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Report outlines development application delays, potential improvements

“We’re interested in improving our process. Some of it is hard to compare, but other parts are quite useful. It’s opened an opportunity to be in conversation with BOWDA members about our process and where we can make changes and improvements and they can help us be more efficient such as in submitting a complete application. I’m hoping it’s a good conversation starter and we’re working together to make the process as effective as possible.”
Construction at 1200 2 Avenue construction in Canmore last December. JUNGMIN HAM RMO PHOTO

CANMORE – A third-party report commissioned by the Bow Valley Builders and Developers Association outlines lengthy application wait times being faced by the industry in Canmore.

The report went through planning and development wait times in Canmore and applied municipal benchmarking from other comparable communities. Completed by the Calgary-based Maven Strategy, the initial work was done last August and then updated to have figures for the beginning of February.

“It’s important for organizations to present objective data. I think this is helpful to create a starting position for more dialogue,” said Ian O’Donnell, BOWDA’s executive director. “I think it was intended to provide data to our members, to the Town and to help shape some of those conversations going forward to better understand where some of those opportunities and risks are to planning and development department and our industry.”

O’Donnell said the report was launched following five-member surveys between October 2018 and November 2022 outlined application timelines as the biggest concern. Rather than present anecdotal evidence, the intent was to show specific data and use it as a path forward.

The ultimate goal of the report, according to BOWDA, is to work more collaboratively with the Town and improve development application timelines as outlined in the Municipal Government Act.

“We want to be solutions based. We’re here to help inform and help change policies to better reflect current needs and support where there might be issues of resources,” O’Donnell said. “We want to be there as an industry to help as part of a constructive solution to some of these challenges. We’re willing to be at the table to make sure we’re helping. We know it’s hand and hand. The development industry is part of the solution and part of the challenge is identifying where there’s opportunities to make some gains.”

The report stated delays in processing development applications “directly impact housing supply and the final cost of housing to the end use,” which are further adding to housing issues in the region.

The report analyzed eight other comparable municipalities such as Banff, Cochrane and Okotoks. The initial research took place in August and September 2022, with an update being done in January and February.

The data collected came from public information on municipal websites and interviews with municipal staff and administrative staff.

When the issue was brought to Town senior staff, municipal leadership asked for more information and specific examples.

Sally Caudill, the Town’s CAO, said the Town wants to have an open dialogue with the development industry, but to also sit down to see where an applicant is frustrated with an application, review it and find improvements. In addition to the Town learning, it’s also an opportunity for an applicant to avoid errors in applications for faster processing.

“We can walk through what happened and learn from it. We’ve had success with the two or three who have done that and we’ve made process improvements on those specific cases,” she said.

Though parts of the review show Canmore’s timelines are longer than the comparable municipalities, it may not fully paint a complete picture of each municipality dealing with different circumstances such as high groundwater, geotechnical issues, higher design standards in bylaws and policies and more custom homes being constructed in the community.

Whitney Smithers, the Town’s general manager of municipal infrastructure, gave an example of accessory dwelling units in single detached homes. If it’s not in a home, it becomes a discretionary use, which adds additional time and is “a dimension not really captured in the report.”

She added the Town has continued to move away from informal processes and have a more consistent standardized approach. It’s also not uncommon for multiple versions of applications to go back and forth, which rather than cancel the Town will keep reviewing, meaning longer processing timelines, she said.

“There are times the Town has taken on more of a consultative role with applicants than other municipalities would and we want to give them more time to do more reports or change ideas. All of that serves to extend timelines for application,” Smithers said.

As with every other sector in the Bow Valley, the Town has faced staff shortages. However, Smithers said the planning and development department has 13 full-time staff – including two unfilled positions – and two engineers focused on applications.

Other aspects have seen the Town change its stamp of compliance process, updating bylaws and standard operating procedure documents, cleaned up building permits to avoid having applications in the system for several years and continuing to find efficiencies in CityView software used by planning staff.

Smithers said the Town typically has between 400-500 applications in the system, but they can be in multiple different stages of review.

“We’re not a small town anymore. We get a fair volume of applications,” she said. “We have a team of professional planners and engineers that need standardized tools to review those applications. Some of it is becoming more consistent and transparent in the work we do, which you can’t do casually over coffee.”

The report recommends an internal third-party departmental review and having continued constructive dialogue with the construction industry.

The report stated as of Sept. 6, 2022, figures for the Town’s building permit timelines were about 85 per cent higher than average of other municipalities. Development permit processing times ranged from two to six times longer than the average of the comparable municipalities.

In the update as of February, the report showed development permit times for signs and letters of compliance had drastically fallen from 54 and 47 to 28 and 13, respectively, but non-complex residential projects such as sheds, decks and garages remained quite high at 70 days to process.

For building permits, the non-complex residential projects such as sheds, decks and accessory dwelling units had dropped from 74 to 49 days, but complex projects of residential, commercial and industrial nature climbed from 76 to 86 days to process by February.

“With housing being such a challenging effort, any delay with housing protracts deliver to that housing supply and exacerbates our current housing crisis,” O’Donnell said. “We know we need a variety of housing brought to market and so we need to make sure the Town is being efficient with their process and fair to applicants and fair to those who will be moving into those projects to make sure we delivery housing in an efficient and effective manner.

“We hear from businesses, employers, delays in providing application approvals means tenants are being lost and business is being impacted, and at the end of the day, that’s economic development being lost. It impacts the entire business community whether you’re applying for a sign or changing use, these delays have a dollar amount cost. … Any delay costs quite a bit more to that applicant. Time is of the essence.”

While the report outlined areas for improvements, it highlighted areas the Town has undertaken such as a planning and development newsletter, the creation of a development application reserve, updates to the Canmore Planning Commission, dissolving the Environmental Advisory Review Committee and amending several bylaws to provide Town staff with more authority to allow for quicker decisions.

O’Donnell said BOWDA has proposed a workshop with the Town that would bring a variety of application types, various members and Town staff together to work through challenges.

“We’re not here to just complain. We want to make sure there’s a good open dialogue. If we see something that can be improved, we can work on it,” he said. “Hopefully individual members can broadcast through BOWDA and the planning department for other applicants to identify issues and provide a solution-based approach.”

Both Smithers and Caudill echoed the overall goal is to have an efficient and working process for all involved, which ultimately comes with all sides working together.

“We’re interested in improving our process. Some of it is hard to compare, but other parts are quite useful,” Caudill said. “It’s opened an opportunity to be in conversation with BOWDA members about our process and where we can make changes and improvements and they can help us be more efficient such as in submitting a complete application. I’m hoping it’s a good conversation starter and we’re working together to make the process as effective as possible.”

Smithers said a report will come to council in March to show the changes in recent years that have assisted with the development process and timelines as well as adding clarity for applicants.

She noted Town staff will continue to look at areas to improve and update procedures.

“We’re continuing on with that work. I think the BOWDA report might inform some of the priority of what we take on,” Smithers said. “We’re big believers in continuous improvement and we don’t want applications sitting on anyone’s desk longer than they need to be.”