Risks remain with land-use bill

Op-ed originally published in the Winnipeg Free Press on Fri. Nov. 13, republished with permission

MANITOBA’S focus for now is rightly on finding our way through the COVID-19 pandemic. But while our municipal governments are on the front lines of that effort, we will also soon be on the front lines of a tough fight to regenerate jobs and economic momentum.

A proposed new provincial law to change land-use rules could have a significant impact on our future economic success — and that’s why mayors, reeves and councillors raised so many tough questions about the first proposal (Bill 48) earlier this year.

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Thanks to recent government amendments, the latest version of the law (Bill 37 — the Planning Amendment and City of Winnipeg Charter Amendment Act) has fewer pain points for local municipalities than the original draft. It reduces a lengthy window for appeals from 90 days to 30. It opens up room for ordinary citizens to appeal in the City of Winnipeg, where they had been excluded in the previous draft. The new draft gives municipalities the right to be consulted if new regional planning districts are created, and it promises a review of the bill in three years.

These changes are important and constructive, but one big risk remains. Municipal leaders are raising it for the sake of the provincial government’s economic objectives as much as for our own communities’ sakes.

In the lead-up to this moment, AMM members repeatedly heard from the government that the bill "copies best practices" for land-use appeals in other jurisdictions, and "brings us into line with other provincial appeal systems." It’s not always clear how that’s the case, given the details.

In cases where other provinces allow land-use appeals to a provincial board, they specify limited grounds for those appeals so that frivolous appeals won’t clog the system. Manitoba’s draft bill does not. Other provinces have time limits for filing appeals that are as short as 14 days, not 30 or 90, to minimize the risk of delays. Other provinces have time limits on how quickly an appeal decision must be rendered, giving equal treatment to the province and municipalities when it comes to enforcing customer service standards; Manitoba’s bill only imposes timelines for the municipal side.

Other provinces limit appeals to substantial decisions like development permit releases, zoning issues or subdivisions, while Manitoba’s proposal is so broad that even a zoning variance for a deck could end up in front of the Municipal Board. Other provinces place limits on how broad an appeal decision can be, avoiding the risk of sidelining democratically-enacted laws and plans; Manitoba’s Bill 37 has no such limits.

The provincial government, to its credit, acknowledges that these details must be addressed, and promises to do so in future regulation. However, all of the issues I raise above have one thing in common: they’re all in other provinces’ statues (in plain language: they’re right in the law). And again, the Manitoba government’s stated goal was to copy those laws.

If the details of the new appeals system are not pre-built for smooth execution, then the result will assuredly be the opposite of what everyone wants: a time-consuming, costly process with increased delays, legal fees and expenses for taxpayers and citizens alike. Changes to appeals rules led to a backlog of 1,000 — yes, 1,000 — cases in Ontario recently, with appellants waiting months or even years just to get a hearing. Premier Doug Ford had to hire more adjudicators, which meant more bureaucracy and red tape, not less.

Manitoba’s recent throne speech noted that our province already attracted a higher rate of growth in private capital investment in 2019 than anywhere else in Canada. Municipal land-use approvals played a significant part in that outcome. We’ve said yes to countless new growth projects, subdivisions and storefronts, even as we balanced those approvals against local infrastructure challenges, local plans and local criticisms.

 

Before COVID-19 struck, we were already doing our part. The 12,000 businesses outside Winnipeg alone contributed a full 35 per cent to Manitoba’s GDP and over $16 billion to the provincial economy. Municipalities like Neepawa, Niverville, Winkler and Steinbach are among the fastest-growing in Canada. And the value of building permits in the City of Winnipeg alone has almost tripled, from 2005 to 2018.

Our constructive questions to the legislature — and our suggestions to improve both proposed bills — have been built on that foundation. We are not trying to protect red tape or prevent responsible development. On the contrary: we want to work with our provincial partners to dodge the kind of self-inflicted delays that we’ve seen in Ontario. There, a long, costly trip to an appeals board has become a routine part of development, instead of what it should be here: a fair and necessary — but infrequent — exception.

 

Ralph Groening is the president of the Association of Manitoba Municipalities (AMM).

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