Creeping Rezoning And Other Mysteries – Why Abbotsford Can’t Seem To Grow

By February 13, 2014Issues, Mike Archer

By Mike Archer. I’m continually struck by the fact that people refer to Abbotsford as a city of 140,000 people in a catchment area of 170,000 (which, for some reason, includes Mission)

It strikes me because this figure has been being used since the late 1990s and we still haven’t attained it. The 2011 census put Abbotsford’s population at 133,000.

Fact is – we haven’t been growing very fast or very much for years now.

Somebody should ask a developer or two why that is. (We did).

Anybody who has attended a City of Abbotsford council public hearing on zoning is familiar with the process. A proposal, which the developer has discussed with staff and politicians, is opened up for public commentary.

This is the opportunity given to neighbouring property owners, who will be affected by the proposal, to get in their two cents on the project before council goes away and votes on the proposal.

no trespassingEmpty Holes In The Ground

Setting aside the fact that the 2nd and 3rd reading are usually combined into one motion; thereby removing an entire opportunity for the community to have a say, and, setting aside the fact that the professionals in the development community, the city administration and some councillors are much more conversant with zoning rules and regulations than members of the public, there is precious little opportunity for individual property owners or members of the public to change the minds of the administration, the developers or the politicians.

One aspect of zoning changes with which most, if not all, municipal councils grapple is the concept of creeping zoning changes.

Every community has an Official Community Plan (OCP) which lays out, in broad terms, where the community is going to grow, how it is going to grow and what zoning rules apply to which neighbourhoods.

Why don’t developers, city staff and politicians simply follow the rules and regulations they themselves have set out and passed into law?

There are two answers:

building code1) A Good OCP
If a community has a good OCP it blends the need for general long term direction and the fluidity or elasticity to adapt to short term changes, market fluctuations and differences in community needs.

Simply put; a good OCP provides developers and citizens a general understanding of what the different geographical areas of the city are for and where the community sees future growth opportunities being directed. In broad terms … industry over here; residential over there; business over here.

As we all know, reality is much different than planning so a good OCP, and a smart city, will allow for changes based on new realities as they emerge. With proper, honest, open and effective community involvement this should be feasible without too much friction.

2) Politics
Without a good OCP, or if staff and politicians have a poor understanding of the value of an effective OCP, the door opens wide for political influence; decisions which may work well for developers but not for the community as a whole; decisions which are poor for the community based on the number of neighbourhood families who show up to a public hearing ..

In short; a bad OCP or a combination of staff and council ignorance can lead to a decision-making process which is ad hoc, where decisions are made on-the-fly and nobody has any clear idea how decisions are supposed to be made or on what basis.

Welcome to Abbotsford

And so, once a month, just prior to a City Council meeting, a Public Hearing is held into the requests of developers for the city politicians to break their own rules – with only a brief and fleeting moment for citizens to try and get their point of view across.

Unless the property owners are readers of the Abbotsford News or have a reason to go to the City website to find such notices, property owners often only find out about changes when a plywood sign goes up on a property in their neighbourhood or when one of their neighbours informs them of the proposal.

hands up meetingOn January 13th Abbotsford council chambers were packed with well over 150 people, there to discuss items included in that evenings’ public hearing.

Several members of the audience came to discuss the value of their property and how much it was likely to be negatively impacted if Council were to decide in favour of a new proposal by a developer which did not conform to the OCP.

An aspect of each and every objection by each and every group of neighbours who stood up to speak against proposed changes was the phenomenon of ‘creeping re-zoning.’

Every group brought up the fact that Abbotsford’s OCP seems to have little value if all council intends to do is approve exceptions. All of the objecting groups cited the fear that, if one property in their neighbourhood were allowed to have its zoning changed, the development community would seize on the opportunity to apply for more changes along the same lines, effectively changing the zoning for the entire neighbourhood.

It is a legitimate fear.

In a time of economic uncertainty, when homeowners have seen the value of their homes reduced and the real estate market slow, many will be tempted to recoup losses or get out from under mortgage situations they can no longer afford by selling to developers seeking properties ripe for rezoning.

Both developers and property owners will seize on any exceptions council makes to the OCP as having set a precedent. And, without proper direction from the administration or council, we have ended up with a city that is being built one week at a time according to the whims, wishes, and current beliefs of whomever has enough influence to push a decision through the system.

While council is justifiably desperate to show some signs of economic growth in our city, dropping our pants, bending the rules, offering rezoning or exceptions to the OCP, or allowing developers to take control of the planning process are all bad ideas if they are adopted out of desperation. Like much of what council has done over the last decade, these tactics may lead to short-term statistical jumps to be reported in the news – in short; the appearance of growth.

In reality they lead to a mess and bring the whole planning process into disrepute.

Where Did The Developers Go?

waiting roomThere was a time, back in the 1990s, when, in order to talk to someone in the planning department about a variance, you had to phone ahead and make an appointment.

Today, if you show up at 9:15am at City Hall you can hear the crickets chirping. There’s nobody there and they aren’t expecting anyone anytime soon.

Take a look at the Economic Indicators – Housing Starts, Building Permits, Capital Investment …

For a decade the most important measures of economic growth in our city have been tanking and, other than applying for raises – and getting them – none of our city staff seem to have a clue why no one is applying to build anything in Abbotsford.

Most of our politicians certainly haven’t a clue. Patricia Ross likes paving parkland, fighting for our air and attacking Oriental restaurants. John Smith likes building Friendship Gardens, empty hockey arenas, empty museums – anything that involves compound interest (paid to somebody else) and shows no visible return. Most of the rest of our councillors and mayors for the last decade have been so out of their depth when it comes to dealing with the business men and women who have been prepared to invest here that they have made terrible mistakes, emptied our treasury and committed their friends and neighbours to decades worth of debt with no visible return.

John Smith

John Smith

We have suffered under the rule of rank amateurs who would be lost even they were managing the affairs of the unincorporated settlement of Spuzzum.

Patricia Ross

Patricia Ross

But because no one (especially the media) is allowed criticizing the men and women who have, by whatever means necessary, elevated themselves to positions of authority in this community, some really incompetent people have been allowed to make a real mess of the City of Abbotsford, its finances and its future.

When developers are so confident of future rezoning that they will invest money and time in renovating an entire building, advertising it and accepting tenants before even applying for the appropriate rezoning, something has gone terribly wrong in the planning process.

Dave Loewen

Dave Loewen

When major Vancouver developers and others who like to make money steer clear of this City for fear of losing their shirts we have a bigger problem than our inability to produce and distribute glossy brochures to the right companies. Nor will glossy brochures help us when we can’t supply water or sewer to the developers who want to build.

Banman’s Economic Action Plan was written by the people who ruined the city and it rewards those determined have their own bank accounts fill up at the expense of those who might be able to provide real economic growth. Why our leaders continue to put their faith in the Chamber of Commerce or the Abbotsford Downtown Business Association, neither of which could successfully survive an actual influx of real businesses who know what they are doing, is a mystery to any of those who have watched this city’s fortunes sink like a stone over the last decade.

The businesses which hold sway over the councillors who have run this city for over a decade seem more interested in paying lower taxes, using taxpayer funds to increase their ability to make money, and have the City and its police force do their bidding.

Economic Action PlanMost of the people on Council have been there for at least two terms. Some for quite a bit longer. Surely, in all those years it could be expected that they would concentrate their efforts on fixing what is wrong and causing developers to avoid Abbotsford. Surely two or three terms in office is enough to figure out how to create a city which can attract developers without signing bad contracts, providing decades worth of tax breaks, or sneaking things into the OCP by the back door.

Why can’t our politicians build a city of which we can be rightfully proud instead of making excuses, putting out fires and perpetually giving deals or bending the rules just to help a few people make money?

Other cities have learned how to do this. Surely we can learn. Until we do we will continue driving by empty holes in the ground (like the one across the street from City Hall – or the one behind MLA Darryl Plecas’s shiny new office) and rezoning signs for projects that will never get off the ground.

We have the right people in our community who understand public affairs, development, and economic growth. What must we do to convince them to engage in public life and put this City back on its feet?

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