said that the draft OCP reflects where engaged residents would put the density, if they had no alternative but to accept all the densification. On the other hand, the draft OCP does not consider whether the densification of North Vancouver City is desired by its residents, or in their best interests.

Further, the draft OCP, contrary to the wishes of councillors Haywood, Bookham and Bell, omits any analysis as to the financial sustainability of the City under the densification levels proposed. A direction set without a financial model allowing residents to fully understand the costs that the OCP’s proposed densification will cause, is tantamount to booking a holiday trip without a budget. It’s great to check into a $1,000 a day hotel room, and really comfy, but when it comes time to settle the bill, there is going to be trouble. Ratification of an OCP which puts City residents in financial trouble, or doesn’t know if it will, is a recipe for ruin. Accordingly, I do not support the new OCP or the process in its current form. I do not believe it was developed in an open and honest process. I do not believe City residents were presented with a full slate of options from which “THEY” could choose. On this point there are many examples of how and why the draft OCP, if implemented, will harm residents (http://stopocp.wordpress.com/) as the attached website and OCP opposition petition discloses (Change.org.).

                                  Metro Vancouver Regional Growth Strategy Projections                                                               City of North Vancouver                                                                         Year                                          2021                                        2031                                          2041

Dwellings                               25,600                                    28,000                                       30,200

Population                              56,000                                    62,000                                       68,000

*Quoted from North Vancouver City Voices

The OCP process, which currently focuses on densification and where to place it, unlike the previous OCP, does not disclose a target population or population cap.

In my opinion, this is wrong. The current population of the City is far ahead of Metro Vancouver’s growth strategy for the City, and there is no explanation as to what is creating the urgency for more City growth now.

The City’s current 2013 population of 51,870 people is certain to grow by another 9,960 based on 4,743 units already approved or under construction, but empty, each of which is able to house 2.1 persons (source census Canada).

These additional units bring the City’s current population housing capability to 61,830 people, with even more housing units being considered. We’re at 2031 population targets, 18 years ahead of plan, and we’re changing the OCP to add even more people, without a thought to motor vehicle traffic or parking implications, yet nearly every family has a car if not two. Our roadways are like parking lots 3 to 5 days a week, no matter which direction you’re heading. Both bridges are admitted by both Mayors (City and District) as being at maximum capacity, as are Lions Gate Hospital medical services.

Further, none of the population figures listed above include the new 260 West Esplanade Polygon Development, which was approved by City council on Monday April 14th 2014. The Polygon project will add over 200 new larger family units, and 45,000 sq/ft of additional commercial space, 15,000 of which is dedicated to non-profits. The current non-profit use of the 260 West Esplanade facility was identified by Polygon representatives as over 30,000 sq/ft, so it would appear that half of their number will not be able to return to the site. Additionally, the Harbourside Project proposed by Concert Properties was also approved during that same council meeting, adding over 800 residential units to the Harbourside waterfront, located just south of the Automall at the foot of Fell Avenue, as well as over 100,000 sq/ft of ground floor commercial space. These two projects alone will increase residential housing capacity within the City by more than 2,000 people, and add an estimated 4,500 people a day in new automobile traffic to the City’s Harbourside area, which only has safe access via the single Fell Avenue overpass, and has no Trans-Link bus service now, or for the foreseeable future.

The new OCP also imbeds the right to have a coach-house or laneway house, in addition to a basement suite, on each single-family residential (“RS-1”) lot. Potentially three families per lot!  This singular change could cause RS-1 property assessment values to increase by $150,000 to $250,000, resulting in a $650 to $1,000 annual municipal tax increase on some or all RS-1 home owners, whether they build a coach-house or not. As soon as a developer buys 3 or 4 homes in the area, knocks them down and builds out to the new OCP capacity, taxes in that area will go up by as much as 15% to reflect the change in revenue opportunity available from each lot, more if you live on a corner lot.

City staff has told residence that the OCP does not call for an FSR increase above the current 0.5 Floor Space Ration applicable to all RS-1 properties in the City, and this is true. However, what Staff does not draw attention to is the fact that a “cellar”, which is defined as a fully below ground basement, is exempt of the FSR calculation. If, for example, a house is 40′ x 40′ which many of the new homes being constructed are, with a full basement, then the full 1,600 sq/ft basement (or “cellar”) space area, which is legally a part of either the primary residents, or a stand-alone legal suit, that 1,600 sq/ft of house space will not reduce the allowable FSR on either the ground or second floor levels. In this design, the principle residents will be potentially huge, and still allow for a nice size coach-house to be built on the same lot, under the existing FSR limits. That said, you can always appear before council and ask for a variation, boosting the FSR above the base levels in the OCP.

For all the reasons stated above, I oppose these changes without first understanding and disclosing to every RS-1 home owner, what the effects of these changes will represent to their neighborhoods, their quality of life, and the resulting financial burden from City taxes and fees.

The City recently retained a development consultant who opined on the taxation impacts, based on some figures from high-end neighbourhoods in Vancouver City. The developer consultant stated that the addition of a coach-house, in his opinion, will result in a decline in property values for those who build such structures. They used Vancouver data to support this conclusion, which is not representative of the North Vancouver market. They used this data despite the fact that there have been 25 coach-houses built in the City since 2002, with 10 approved and built in 2013 alone, 7 in 2012, 5 in 2011, and only 1 in 2010. Prior to that, the only other coach-house built in the City was Mayor Mussatto’s own home at 935 St Andrews.

There is plenty of BC Assessment Authority tax data available for all the new coach-house units which have been built within the City of North Vancouver, as has been identified above. Having assembled that data, I can tell you that after a Coach-house is built in North Vancouver City, the municipal tax burden payable by the property owner jumps dramatically. It should also be noted that of the coach-houses built, 6 have been granted subdivision of the land. That means that in roughly 25% of the North Vancouver City applications, the coach-house structure has become a stand-alone property, independent from the primary residence, which is contrary to the assertions made by City staff in the Draft OCP and in the recent Town Hall meetings on this subject. 

City staff have disclosed, during the April 3rd 2014 Town Hall, that the City’s current push for densification is the result of directives issued by Metro Vancouver, commanding that we grow regionally in accordance with their Regional Growth Strategy. Langley Township recently opposed the directions issued by Metro and refused to follow those directives, choosing instead to follow their own community driven plans for the future. In answer to this independence, the Greater Vancouver Regional District (“GVRD”) sued Langley (Township). The matter was decided by the BCSC in favour of Langley Township. The case is indexed in the BCSC registry as Greater Vancouver (Regional District) v. Langley (Township) 2014 BCSC 414. A brief synopsis of the case and its outcome can be viewed by link to ( http://www.valkyrielaw.com/thelaw/?p=398 ). The importance of the decision is summarized in the following terms:

  • “In this case, the court appears to have made quite a clear pronouncement on the issue of jurisdiction over land use planning in municipalities, and limited the reach of regional districts beyond matters of truly a regional nature.  In the words of the judge’s decision:  [r]egional matters can only be those that require coordination or that affect more than one municipality.  [The Bylaw] is not regional in nature and thus it is exempt from GVRD scrutiny. However, as this decision is still subject to appeal, only time will tell if the GVRD accepts the decision and the seemingly long-term impacts on its jurisdiction over local planning within member municipalities.” 
  • (Valkyrie Law Group LLP.)

It is evident from this 2014 decision that an elected municipal council has the autonomous right to decide its growth strategies and growth rates independent of Metro, and can in the same manner as Langley (Township) say no to Metro when the Metro position conflicts with local objectives.

IT IS MY POSITION THAT the City should reset the OCP process, and compel staff to put before residents a series of “no-growth”, “limited-growth” and “controlled-growth” strategies and options, and let the City’s residents choose if and how they want the City to grow. The unlimited growth option is clearly represented by the draft OCP, and that option should also be compared to and tested in the consultation process. This additional investigation will ensure the options considered are not simply limited to placing density (all the density City staff demand be placed), on a map of the City. I believe the process should first consider whether the residents even want this densification, and if so how much. The need to make this determination is central to the entire OCP process. It is simply wrong to assume residence want this densification, and to deny them any alternative save and except where to locate it within the City’s boundaries. My positions in this regard are:

  1. I will support a decision compelling City staff to re-engage with City residence and the City’s business community, to investigate and determine their views on population growth and densification, including but not limited to “no-growth”, “limited-growth” and “controlled-growth”, in addition to the “unlimited growth” option represented by the current draft OCP; and
  2. I will support a process where City residents are able to establish their positions regarding a new target population and/or a population cap for the City, within identifiable time intervals; and
  3. I will support a process which compels the City to determine the financial impact and long-term sustainability of densification, by City precinct, for each densification option studied. In this way residents will understand how selection of one option versus another will directly impact the City and City residents through taxation; and
  4. I will support a process which compels the City to develop a detailed taxation impact model disclosing the likely effects on each RS-1 homeowner caused by imbedding a right to construct a lane-way or coach house, in addition to a legal suite, on each single family residential lot; and
  5. I will support a process where the OCP data is gathered door-to-door to capture the true position of the silent majority, ensuring the outcome does not simply reflect the desires of a vocal minority, City staff and/or developers; and
  6. I will not support an OCP process controlled by the development community. Developers must be given a voice and a clear opportunity for input, to test and ensure the viability of the OCP decisions under consideration. But developers and their desires should not control the outcome; and
  7. I will only support an OCP that has clear limits on densification. I will not support an OCP which has a “…the sky’s the limit, bring your cheque book…” option. There must be hard limits, and those limits should be based on the wishes and instructions of the City’s residents.

When I find myself in a position to effect these changes, the policies and principals setout above will guide my decisions.

What do you think?

What do you think about my position on A Better Community Plan?

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