Enhancing Established Community Development: SDAB Reform

As discussed last week, one of the City of Calgary’s current Municipal Development Plan goals is to encourage future growth via redevelopment within in established neighbourhoods. With Calgary’s population expected to grow by 363,000 people by 2039, the City has set a goal of 33% of new growth should be in existing neighbourhoods (i.e. 192,000 more people or about 80,000 new homes).  The other 67% would be new housing development at the edge of the City, like Brookfield Residential’s SETON (southeast) and Livingston (northern).

The new established community growth will come in various forms from new master planned urban villages like West Campus, West District and Currie Barracks to the redevelopment of golf courses like Harvest Hills and Shawnee Slopes, to new infills single and duplex homes and smaller condo projects in communities from Sandstone to Altadore. 

  Older homes making way for new homes is healthy for established communities. Communities need to evolve is they are going to attract families.

Older homes making way for new homes is healthy for established communities. Communities need to evolve is they are going to attract families.

As stated last week, the difficulty in diversifying the housing stock of inner city communities is getting City approval for multi-family projects large and small. Why? Because, there is always a few individuals who don’t want the increased density and are prepared to fight any new development all the way to the Subdivision and Development Appeal Board.   I will try not to bore you with all of the details of the role of the quasi-judicial Subdivision and Development Appeal Board (SDAB) made up of members of the public appointed by Council.  

SDAB 101

The City of Calgary’s web site saysThe SDAB makes decisions in an impartial manner and applies the principles of natural justice and procedural fairness, which includes but is not limited to: the right to a public hearing; a duty to be fair; the right for all affected parties to be heard; the right to an adjournment if the SDAB determines it is merited; and the right to legal counsel.”

The SDAB has begun holding procedural hearings prior to the actual hearing date. The purpose, as I understand, is for the appellant and the applicant to put on the table their respective positions so that at the hearing, everyone can be prepared to speak to each other’s arguments. This is a good step if it eliminates lengthy adjournments. However, it does not preclude at the actual hearing of ‘hangers on’ (people who might be affected by a project but didn’t bother to appeal or respond to any prior circulation) from coming out of the woodwork and presenting information that is uniformed and/or not relevant at the actual hearing.

For example, a neighbour appealed a project on the basis of a desire for a parking relaxation. At the prehearing, both sides presented their arguments and then went away to prepare for the actual hearing. Then at the hearing, other individuals (who did not file an appeal) turned up and were allowed to speak and brought up new issues that were not even contemplated by the original appeal. The SDAB even allowed comments from a neighbour who lived almost a full block away from the site. The net result: the developer had to make several last minute changes, which in turn was passed on to the new homeowners.

I even heard about one person who appealed a project on Elbow Drive on the basis it would negatively impact his drive to work.  Seriously! We need to streamline SDAB’s procedures to be fair to the developer and the community while keeping in mind citywide benefits.

I understand that a 50+ page SDAB decision is not uncommon and there has even been a case of a single-family home appeal that resulted in a 125-page decision.   Appeals are no longer between citizens and developers but both sides are bringing their lawyers into the debate. I have heard it referred to as “lawyering-up!”

  Brookfield Residential's Altadore 36 is a good example of how 6 older single family homes can be transformed into 62 townhouse and penthouse flat homes, while retaining an attractive streetscape. 

Brookfield Residential's Altadore 36 is a good example of how 6 older single family homes can be transformed into 62 townhouse and penthouse flat homes, while retaining an attractive streetscape. 

Need for Reform

While there has been some reform of the subdivision and development appeal process over the past few years, there is room clearly for more improvement.

There may be some hope in sight! City Council has appointed all the members of the current SDAB for only one year – common sign change is on the horizon. Some members have been on the Board for over 10 years, which is not right, there should be maximum of six years.

In March 2012, Councillor Farrell attempted to initiate a motion to find efficiencies in the appeal process with respect to:

  Back lane housing over the garage is becoming more popular in communities like West Hillhurst.

Back lane housing over the garage is becoming more popular in communities like West Hillhurst.

  • Hearing process and timelines
  • Validity of an appeal
  • Appeal fee and structure
  • Feasibility of a fee refund for successful applicant

 Unfortunately, an internal review resulted in only a few minor changes. What I believe is needed is an external review, identifying the “best practices” for subdivision and development appeals in other municipalities. 

 I also think Council needs to better communicate to members of the SDAB the City’s goals and objects with respect to development. SDAB must make decisions, which are consistent with the goals of the City’s current Municipal Development Plan.

Last Word

Reforming SDAB’s structure and systems to allow an effective appeal process for both the developer and the public is a win-win situation the City could complete in in 2015.  Now, that would look good on their year-end report card.

By Richard White, January 31, 2015 (an edited version of this blog appeared in the Calgary Herald's New Condo section on January 31, 2015 with the title "Development Appeals Need Reform." 

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