CANMORE – A presentation on how the Town of Canmore’s planning department’s development application process has evolved in recent years became a discussion between council and Town staff on the roles each has in setting service levels.
The staff presentation, which came in the wake of a third-party commissioned report by the Bow Valley Builders and Developers Association (BOWDA) that showed lengthy wait times faced by industry, highlighted the extensive work undertaken by the planning department to update the process.
While the discussion ultimately touched on planning matters, the larger conversation was a back-and-forth on whether it was council or Town staff’s role to establish service levels.
Coun. Tanya Foubert raised the topic when broaching the statutory timelines set out by the Municipal Government Act (MGA), whether Town council would establish service delivery targets and estimated processing targets for development applications and approve those decisions that were expected to be set this year.
“I would like to follow up on this a little bit about whether we set service levels or not,” she said, noting she had not seen service level targets other than those outlined in the MGA.
“I feel the legislative level is clear and that’s a goal, and when it comes to our service level, we as an organization, want to meet in order to do that it takes council to approve. It can be implicit or explicit either through a policy or bylaw or through the budget or MDP.”
The Town’s manager of planning and development Lauren Miller said the intent would be to have that done at the administrative level as opposed to council directive, but council would ultimately determine the budget and therefore resources available.
Whitney Smithers, the Town’s general manager of municipal infrastructure, echoed Miller's comments in establishing the divide between administrative and council roles.
“Council’s role is ensuring we have the resources we need to process the applications,” she said. “Setting that standard is really more of an administrative standard in compliance with the MGA and also appreciating the varying levels of complexity of application types take and the related iterations they can sometimes bring with them such as supporting studies.”
Development permits are meant to be deemed complete after 20 days and a decision before the 40-day mark, according to the MGA, while subdivision is 20 days to be deemed completed and 60 days for a decision.
If a development permit or subdivision application aren’t completed in the set timeline, an extension is often agreed to but an applicant can go to Subdivision and Development Appeal Board. Building permits have no legislated statutory review time.
However, municipalities are able to set their own service review timelines that surpass the MGA.
Therese Rogers, the Town’s general manager of corporate services, said the Town is undergoing a service level review with the first phase establishing the services available and the second establishing the level of resources needed to decrease, maintain or increase service levels.
“Operationally, what we need to do to be able to address service levels like that across the organization, I think, is really an administrative kind of function,” she said, adding it would return to council during budget talks when existing service levels aren’t meeting goals or targets.
“That’s where council can really influence those kinds of service levels.”
The staff report emphasizes the planning and development department has looked to improve application processes at the same time as they faced staffing shortages, the COVID-19 pandemic and increases in development pressures.
In statistics in the staff report from 2015-22, there were 1,477 development permits issued, peaking in 2018. In the same period, there were 1,827 building permits provided with 2018 having the highest amount issued. In the same years, the full-time staff complement went from between 10-12 and contract positions were fewer than three.
The Town will typically have between 400-500 applications in its system, all in multiple different stages of review.
Among the changes were using more electronic processes, new software, FAQs to help applicants with applications, establishing user guides for common applications, creating and refining standard operating procedures, creating newsletters, adding staff and reporting monthly on response times and application timelines.
Later this year will see further software updates, digitizing subdivision files, new notice of application and decision signage, customer satisfaction surveys, potential changes to the type of applications that go to planning commission and having a fully online application portal for common applications that will allow real-time access to the status of a file.
With the 37 changes and the eight upcoming for this year, the report notes an application ultimately involves two groups – the Town and an applicant.
“While there are a number of factors (e.g., staff turnover and retention, changes to regulations) that can impact the review time of any application, incomplete applications remain the number one external impediment to expedient review times,” the report stated.
The report added the changes haven’t come without difficulties, especially because it is different than some applicants are used to.
“On the surface, change can feel like a reduction in service levels or performance as people work to adapt to new processes; however, familiarity or comfort with previous approaches or services is not reason enough to continue their practice, especially in instances where they lead to inefficiencies or bias, or leave the town more susceptible to risk. These changes are a result of the need for business transformation,” according to the report.
The BOWDA third-party report completed by Calgary-based Maven Strategy was originally done last August, then updated at the beginning of February. It used municipal benchmarking from other comparable communities such as Banff, Cochrane and Okotoks.
In five-member surveys done between 2018 and 2022, BOWDA members highlighted application timelines as the greatest concern.
The report commissioned by BOWDA recommended an internal third-party departmental review and continued constructive dialogue with the construction industry.
Ian O’Donnell, the executive director of BOWDA, said the hope is to not only see the Town meet the MGA timeline requirements but surpass them and “be leaders in their respective fields” as well as work with other municipalities to find additional areas for improvements.
“We appreciate the work that has been done to streamline processes, but have yet to see marked improvements vis-a-vis other comparable municipalities,” he said.
O’Donnell noted it was the hope council would have a key role in planning and development timelines.
“Predictability, transparency and consistency are fundamental to the industry, our members and those who work in the fields of building and development,” he said.
“We believe that council plays a role in ensuring that these targets are clear, shared publicly, that expectations are understood by all parties involved and that we are collectively working towards the most efficient process possible.”
The Town and BOWDA have worked together and continue to have an open dialogue in identifying areas of improvement for both sides.
Smithers and Miller each said the preference is when applicants reach out to politicians in regards to applications, it be redirected to them to assist in any challenges in the application process.
Miller noted the planning department will do pre-application meetings, and have a checklist to help and recommend people without planning experience hire professionals to aid the process.
“Ideally, those applicants are reaching out to the relevant departments directly, especially in the narrative of looking for efficiencies or efficiency,” Smithers said. “I don’t think setting up a meeting with the mayor to discuss a challenge on an application that then gets redirected back down to the department is a particularly effective way to problem-solve nor does it serve the goal of continuous improvement in the department.”
Though no decisions were made on whose role it is to set service levels, Mayor Sean Krausert noted the conversation was more active dialogue and set at budget.
“It’s a back and forth. There’s a recommendation that comes for this level. Does that satisfy us? If so, it’s going to cost this much and we approve it or not approve it. If it’s too expensive, we have to go one way or the other. We reduce the service level or increase the employees,” he said.