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Council delegates subdivision authority to staff

“This is information that Joe public does not know and will have to go to university to generally understand. I’ve honestly always wondered why we were in charge of that. I’ve done my best to read, to understand it, but at the same time, I’m not an engineer. I’m not an urban planner or a subdivision specialist. … I think this is actually best in the hands of those that are skilled in this language and this work.”
20210514 Spring Creek Construction 0071
A construction worker works on the foundation for the Jack Pine Lodge building in Spring Creek on Friday (May 14). EVAN BUHLER RMO PHOTO

CANMORE – Canmore’s subdivision authority will soon have a different look.

Town council approved the authority, which is rarely used and reviews the technical aspects of subdivision applications, to be completed by specialized staff such as engineers and planners.

But while handing over the reins of the authority to subject experts on staff, it still allows council to regain a seat and continues to have Town staff follow the policy direction of council.

“They require a solid understanding of the engineering design and construction guidelines of our bylaws and procedures,” said Whitney Smithers, the Town’s general manager of infrastructure. “There are a couple of issues in that it puts council in a challenging position since they’re being required to make decisions on technical matters that they may or may not have a depth of understanding and experience with.

“In doing so, it also adds time to the subdivision process because to get to the point where administration or planning or engineering or public works are satisfied, all their concerns have been addressed. It could add a couple of months to that timeline process without a commiserate value add in any material changes that were being made.”

Town staff consulted with Bow Valley Builders and Developers Association and similar sized communities to Canmore have senior municipal staff hold the authority role.

The subdivision authority has a primary and secondary authority. The primary was five members of council deciding on applications involving a dedication of municipal reserve land, school reserve parcel or a public road right-of-way. The secondary authority is comprised of Town staff.

A staff report stated the use of the primary authority has been problematic, primarily because of the technical nature of the reports mostly needing significant subject expertise.

It also highlighted that by going the primary subdivision authority route it adds further time – as much as two months – for applications for the proponent and staff, leading to requests for time extensions.

“It doesn’t become obsolete, it rests with those professionals in engineering and planning,” Coun. Joanna McCallum said.

“This is information that Joe public does not know and will have to go to university to generally understand. I’ve honestly always wondered why we were in charge of that. I’ve done my best to read, to understand it, but at the same time, I’m not an engineer. I’m not an urban planner or a subdivision specialist. … I think this is actually best in the hands of those that are skilled in this language and this work.”

The authority only has two to three meetings a year, with the last one held on Oct. 4 and 5 to decide The Gateway commercial property. The agenda and subsequent documents totalled about 1,150 pages of undermining and mining impact reports.

“I’m not going to be able to decide if they’re right or wrong because I don’t have the technical expertise in those specific areas, so it would go back to admins recommendations,” Coun. Jeff Hilstad said. “This, to me, is instead of adding an extra process letting admin do what they need to do. They’re the subject matter experts. We set the policy with whatever planning document brought that forward and that’s where we get to play in the sandbox.”

If an issue needs resolving between Town staff and the proponent in the authority, it is generally fixed since it typically deals with engineering specifications. However, if it wasn’t resolved it would lead to Town staff rejecting the application, leaving the option of appealing to the Subdivision and Development Appeal Board.

Coun. Tanya Foubert brought up concerns of delegating authority, specifically bringing up phasing with Silvertip residential and commercial projects that ultimately led Stone Creek Properties – the developer – to appeal the decision in the courts.

“There are clearly people who are more qualified to judge slopes and road engineering designs, but sometimes in these applications we encounter political issues,” she said. “How do we navigate that as the elected officials when we delegate our power?”

Smithers said council can address phasing while approving policy such as an area structure plan, with the subdivision phase not being part of the policy.

“The phasing is in that area structure plan. … It’s in the policy, so we would work with the applicant to achieve that policy,” Town CAO Lisa de Soto said. “The politics should not get to the subdivision stage.”

Mayor Sean Krausert said council can dictate in the setting of policy, while delegating the subdivision authority to staff would increase efficiency and help both planning and development of projects.

“Once the policy is set, the policy is set, and it becomes too much about who’s bringing applications and why. That should be removed from the process.”