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Bring back a planning commission?

Local leaders weigh in on the merits of a planning body providing public voice

By: Stu Salkeld

  |  Posted: Saturday, Feb 08, 2014 06:00 am

DEVELOPMENT IDEA – Some people in St. Albert would like to see a return of a planning commission that would provide council with advice on planning and development issues.
DEVELOPMENT IDEA – Some people in St. Albert would like to see a return of a planning commission that would provide council with advice on planning and development issues.
STU SALKELD/St. Albert Gazette

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MPCs around the province

MPCs come in different shapes and sizes. Under the Municipal Government Act, MPCs can serve as a subdivision authority or a development authority.
According to a Municipal Affairs document on the legislative framework for regional and municipal planning, subdivision and development control, many municipalities opt to have staff deal with simple and straightforward development permit issues but refer discretionary items to an MPC.
Other municipalities of city size embrace the MPC, but critics claim those cities are all in southern Alberta, and that they’re all emulating Calgary.

• City of Red Deer
The purpose of the Municipal Planning Commission is to act as the subdivision authority for the City of Red Deer, and as the development authority in all matters assigned to it under the land use bylaw, by council, or referred to it by the development officer.

• City of Lethbridge The mandate of the Municipal Planning Commission is to advise and decide on land use, planning, development and subdivision issues. They act as the principal advisory committee of city council for planning matters.

• City of Medicine Hat
The Municipal Planning Commission acts as the principal advisory body to council in matters relating to land use planning (presently under review).

The issue of a school being developed on Eldorado Park in Erin Ridge continues to percolate in the community, including a contentious council meeting in January when the province unexpectedly announced the footprint of the facility was increased to 3.5 from 2.99 acres.

Erin Ridge residents have been outspoken in their opposition to the development of a school on that site; they claim the site is too small. They also charge that the public has been excluded from the entire site selection process. A rezoning detail angered residents after city staff described it as “minor,” and judged that it did not require a new hearing.

City councillor Cam MacKay stated during the Jan. 27 council meeting that an MPC, or municipal planning commission, should return to the City of St. Albert as a guaranteed way for the public to be included in important development decisions. St. Albert did away with its MPC in 2008.

Several local leaders were contacted to gauge their support for an MPC. MacKay was contacted for comment, but declined to be interviewed.

Mayor Nolan Crouse

Crouse reiterated that he hasn’t been convinced an MPC will solve any issues the city is facing.

Crouse said there is no clear definition of what problem requires an MPC. Also, he pointed out most MPCs are “a southern Alberta” thing. He’s also unconvinced the development industry would embrace an MPC in St. Albert.

“We’re not getting anything from our development industry that there should be a planning commission,” said Crouse.

Murray Lambert

Lambert is a spokesperson for many Erin Ridge residents unhappy with the way the school site issue has unfolded. He said an MPC is a good idea.

“We’re absolutely in favour,” said Lambert on Jan. 29. “We would support that hook, line and sinker.”

Lambert said the school site selection committee that selected Eldorado Park was comprised of politicians or administrators, with no input from the public. He said city council should have the final say on school sites in St. Albert.

Lambert said any MPC in St. Albert would have to have some teeth, but not be knee-jerk reaction.

“It’s got to be thought out carefully,” said Lambert. “But it should still go to council for the final say.”

Lambert said elected councillors should take responsibility for decisions, rather than giving staff the authority to make them.

Ken Allred

Former city councillor and MLA Ken Allred said MPCs can be useful for their openness.

“In general, I think the MPC is a good institution,” he stated in an e-mail.

“When I was on council back in the ’80s and ’90s we had an MPC composed of three elected officials, three senior department heads (one may have been the city manager) and one public member. Meetings were open to the public.

I don't recall if we received delegations but the applicant was allowed to make a presentation and respond to questions and concerns. I think the MPC had decision-making authority on some issues that did not require a public hearing or decision of council.”

He wasn’t sure about the MPC preventing the kind of problems that happened at city council Jan. 27.

“Well I don't know if an MPC would have prevented it but it would have got it out in the public eye at an earlier date before it became too political,” he stated.

“There would however be a chance that if it had come before MPC and MPC approved it, or recommended approval to council, that it would then be very political and could pit the elected officials against the appointed members, with the public member holding the balance of power.”

Bob Russell

Former city councillor Bob Russell said the MPC can serve an important role in the community.

“Somehow, I would think that the Erin Ridge school issue would not have become the mess it seems to be in now if the matter had gone to MPC,” said Russell in an email.

“I am in favour of bringing back the MPC. It is a less formal process than having applicants appear before council and allows more communication.

“I compare the MPC to some extent to a pre-trial conference which is chaired by a judge who sits ungowned at the head of a conference table where questions are raised, issues clarified and, in the case of an MPC meeting, staff can attend at the table or side table and be available to respond informally which allows them to explain issues, regulations and ultimately save time.

“I have appeared before Sturgeon County MPC and it seems to work well.

“Developers like meeting directly with council and skipping the MPC step because they can lobby council ahead of the meeting.”

Russell said some municipalities seem to have MPCs but don’t call them that name.

“Edmonton got rid of their MPC but immediately established a similar structure that supposedly deals with design but having appeared in front of that group, I found that it functions just like a MPC.

“They demand traffic reports, parking, design and footprint of the structure (all the issues that MPC deals with.) Development staff attend and while the city originally restricted this committee to design issues, it wasn’t long before it started functioning just like an MPC.”


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