CANMORE – Canmore’s elected officials have changed the makeup of the municipality’s planning commission.
At a council meeting on Sept. 6, council passed three readings on a 6-1 vote to amend a bylaw that establishes the Canmore Planning Commission’s (CPC) membership and eligibility to include a member of administration sitting as the chairperson.
The CPC will be now chaired by the general manager of municipal infrastructure, who will vote only in the case of a tie. It will also include two community members with planning or development-related credentials, up to two public members at large and two council members.
While in favour of more development expertise on the commission, Councillor Tanya Foubert voiced opposition to a member of administration sitting on the CPC, and particularly in the role of chair.
“My concern is related to procedural fairness, when I feel that administration’s place and the planning department’s place at the commission is an advisory capacity, not a decision-making role,” she said.
“Sometimes at planning commission what is in front of you is a disagreement between the planning department and the applicant, and if a member of administration were to have the deciding vote, I see that being in favour of administration’s position and I have concerns around that.”
Up until now, the commission included a minimum of five and a maximum of seven voting members. One was a member of council and the others were public members. Eligibility requirements were restricted to age, residence in Canmore, and term limits.
Under the new changes, a non-binding nomination from the Bow Valley Developers Association (BOWDA) also would be solicited for one of the community positions requiring planning or development related credentials.
Administration made the recommendations to council to change the composition of the membership on the grounds it would ensure matters before the commission benefit from a review of a broad cross-section of professional and community interests.
In addition, Town administrators say that BOWDA has regularly raised issues with the current composition of the CPP as being problematic because of the lack of expertise.
They say not requiring subject matter expertise for any members of CPC was increasingly becoming a challenge, noting the commission handles some of the largest applications in the community as well as those where significant variances from rules of the Land Use Bylaw are proposed.
“What we’ve found over recent years, really, is that the types of applications that go to planning commission tend to be pretty significant in the community in terms of their scale and impact on the community,” said Whitney Smithers, the general manager of municipal infrastructure for the Town of Canmore.
“It increasingly can present some challenges to planning commission members who don’t necessarily have the subject matter expertise to consider variances being requested or just know the questions to ask on the impact these projects could have in the community.”
As for the chair being an administrative position, Smithers said the idea would be to ensure that the topics being discussed stay on the path of planning merit.
“I think sometimes when there are members of planning commission with more of a general community lens, the line between an actual planning merit that should influence a decision and what might not be a planning merit gets a bit blurred,” she said.
Councillor Joanna McCallum voiced support for the changes, noting she has a lot of faith in the manager of municipal infrastructure as the chair, given her extensive governance experience in previous positions outside the Town of Canmore.
“If we’re able to trust the rest of the makeup to be able to put their planning commission hat on, we should be able to trust this particular manager’s role as well,” she said.
“This is our bylaw. We bring this back and we can change it if it isn’t working, but I think we need to give it time to see it how it flushes out.”
Coun. Foubert made it clear that her opposition was not directed at any one particular individual, but was more about her lack of support for an administrative position on the commission, in particular as chair.
“I think for the last 20 years we’ve seen lots of significant scale and important applications and we’ve had many people who have held the chair position and done the job well,” she said.
Coun. Jeff Mah was the only councillor to initially support Foubert’s move against having a member of administration on the commission, but in the end supported the bylaw changes overall.
Mayor Sean Krausert voiced support for administration’s recommendations.
“I believe these are really good changes to refine the planning commission makeup and it’s the right time to bring it forward given the organizational meeting that’s coming forward,” he said.
Administration conducted an informal review of the composition of planning commissions in 11 other similar-sized municipalities. Neighbouring Banff, which has a municipal planning commission but is a smaller municipality, was not part of the review.
Only four of the municipalities that were reviewed – Brooks, Cochrane, Okotoks and Sylvan Lake – have planning commissions, while the rest relied on professional expertise of municipal staff as the development authority.
Town of Canmore administrators say there is still value to the voice of community citizens on some development applications, but on the other hand, applications for appointment to the commission have declined over the past few years.
They say if this trend continues, administration will likely revisit this position.
“I would also say I think that’s a bigger discussion,” said Smithers.
“The step from having a planning commission to not having one is a bigger one… we need to get more voices at the table for a change of that nature.”