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Canmore Planning Commission could face potential changes

A proposed change to alter Canmore’s planning commission could be coming for the second time in less than a year.

CANMORE – A proposed change to alter Canmore’s planning commission could be coming for the second time in less than a year.

Town staff are proposing changes to the authority of the council-appointed commission that would decide the applications available for the Canmore Planning Commission (CPC) to rule on.

A public hearing will take place Sept. 5 after council gave first reading at its Tuesday (Aug. 15) meeting.

The staff report stated it would provide clarity on the development permit applications that would be heard by the planning commission.

“In the absence of some overarching guidance, none of the CPC stakeholders can determine what applications will come forward to them. This is feedback we’ve received from previous CPC members, creating confusion and frustration for all involved,” said Lauren Miller, the Town’s manager of planning and development.

“It’s about establishing the process that best addresses the needs of our community, while being mindful of internal capabilities and constraints.”

While many of the proposed changes are minor, CPC would be limited to applications it could hear to those asking for variances to the community architectural urban design standards, proposed variances between 11 and 20 per cent that aren’t specified in a district and applications asking to amend previous CPC decisions.

The planning department would have discretion to consider a minor amendment – which isn’t defined but would automatically return to CPC – and applications could be passed along by the development officer if they believe it has a lack of policy direction and questions of interpretation for an approved statutory document.

“Determining the appropriate development authority for different types of development permit applications requires a balance between public participation and efficiency in processing times,” stated the staff report. “The Canmore Planning Commission provides a valuable decision-making process that allows for input and participation within a public forum."

Coun. Tanya Foubert brought up the possibility of having planning commission make recommendations for council to resolve potential patterns in policy gaps or where clarity may be needed.

Banff’s Municipal Planning Commission often provides a decision or recommendation for council consideration, but will push the issue forward if it feels more interpretation and council direction is needed.

“I’m definitely interested in potentially something being added around matters going to CPC for interpretation and clarity around policies that could help CPC understand then what it does with that,” Foubert said. “For example, not just making a decision on the matter in front of them, but what is their role in helping resolve the lack of clarity or interpretation.”

Miller said decisions of CPC will assist in planning department’s housekeeping amendments that are brought to council once or twice a year, but it could also mean planning can bring forward policy amendments but is dependent on the policy.

The report noted applications heard by planning commission are typically referred by the Town’s planning department on a “case-by-case basis” but are usually for medium and large-scale commercial projects.

A June 2 letter from Bow Valley Builders and Developers Association (BOWDA) executive director Ian O’Donnell outlined they were supportive of efforts to reduce application processing times such as if the application is for a permitted use, the application is consistent with recent approvals, a “comprehensive and contemporary ASP (area structure plan) or ARP (area redevelopment plan) provides clear direction” and if a minor change is requested that 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 planning 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 Subdivision Development Appeal Board, the need for a development liaison position not being needed but applicants could hire consultants to help and not see 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 going to planning commission – as it does in Banff – but provided the option of disbanding the planning commission.

While not providing a recommendation on maintaining or disbanding the commission, it emphasized Town staff’s ability to process applications can be extended when a decision is needed from CPC.

“It seems to me it’s going in the direction of more certainty as to what goes to CPC and I think that’s a positive,” said Mayor Sean Krausert.

In September, 2022, council approved to amend 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’s 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.

The previous changes came at the same time council voted to remove the 25-year old 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, council delegated the Subdivision Authority to staff.

Since May 2022, planning commission has met five times and heard seven applications.

Of those, the commission approved five of Town staff’s recommendations. However, they ultimately went against Town staff in regard to the original proposed employee housing development at 121 Bow Meadows Crescent in May 2022. They subsequently approved changes to the original development, which was also against Town staff recommendation.

Town staff have made recommendations to council to make potential amendments to the land use bylaw and Municipal Development Plan (MDP) to “discourage the provision of employee housing in industrial districts.”

The issue was meant to be discussed by council at its June meeting, but was postponed to July. It was further postponed to its September meeting when all seven councillors are on hand.

While the matter has been looked at as a yes or no, the alternative motion debated by council would only have directed Town staff to return with information on potential amendments to the MDP and land use bylaw to permit employee housing in industrial areas.

Any decision by council and passing of first reading will lead to a public hearing.

The Subdivision Authority, Development Authority and Municipal Planning Commission Establishment bylaw outlines council, planning commission and the CAO as the development authority. The CAO can delegate the authority to Town staff.

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