CANMORE – Canmore’s planning commission will see additional changes for the second time in the past 12 months – with more potentially on the way.
On Sept. 5, council approved changes to the authority that Canmore Planning Commission (CPC) is permitted to decide upon, including variances to the community architectural urban design standards, proposed variances between 11 and 20 per cent that aren’t specified in a direct control district and applications to amend previous CPC decisions.
If there’s a lack of policy direction and questions of interpretation for an approved statutory document, Town staff could also pass the proposed development to CPC.
“If we’re not able to come to a mutual agreement with the applicant, the CPC membership allows us to have a more robust conversation because there’s architects, there’s planners, there’s developers who are on the board and can help assist in that decision-making process,” said Lauren Miller, the Town’s manager of planning and development.
Mayor Sean Krausert got unanimous support from his council colleagues to have Town staff return before June 2024 with options to potentially remove council and planning commission as the development authority from certain direct control districts, with the intent of having staff decide on more minor proposals.
Krausert said the intent is to remove minor development proposals such as decks from CPC's and council’s purview in an effort to streamline direct control districts.
“Some of these direct control districts are quite historical and naming council as the development authority may not have been current practice,” he said. “It may be something else. It’s an opportunity to take a look at that."
The motion directs staff to look at all 39 direct control districts, which have a mixture of development authority between Town staff, council and the planning commission.
Coun. Tanya Foubert, one of council’s two representatives on the commission, brought forward a motion to remove a Town staff member as the chair of the commission. However, she withdrew the motion and suggested the possibility of having it return as a notice of motion to give council more time to consider the topic.
Returning to having a non-staff member as chair would clear up potential conflicts of interest in having the staff member in charge of planning potentially voting on an issue, she said.
“I believe in terms of good governance and roles and responsibilities that a member of administration in the chair role creates a conflict of interest because members of administration presenting to the commission are within that person’s department at the Town of Canmore,” she said.
Foubert said she believed a council member on CPC should also be unable to be chair or vice-chair due to the council member having dual roles.
“This is very much related to governance principles I’ve been studying. I’m currently the vice-chair and I’ve been doing a lot of reading on roles and responsibilities of elected officials and there is a concept we should not as elected officials be wearing two hats,” Foubert said.
“When we sit on boards and committees, it’s not appropriate for us to be chairs or vice chairs, unless the committee is entirely made up of elected representatives, one of us has to be the chair and vice chair.”
Coun. Jeff Hilstad, the other council member on CPC, said he hadn’t heard concerns and believed it was possible for an elected official to have separate roles outside of council.
“I’ve always thought you could wear two hats. I’ve had times when I was on CCH (Canmore Community Housing) where I voted in favour of something at CCH and it came to council and I voted against, so to me it’s how you come at it,” he said.
“I always come at committees that I’m here as a committee member and I’m doing what’s in the best interest of the committee and I go back to council I’m back in my council role and I’m doing what’s in the best interest of the community interest, which may not align with what the committee’s interest is.”
Krausert echoed Hilstad's points, but said he understood the “perception of bias” is real and gave the example of council members being on Assessment Review Board and determining an appeal for property taxes.
Foubert said this is where it becomes a governance issue.
"I think we’ve heard the recommendation from admin to change it to what it is now,” Foubert said. “I think through a notice of motion, it could be directing admin to come back with a report, so both sides of the argument could be represented.”
In September 2022, council amended the CPC to include a Town staff member acting as the chair.
The Town’s general manager of municipal infrastructure would act as the chair or appoint someone if they were unavailable. The chair would only vote if there was a split vote.
However, with the general manager of municipal infrastructure supervising the planning department that makes recommendations to the commission, it left questions of procedural fairness if the chair ever voted.
The changes also led to two community members with planning or development-related backgrounds, two public members at large and two council members making up the commission.
The previous setup for CPC had one council member and the remainder were public members.
BOWDA would be asked to fill one of the community positions that require planning or development-related experience.
The previous changes came at the same time council voted to remove the 25-year longstanding Environmental Advisory Review Committee (EARC). Neither EARC or CPC were told or asked about the changes, but CPC and BOWDA were informed this summer by Town staff of the upcoming proposal.
In 2021, the Subdivision Authority was delegated authority to staff.
A June 2 letter from Bow Valley Builders and Developers Association (BOWDA) executive director Ian O’Donnell outlined that the organization was supportive of efforts to reduce application processing times, for example a permitted use, or the application is consistent with recent approvals, a “comprehensive and contemporary ASP or ARP provides clear direction” and if a minor change is requested that the planning department can approve.
However, the letter noted a development liaison position could help applicants with issues, if an application is in an older area of Canmore without an ASP or ARP potentially using CPC to decide when there’s disagreements between the planning department and an applicant and that “there is some desire to better understand administration’s perspective if the applicant actually desires to go to CPC for various reasons.”
A July 14 response from Miller disagreed with recent approvals leading to a similar application avoiding CPC due to the uniqueness of each application, relying solely on ASP and ARP for guidance not being sufficient enough and likely sending more applications to CPC as well as applications for areas without an ASP or ARP likely going to CPC and potentially increasing development delays.
The letter also noted any deviations from ASPs and ARPs will “simply be refused” but an appeal can go to SDAB, the need for a development liaison position not being needed but that applicants could hire consultants to help and not seeing a reason to use CPC when disagreements take place between the Town and applicants.
“It is the Town’s responsibility to establish and identify the appropriate decision-making body for specific development applications. It would not be transparent, consistent or predictable to have such decisions affected by applicant preference,” stated the letter.
Town staff recommended against maintaining the status quo and having all discretionary uses go to the planning commission – as it does in Banff – but provided the option of disbanding the planning commission.
Though a specific recommendation on possibly disbanding the commission wasn’t given, it emphasized Town staff’s ability to process applications can be extended when a decision is needed from CPC.
Foubert said she appreciated staff bringing information on other municipalities and whether they have a planning commission, but she saw “value in the Canmore Planning Commission in the future.”