Manitoba’s municipalities are calling for the province to stop undermining their authority.
Delegates passed two resolutions calling for changes to a provincial bill which they fear will reduce municipal governments’ power over their constituencies during the Association of Manitoba Municipalities virtual AGM on November 23.
“(Bill 37) allows applicants to challenge the decisions… that duly elected municipal councils make in the interests of their communities,” reads one resolution, sponsored by 10 municipalities including the RM of Springfield, the City of Selkirk, and the Town of Altona.
“The process for challenging these decisions turns the final decision over to the Municipal Board that is not accountable to the citizens of the impacted community,” they wrote.
Why it matters: The province says Bill 37 will save valuable time on land development, but municipal leaders fear it will strip their authority.
Bill 37, introduced in the prior sitting of the Legislature as Bill 48, would amend the Planning Act to establish widespread rights for developers to appeal to the Municipal Board, an independent provincial tribunal.
Developers and landowners can appeal if a municipal council rejects their application, imposes conditions they deem unfair, or if the council is too slow to hold a hearing on their conditional use permit.
The bill would also expand the province’s ability to form municipalities into planning regions.
The first resolution calls on AMM to lobby the province to remove the appeals process from the bill and “replace them with measures that enhance accountability for land-use decisions” while keeping the authority over land use with the local council and planning districts.
It also resolves to lobby to remove the uniform setting of timelines for land-use planning processes and replace them with clauses that allow municipalities to set their own timelines in keeping with their abilities (i.e. a small, remote council may have less capacity for speedy approval than an urban centre).
The second resolution states the bill doesn’t allow municipal governments to decide if they will be included in a planning region, despite the planning region having “significant impacts on municipal governance and operations” including land expropriation, regulation of water, and emergency services.
AMM resolves to lobby the province to amend the bill to ensure that impacted municipal governments must give formal approval before being included in planning regions, and to include mechanisms to ensure planning regions are accountable to member municipalities.
AMM will also call for the province to remove the power of expropriation from planning regions.
Because of the AGM’s virtual format, AMM delegates voted on resolutions via an online portal and were required to submit objections or comments on the resolutions before the AGM.
No objections or comments on the two resolutions were received, an AMM spokesperson told the Co-operator. Both bills passed with few opposing votes.
Municipal Relations Minister Rochelle Squires defended Bill 37 in a Q-and-A session with delegates.
In a submitted question, the RM of Springfield asked Squires a series of questions around the bill, including, “Why is the province planning to remove the legal right of municipalities to control land use?”
Squires said Manitoba’s planning framework “needs some upgrades to say the least.”
The changes “will ensure that municipal governments make timely and transparent decisions on private capital investment opportunities in their community,” she said.
Squires told delegates that Manitoba’s broken planning framework was costing the province and municipal governments $2 million per day in lost revenue.
A provincial spokesperson told the Co-operator the figure comes from a May 2019 report from the provincial Treasury Board Secretariat which concluded, “For every day we can reduce unnecessary permitting delays” the provincial GDP would grow by $17 million, municipal tax base revenues would grow by $400,000 and provincial tax revenues would grow by $1.7.
“We know of projects that have been stalled for years (not days), as well as projects that have never come,” the report says.
Squires emphasized that the proposed changes to the Planning Act would bring Manitoba into line with other provinces, which have adopted independent tribunals to ensure a “consistent and accountable” decision-making process.
“All planning appeals will be evidence based which will benefit all parties including municipalities,” she said.
Earlier this year, Manitoba saw the first appeal of this kind. Since 2018, quarries and large livestock operations had the right to appeal if a municipal government rejected their request for a conditional use.
The Municipal Board ruled in favour of Lilyfield Quarry Inc., owned by Colleen Munro, after the RM of Rosser rejected multiple applications to build a quarry on a piece of farmland a few miles off the Perimeter Highway.
Residents around the site strongly opposed the quarry and fought for over a decade to bar its construction.
Following the ruling, Rosser residents and provincial Liberal Leader Dougald Lamont accused the province of stacking the Municipal Board with party supporters in order to ram through its agenda.
Two out of three Municipal Board members who ruled on the quarry decision have ties to the Progressive Conservative party.
NDP Leader Wab Kinew called the decision a “canary in the coal mine” for what communities could face in the future and drew attention to then Bill 48 during an interview with the Co-operator.
The revised Bill 37, which came before the legislature at the beginning of November, is an improvement on Bill 48, AMM said in a Nov. 2 news release.
“While the government’s new Bill 37 hasn’t amended the old Bill 48 to address all of our concerns, in most cases where it has not, the province has acknowledged problems must be addressed in regulation,” said outgoing AMM president Ralph Groening.
Groening noted that the potential remained for expanded Municipal Board appeals to override elected local officials.
He added that a requirement for the minister of municipal relations to consult with municipalities before establishing future planning regions “substantially addresses” municipal concerns about ‘amalgamation-lite’ scenarios.
Squires told delegates Bill 37 will likely see its second reading and committee hearings in spring.