Is Yellowknife carrying out a ‘zoning bylaw ambush’?
Correction: September 30, 2021 – 17:46 MT. Owing to a misinterpretation of Mike Vaydik’s position as stated in his letter, this article initially referred throughout to the downtown when, in fact, Vaydik’s concerns in the letter related to the surrounding residential central zone. This report has been updated throughout to reflect and correct this, and to make clearer that Vaydik’s letter does not pertain to the present discussion about a downtown shelter.
As the City of Yellowknife prepares to update its zoning bylaw, some residents are worried about planned changes to neighbourhoods near the downtown.
The zoning bylaw regulates the control and development of land within Yellowknife. The city says the bylaw needs to be overhauled to match a broader community plan, adopted last year, that guides development in Yellowknife over the next 20 years.
Among proposed changes in the new bylaw are a number of newly permitted land uses in various zones.
In the downtown, those include commercial entertainment, urban agriculture, medical research and development, animal services, breweries and distilleries, and special care facilities – like day shelters. In the residential central zone surrounding the downtown, they include convenience store, day cares, food and beverage services, hotels, and short-term rentals.
The city says allowing multiple land uses is important. For example, downtown, the changes are billed by the city as meeting residents’ “diverse needs and aspirations” by serving vulnerable populations and supporting economic development.
But the changes also alters residents’ ability to appeal certain developments in their zones.
In a letter titled “zoning bylaw ambush” shared with Cabin Radio, resident Mike Vaydik said the proposed changes will stifle residents’ input on developments in the residential central neighbourhood surrounding the downtown, and limit their ability to launch appeals.
“If I want to turn my property into a 24-hour pizza place or mini golf course, I will be able to do it without consulting my neighbours,” he wrote.
Vaydik also highlighted the proposed bylaw’s definition of residential central: an expansive area of the city including Trail’s End, School Draw Avenue, Con Road, Matonabee Street, and Gitzel Street.
The city has held two online open houses for residents to discuss the proposed bylaw, but the end of the public commenting period isn’t far away: the feedback process closes on October 1.
Vaydik said the two open houses were not well-attended and the feedback period is too short for residents to make informed comment on a complex document.
“There is an element of administrative procedural fairness lacking,” he wrote, “when we consider that the city is proposing major changes to our neighbourhoods, our quality of life, and the value of our homes.”
The City of Yellowknife did not respond to a request for comment.
In the past, the city has said proposed changes to the zoning bylaw are simply the result of previous public feedback.
For example, residents and groups have complained that the existing bylaw makes providing social services difficult downtown, often meaning the development appeal board – a three-person group that hears appeals – ends up making final decisions.
The city says its commitment to reconciliation, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s calls to action, and its own 10-year plan to end homelessness also played a part in the new bylaw’s design.
An example of the zoning challenge posed to social services is currently playing out in the debate about where to locate a temporary day shelter in Yellowknife.
As a special care facility, a temporary shelter is not a permitted use anywhere in the city under the current bylaw. That means the territorial government has to request special permission from the city’s mayor and council before it’s granted a development permit to make the shelter a reality. That process is called conditional permitting.
While that process has allowed neighbours, advocates, and other residents to have input on the proposed shelter, the territorial government has expressed frustration: the process takes time and threatens to delay the shelter’s opening by months as cold weather approaches. (Last year, having tried to go through the municipal process, the GNWT ultimately declared a local state of emergency to commandeer a building instead.)
If councillors do approve the territory’s request for a permit, residents will have two weeks to submit an appeal. If an appeal is accepted, the development appeal board has 90 days to issue a decision.
If a shelter were a permitted downtown facility, as the new bylaw envisages, the grounds for launching an appeal would narrow significantly. There are six possible grounds to appeal shelters that are only conditionally permitted. In areas where a shelter is considered fully permitted, the rules state an appeal can be filed for one reason: “only if you are alleging a misapplication of the bylaw in the approval of the application.”
Advocates for Yellowknife’s vulnerable people and the territorial government say that change would be a good thing.
But Vaydik says the same approach to new types of building in other zones, like residential central, leaves residents without “any recourse to officially comment on or affect the development in any way.”
“Beware of anyone who says you can appeal,” he wrote.