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Permitting timelines to be tied to affordable housing funding: Minister

“Money will flow based on municipalities getting projects built.”

BOW VALLEY – If municipalities are going to get provincial funding for affordable housing, permitting timelines need to improve, according to Alberta’s housing minister.

Jason Nixon, the Minister of Seniors, Community and Social Services, said money will flow when municipalities have development-related permits being issued as fast as possible.

“This is not unique to the Bow Valley corridor. This would be the same thing we would say to any other community, that not only will affordable housing money be tied to seeing projects get built and municipalities making sure they are not a roadblock to that, that other money in the future – including infrastructure – may be tied to the same,” he said Monday (June 1) after an event in Banff.

The carrot-and-stick approach has been a staple of Premier Danielle Smith’s government when it comes to funding. Several ministries have stated since the last provincial election, funding will be tied to specific metrics for municipalities to achieve.

When speaking at the Bow Valley Builders and Developers Association (BOWDA) luncheon in October, 2023, Smith said the province would be paying close attention to permitting timelines and push for municipalities to find efficiencies.

“We’ll be monitoring it and we’ll be measuring it and we’ll also be working with those municipalities that want to grow because we recognize as you grow, there’s growth pressures,” she said at the luncheon. “You need to upgrade roads, you need to upgrade interchanges, you need to build schools and so those municipalities that are willing to work with us to assist in bringing more people into their communities, we’re more than willing to help them support infrastructure development.”

It has also been a process used by the federal government, particularly when it comes to housing and having municipalities promote more density and loosening of restrictions when it comes to development.

As part of the latest provincial budget, the government earmarked $840 million to create 5,000 new affordable housing units in the next three years. Nixon said the government has also committed $9 billion to create 25,000 new housing units by 2031.

Nixon noted other communities have decreased building permit timelines, giving the examples of Sundre to within 24 hours and Leduc in less than 48 hours.

“We know Canmore and others can do it as well,” he said.

Canmore Mayor Sean Krausert and Coun. Jeff Mah – who was deputy mayor at the time – met with Nixon in Edmonton in April. Nixon said he reiterated the same priority of improving permitting timelines to get provincial funding.

Nixon said after talking with Krausert and Mah, he felt every effort would be taken to push housing forward.

Krausert said they gave Nixon information on work being done with affordable housing in Canmore, ranging from development plans to “lay the foundation” to bring online 1,000s of units and issues being felt by the community.

“I also addressed permitting timelines and recognized it’s a priority of Canmore working with the development community to reduce our timelines wherever possible,” he said.

Nixon noted both he and federal housing minister Sean Fraser are aligned with “large investments” for affordable housing being “strongly based on municipalities approving building permits, moving through zoning issues as fast as possible and getting projects built.”

Nixon said in the coming weeks, the province and the federal government will have “a pretty significant announcement … that will expand upon both our ambition when it comes to increasing new units.”

When announcing federal funding for housing in Banff, Fraser challenged Canmore to “consider doing more to match the ambition of your neighbours”. He noted applications for the Housing Accelerator Fund, the federal government’s $4 billion nationwide housing funding program, should be “among the very most ambitious and certainly more ambitious than their neighbours.”

In March, Nixon outlined “the No. 1 thing Canmore and the Bow Valley need to do if they want to see large investments in affordable housing … then they better start approving projects.”

Canmore was denied Housing Accelerator Fund money, while the province has yet to make a significant housing funding announcement in Canmore since being elected. Before the 2023 election, the UCP government gifted 2.3 hectares of land in the Palliser Trail area – worth an estimated $8.7 million – to the Town for future non-market housing needs.

Permitting timelines, however, have been a source of conflict between local developers and the Town. BOWDA commissioned a third-party report in 2022 to look at Canmore’s planning timelines.

The study came after five member surveys between October 2018 and November 2022 stated lengthy timelines were the biggest concerns for developers.

In recent years, the Town has added software efficiencies, updated bylaws and standard operating procedure documents and online submissions for some permits. They’ve also added staff for specific development plans to increase timelines.

Canmore council has approved several projects ranging from the Palliser Trial area structure plan (ASP) and Lawrence Grassi Middle School area redevelopment plan. The previous council voted down the Three Sisters Village and Smith Creek ASPs and the current council continued to approve litigation that cost the Town about $700,000.

The Land and Property Rights Tribunal ordered Canmore to approve both projects, while the Court of Appeal upheld the tribunal’s decisions.

Banff-Kananaskis MLA Sarah Elmeligi said it’s difficult to compare the Bow Valley to either Sundre or Leduc due to several factors ranging from undermining, wildlife corridors, wildfire and flood risk, human-wildlife impact as well as topographical issues with rivers and mountains.

“It is very difficult for me to even consider a development permit could be approved in 24 or 48 hours. It feels really unrealistic for this valley,” she said. “The land base itself is limited by protected area boundaries, undermining, wildlife corridors and a community identity that is very unique.”

Krausert said every municipality is going to have its specific contexts when it comes to timelines and “the context of the municipality has to be taken into regard when determining timelines are appropriate or not.”

Elmeligi, a former parks planner in Kananaskis with the Alberta government as well as a conservationist and wildlife biologist in the region, said the valley needs to be looked at through a different lens when it comes to land-use planning.

She said it shows a “lack of understanding of complexity and intricacies around land use planning in the Bow Valley.”

She pointed to a study done by Yellowstone to Yukon Conservation Initiative on the cumulative effects of growth and development in the region towards wildlife.

The study found as the valley grows, wildlife such as grizzly bears are facing increased pressure when it comes to movement and potentially leading to greater chances of human-wildlife interactions.

The study, Grizzly Bear Movement and Conflict Risk in the Bow Valley: A Cumulative Effects Model, found human-wildlife conflict could increase by 23-41 per cent. It also showed since the 1970s, grizzly bear movement has been significantly altered.

“There are expectations not only from residents, but also five million visitors of what this place looks like and feels like when people come here and when they live here,” said Elmeligi. “Addressing those cumulative effects is a really important part of that and that it is very hard.”

Nixon did note the complexity of housing in a national park since some aspects may fall on federal jurisdiction, which has led to him and Fraser having “lengthy conversations”.

He added there could be aspects where the province may be holding up a development aspect “or that we’re utilizing the resources we have as a province that are considerably more to be able to help communities like Canmore address things like grizzly bear corridors or along those lines, but our position has not changed [with permitting timelines].

“Money will flow based on municipalities getting projects built,” he said.

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