A law that will allow developers to go over municipalities’ heads if land-use applications are rejected is one step closer to reality after it passed the committee stage on April 19.
Bill 37, the Planning Amendment and City of Winnipeg Charter Amendment Act, would give the Municipal Board (a provincially appointed tribunal) jurisdiction to hear appeals of land-use decisions made by municipal governments or planning regions.
Landowners and developers can also appeal to the board if the local government doesn’t deal with their application in a timely fashion.
The law would also form the Winnipeg metropolitan area, including surrounding municipalities, into a single “Capital Planning Region” to co-ordinate development and infrastructure across that area.
The bill has drawn criticism from the Association of Manitoba Municipalities, municipal leaders and opposition politicians for potentially stifling local governments’ authority.
Earlier this year, then-minister of municipal relations Rochelle Squires told AMM the bill would modernize a broken planning framework that is costing the province millions in lost revenue.
AMM president Kam Blight presented to the provincial standing committee on social and economic development on April 19.
He told the committee AMM was worried about the bill and said “giving the Municipal Board the power to override local decisions undermines the authority and autonomy of municipal officials.”
Blight said he was concerned landowners would fast-track appeals without sufficient grounds so they could circumvent local authorities.
In presentations, other municipal leaders expressed concerns that lengthy appeals would drain municipal resources and tie staff up in study and preparations.
Absorption into a planning region would force communities to forgo their own visions for growth, RM of Headingley mayor John Mauseth said.
“Our community is very engaged,” Mauseth said, adding that in each election a key concern is a vision for the future and development control.
The changes are coming with very little public awareness, Mauseth said. Headingley council members have spoken to residents who were not aware of Bill 37, and once aware, were against the proposed changes.
“The feedback has been that the lack of consultation from the government appears deliberate to avoid public scrutiny and to take advantage of the pandemic crisis,” he said.
“Do not underestimate the impact of the land-use decisions being made by the municipal board that are not supported by the local council or community,” Mauseth said. “The board’s decisions will be seen as the provincial government’s responsibility and interference with local decision-making.”
AMM and municipal leaders acknowledged that Bill 37 had been improved from its original iteration — it was first proposed as Bill 48 in the previous session of the legislature.
Blight said AMM was pleased to have been consulted more on Bill 37, though only after it was introduced in the legislature. AMM was part of a working group on the bill.
“Prior to introduction of this legislation, we saw very little in the way of input from participants who would understand first-hand how it would play out in local communities,” he said. “So, if it seems like the AMM is making last-minute proposals to improve this legislation it’s because we are trying to make up for lost time.”
AMM asked the province for six changes to the bill, including requiring appellants to state a reason for their appeal; limiting permissible grounds for appeals; limiting the scope of appeal decisions so the municipal board doesn’t, in effect, write its own laws; further reduction of appeal timelines and more accountability measures for the board in case of backlogs.
Right direction, say developers
Developers commended the bill for allowing greater equity and transparency.
As developers they’ve had “hair-raising experiences,” said Alan Borger, president of Ladco Company Limited. These couldn’t be defended as due diligence or defence against bad proposals, he said, and it would have been nice to have an avenue of review.
Developers want to be treated fairly and with respect, said Mark Olson, president and CEO of Landstar Development Corporation.
Olson said his company has been embroiled in attempts to build a multi-family dwelling and surface parking lot since 2016. The municipality (which he didn’t name) dragged its heels on approving their application despite it not requiring a variance.
During that time, the RM passed a bylaw that required them to re-jig parking plans, he said. They’ve yet to get a written approval on the development, he said.
“The current system leaves no right to seek fairness,” he said. “Bill 37 is a great step in the right direction.”
Borger told the committee that regional planning would drive logical, efficient and competitive real estate and would optimize the use of infrastructure. Manitoba can’t leave things as they are with inefficient exurban sprawl, he said. Doing so will drive up the cost of real estate and the cost of doing business.
Developers also expressed concerns about the bill. Michael Carruthers, also from Ladco, said he was concerned that municipalities would drag out the “pre-application” process. Local officials might ask for more studies or prolonged consultation before accepting a developer’s application, he said.
Only once the application is accepted would the clock start ticking on the municipal government’s deadline to approve or decline it.
Developers asked the committee to define a complete application.
NDP municipal relations and infrastructure critic Matt Wiebe called the bill “half-baked” and said that if nearly every presenter to the committee could find fault with it, the province should take it back to the drawing board.
The committee passed the bill with a few minor amendments, including shortening the deadline in which an appeal can be filled. Municipal relations minister Derek Johnson cited AMM’s concerns as the reason for shortening timelines.
Johnson indicated that other issues may be dealt with in regulations related to the legislation.
Once a bill has passed the committee stage, it is reported to the legislature where it may be amended further. Only once it has passed its third reading and royal ascent does it become law.