Staff propose a ‘Policy to Ignore Policy,’ giving staff more power and discretion in massaging early development enquiries. Council decision July 7

An innocuously-titled paper, “Policy Enquiry Process: Approach and Criteria,” goes to Vancouver City Council committee meeting on Wednesday, July 7, 2021.

However, its implications are huge. People who have closely observed how planning staff already work so closely with developers will find this effort by staff to claim more power is of big concern.

Our first hope would be for staff to withdraw the report at this time. Second best would be for Council not to approve the recommendations

Once you read the 19-page document (PDF link here) authored by Theresa O’Donnell, Vancouver’s new chief planner since April, you may agree it is a “Policy to Ignore Policy” as described by the Coalition of Vancouver Neighbourhoods (see CVN letter here): 

It suggests allowing spot rezoning proposals to go forward for consideration even if they do not conform to any policy that would allow it. This would undermine all community plans and planning processes so as to make zoning and planning policy meaningless.
While this may benefit the development industry, it would undermine the public interest.
It would make more work for staff, Council and the public to deal with projects that should not be going forward at all.
Please do not approve this report’s recommendations.

Separately, we received a copy of a resident’s letter to Council. 

This staff proposal purportedly increases flexibility and speed when handling rezoning and development applications, by changing the “Policy Enquiry Process” for staff “to review and provide advice to applicants relating to development enquiries that do not comply with rezoning policy, but which may offer opportunities and benefits that may warrant further consideration by Council.” The report notes that adoption of the changes “will in no way fetter Council’s discretion in considering any rezoning applications and does not create any legal rights for the applicants or any other person, or obligation on the part of the City.”

Based on my first hand experience with the rezoning application at 2538 Birch Street (Denny’s) and the extensive research that I performed and shared with you, staff are already interpreting Council policy very liberally, exercising a concerning amount of judgement, providing far too much coaching to applicants and, in cases like 2538 Birch Street, not remaining impartial. (These are all facts supported by staff correspondence.) If this policy is adopted, Council will relinquish more of its decision making power to a staff that is already taking too many liberties. Most concerningly, due to the difference in power and influence between staff and the development industry on one side and the residents on the other side, I fear that this will stifle and hamstring participation in our civic democracy even further.

In the simplest of terms, this policy takes more power from the residents (represented by Council) and gives it to unelected staff. The liberty that this policy provides will increase deviations from Council policy, and broaden the chasm between what the electorate desires and what is actually accomplished at the end of the day


16 thoughts on “Staff propose a ‘Policy to Ignore Policy,’ giving staff more power and discretion in massaging early development enquiries. Council decision July 7

  1. That is criminal. we should rake them to Supreme Court. Are we now run by Communists because that is what it looks like to me.

      • I think. People overestimate staff , and also overestimate council. Staff are not evil. They have two jobs which often conflict.

        They must receive and assess all development applications and inquiries. But they must also prepare recommendations to council. This is difficult for anyone to do.

        It is council’s job to figure all these things out. Staff cannot be straight with council because their jobs are on the line every day.

        Could you tell your boss that they are wrong every day?

        Unfortunately, most councillors cannot see the truth.

  2. “Staff are already interpreting Council policy very liberally”, yes I agree. I’ve been asking Planning for over a year, email after email, how it is possible that a sheer 13 foot elevation drop was created between my property and the new development next to me. How was this allowed? My FOI-what exact policy did the City use to allow this drop– came back –we used City Policy — they won’t give me anything specific. THE CITY and POLICY equals whatever they want to do! the Policy Enquiry Process passed by Council gives them even more power; unelected power. So lets vote the current bunch out and put someone in who will protect citizens and not the developers.

      • Hi adamfitch Sure I can send you a picture -before and after, see the following link. This project was to be a 1 1/2 storey house with a basement but built was a 3 storey building with no basement. It was dug down to create a 3rd storey hence the sheer 13 foot drop. You can also see where the developer kept breaking the tops off my picket fence -they still have not fixed these after 2 years! Just curious do you intend to build the same since this precedent has been set. Might as well as there are NO POLICIES to be followed anymore — not that they ever did follow policy – they just made things up as they went along with what the developer wanted!

  3. I would differ with the article in one respect. It uses the phrase “residents (represented by Council)”. It has been my experience over the years that City Council have never represented residents. They represent agendas which benefit some residents while disadvantaging others. They represent bicyclists while disadvantaging people who drive cars in service of their “Green” agenda. They prioritize development to the detriment of residents who wish to keep neighbourhoods livable in service of an agenda of accelerating the growth of the population of the city, in other words they are representing “future residents”. They prioritize housing “the homeless” , in an “out of sight out of mind” agenda, which acts like honey to flies for people living on the margins from across the country. There are countless other examples of this, but in no case are they representing the residents whose property taxes pay for it all. That is the sad reality. Vancouver sees itself as in some kind of global competition to become a “World Class City”, too bad if residents get trampled in the process. Sell and get out if you don’t like it.
    This “policy to ignore policy” idea really is nothing new. It only makes official what has been going on for years. The City makes a show of creating policies and plans visions for development in consultation with residents (at our expense) then when an application from a developer comes in that violates the policy it gets approved anyway, under the all encompassing rubric “The Discretion of the Director of Planning”
    In my view the only way out of this mess is the ascendance of a true Citizen’s Party, not one that only claims to be in order to get elected. That would take a lot of time, money, and dedication to pull off and unfortunately it is developers and their allies who have loads of that, not citizens groups.

  4. I would just like to add that the citizens being disadvantaged, like those who rely on their cars who are being constantly inconvenienced and squeezed out by bike lanes, comprise 95% of the population.

  5. Pedoff, thanks for posting those photos. I sympathize with you that your fence was damaged and has not been replaced. But I do not understand your disapproval. Having a yard next door which is 13 feet below the grade of your yard will give you more privacy than if it was at grade.

    • Hi adamfitch It is not nice when you don’t like heights. It makes your stomach turn when trying to trim a tree or clean up the flowers beside the 13 foot drop. And it is right next to the driveway. It will be a horrible mess if the car slips in the bad weather and goes flying off the cliff on to the people below. Someone could be killed. They didn’t put up a sturdy fence on top of the retaining wall. This 13 foot sheer drop should never have been allowed. That is a thing that can only come about with site-by-site rezonings. That Planning Department only looks at the site that is being rezoned and they don’t pay attention to what is around that site. They are idiots and it is a very bad way to Plan a City — they are idiots!! Can you imagine if every lot was done like that — how would the drainage work. It’s not working now with a huge retaining wall next to my property.

      • Pedoff, I doubt that any rezoning was involved. If there was, you would have been notified by notification letter and signage. I expect that the new house was constructed within the existing zoning.

        I also expect that the change in grade and retaining wall were permitted under the zoning and the building code, provided that drainage is dealt with appropriately, which you have a right to inquire about.

        You are right that the owner should put a fence on top of the wall, but you could end up with an ugly fence that you are not happy with, so be careful about that.

  6. adamfinch You have no right to just say off the top of your head ‘I doubt’ — you have no idea what you are talking about! As if I’m not telling the truth. Why would I ever waste my time typing away trying to explain and even go to all the trouble to show pictures of what happened with these stupid City Planning Department people. NOT FOLLOWING POLICIES. The policy relied on at the rezoning said, “The design should also complement existing topography, landscape, and elements such as walls and fences.” The Planning Department which should be the regulating authority (ensuring compliance) DID NOT DO THIS -they simply went along with what the developer wanted even though this was different than what was presented at the Public Hearing rezoning.
    I’m tired of your constant doubting my input. I tell the truth. I’m not a silly child looking to put junk out there. I’m doing a service by showing that all should be upset at what the City Planning Dept does — be careful –this could happen to you too.
    This was a rezoning of a house that was moved to the lot next to my property and the Heritage Conservation Plan was clear, it was a 1 1/2 storey house with a basement to be moved and retain the grade just as it was in the old location a few lots away. The reason the grade was changed is because the developer presented Drawings that showed a 3 storey building and the idiot City Plan checker actually said –DUH–“this appears to be a third storey”–even thought the Drawing clearly said the HC Plan must be considered with this drawing. And the idiot Planning Dept just rubber stamped the drawing –He approved it. DUH! THE CITY PLANNING DEPARTMENT IS INCOMPETENT!! The rezoning was for the lot to get much more density on the lot with an additional building behind the moved building.

    • I am sorry if you thought I was implying that you were not telling the truth. I assumed that there was not a rezoning, because if there had been a rezoning, then a full set of building drawings would have been available beforehand, both in the staff report and at the public hearing. These drawings should have shown if the grades were to be altered, and if so, how adjoining lands were to be retained.

      I have worked in municipal planning for over three decades, and I know how these things are supposed to go. You said in a previous post that the construction was a single family dwelling, so I assumed that no rezoning was involved.

      I see from your last post that there was a rezoning, and there were drawing shown, and that in the end the building permit did not conform with those drawings. In that case, you do have a strong argument. I do not think that you will be able to undo what has been done (i.e.: put the grades back to the way that they were), but if you keep pushing it, you may be able to get some kind of compensation.

  7. The reason that I reacted as I did before you told the whole story is because I do not like it when people say that municipal planners are incompetent. But in this case, it sounds like they did make a big mistake, and that the more you push them on it, the more they “dig in” – pardon the pun. Good luck.

    • Hi adamfitch If the Vancouver City Planning Department was honest and fair in dealing with development projects then there would not be so much outcry from the citizens. But instead the citizens get called, by City Council and the development groups that they are nimbys. This is in fact the farthest from the truth. Many citizens have children who want homes in the City and are all for more housing. But the way the Planning Department is run in Vancouver its development at all cost. That’s just not fair. There needs to be rules in development or what is the point in having zoning areas. It looks like the Planning Department and this Council wants a City like Hong Kong or LA with no rules. That make no sense. They want manufacturing next to single detached houses and next to a play school. They want a noisy shopping area next to residential uses. That’s not relaxing for the residents where big trucks will be loading and unloading right next to their bedrooms. That’s not Planning a City. It truly seems like this Planning Department is full of people right out of school who have no idea about living and noise impacts and so on. They have no real life experience. Like all kinds of bike lanes. How is a family of 5 going to get all their groceries on bikes. GET REAL!

      The incompetent thing – if the shoe fits. And in Vancouver, Planning staff don’t have to lie to Council about policies with rezonings — but they do. They don’t have to worry about getting fired. This staff belong to a very strong union-CUPE. They will not get fired for telling the truth. They act like the SS – oh just following orders when in fact they don’t want to bother looking at the policies; it’s less work for them if they don’t. If these people are professionals they should act like professionals and do the correct thing as taught in their profession. GOOD PLANNING! Not just some nonsense cobbled together to get the project pushed through.

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