Apartment approval could become the ‘thin edge of the wedge’


I’m writing to draw attention to a couple of potentially disturbing concerns that have emerged affecting land use planning in Campbell River.

These issues have been raised by WestUrban Developments’ applications to the city for approval of its plans to build a four-story tall, 60-unit apartment block on a lot at the southwest corner of 3rd Avenue and the Island Highway, opposite the Anchor Inn. The applications are first, to amend the Official Community Plan (“OCP”), and second, to rezone the subject lot.

By way of background, the Official Community Plan (“OCP”) is the result of an extensive consultation and envisioning process, updated less than four years ago. It sets out the city’s overall vision, objectives and policies governing a broad range of matters affecting the city’s future development, including all land development. In it, the city is divided into different land development areas. The lot in question and its neighbouring lots lie on the height of land overlooking the Passage, running contiguously from Simms Road to at least 6th Avenue that is usually referred to as the “ridge.” The OCP designates these lots to be in a “Controlled Development Area,” called “Neighbourhood.” For the Neighbourhood Areas, the OCP sets out policies that heavily discourage apartment blocks, particularly of the size and density planned by WestUrban.

There are different areas in which apartment blocks are at least not so discouraged. One of those areas identified in the OCP is called “Waterfront.” WestUrban’s first application to the city, therefore, is to have the OCP changed so that its designation of the lot would be “Waterfront.” But it is not clear what justification is advanced for this change. It is not alleged that there is a mistake or other error in the OCP’s current designation of the lot. There is no unintended consequence caused by the “Neighbourhood” designation of the lot. None of these lots are on the actual waterfront. The result would be anomalous: this one lot redesignated “Waterfront,” in which apartment blocks are not discouraged, located in the midst of a “Neighbourhood” area in which apartment blocks are heavily discouraged.

WestUrban’s second application is to have the lot rezoned from its current zoning classification of Single Family Residential (R-1) to a new zone that would permit apartment blocks. The Zoning Bylaw provides four of these zones, allowing increasing levels of density: Residential Multiple, RM-1 to RM-4. However, an apartment building containing 60 units would not be permitted even in the most dense RM-4 zone due to density restrictions given the smaller size, one-third of a hectare, of the lot. Moreover, building height restrictions for RM zones in the Zoning Bylaw, to comply with the OCP’s policies against disruption of view corridors, would prohibit an apartment building four stories tall on the lot.

So, WestUrban has applied for the lot to be rezoned to a special, one-off zone called “Comprehensive Development” (CD). This type of zone is one that is tailor-made for larger, complex and diverse developments that are not contemplated in the Zoning Bylaw. For example, the Jubilee Heights subdivision development near the intersection of Dogwood and the Jubilee Parkway has CD Zone 1, drafted specifically for it. The Campbell River Golf Course up on Peterson Road has CD Zone 3, again drafted specifically for it. WestUrban’s plans, on the other hand, are for just an apartment block, no different from any other apartment block in town, none of which, with one exception, have applied for, nor been granted, a CD zone. Since each CD zone is different, we do not know what this zone would contain. It is not at all clear what justifies a rezone to CD for the lot.

To be clear, neither of these applications have been approved by the city. Whether or not they will be, the forgoing analysis raises questions about this combination of the OCP amendment and grant of a CD zone. It is precisely these questions that constitute the concerns referred to earlier. They are as follows:

One, the OCP states that in the absence of significant changing community circumstances, “…all bylaws enacted… after the adoption of an OCP must be consistent with the Plan…” An OCP amendment is best characterized as rectifying an unintended and unforeseen consequence of its broad brush, in order to conform to the OCP’s vision and policies. It should not be approved without a focus on preserving the spirit of the land development vision in the OCP, rather than altering that vision. In my view, where there is nothing in the OCP that needs to be rectified, a requested amendment which would then change, rather than amend, the OCP should not be approved.

Two, the grant of a CD zone for developments that are in no way “comprehensive” would set a dangerous precedent. The use of this special zone should be reserved for genuinely comprehensive developments. To grant a CD zone for any development for which one of the authorized zones is already available risks degrading not only the CD zone’s purpose, but also that of the authorized zones.

As an illustration of the possible effect of these concerns, in this case, WestUrban’s applications, if approved, could arguably become the proverbial “thin edge of the wedge” of similar applications for similar special treatment of properties in the area of the ridge which applications would be harder to deny. This projected result illustrates the type of change to the OCP’s vision that I have argued should not take place by amendment application.

This is not to say that the OCP cannot be changed, but that any such change should not take place without an appropriate, and thorough level of public consultation and envisioning, rather than being a by-product of a set of development approval applications. Apart from anything else, approval of a process potentially leading to a change of that dimension should not even be contemplated in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, during which public participation has been sharply curtailed.

Michael Claire

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