Edmonton district planning decision could be weeks away, signals plans may be sent back for changes

Council will hear from speakers and discuss the 118 Avenue, Jasper Place, Central and Scona district plans starting Monday

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Edmontonians may be left waiting weeks to learn whether the new district planning system will be approved, but there are already some signals city council may not be fully satisfied with the project.

As the third day of public hearings drew to a close Thursday, council voted to add two days more to the schedule. The public hearing will resume Monday at 9:45 a.m. to give city council more time to hear from Edmontonians and ask questions. But if councillors don’t finish hearing from speakers and asking questions by 5 p.m., the public hearing won’t continue until June 25 at 1:30 p.m.

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The project includes the new district policy and breaks Edmonton down into 15 “districts” with maps. It’s meant to clarify where taller residential buildings and more businesses will be encouraged as the city’s population grows to two million people over time.

But some councillors are already signalling they may not be fully satisfied with the program.

Two points raised by multiple public speakers this week caught the attention of Coun. Andrew Knack. The first is a last-minute change to the “urban mix” policy that could ultimately mean taller buildings are allowed inside residential neighbourhoods over time. The second issue was the boundaries of the “nodes” and “corridors” — those hubs and busy streets where more housing density and businesses will be encouraged.

He said there is a “pretty common theme around clarity” and issues causing “uncertainty” for the public and those who may want to rezone land in the future.

“To some, it can feel like it’s suddenly going to be the wild west, that you’re going to consider at 20-storey tower. I’ve seen the emails from groups like Better Infill,” he said early Thursday.  Administrative staff told councill that is not the intention of the change to the urban mix policy.

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While council and staff may know this, Knack said, it’s important to make the intention clear for everyone.

The Ward Nakota Isga councillor put forward a motion Thursday morning to send the entire suite back to administration for changes. It was ultimately shelved until after the public hearings are complete.

“Regardless of where somebody falls in wanting more change or less change, the drafts as written do not seem to provide the clarity I think people are seeking,” he said. “I do think it is really important the maps more fairly represent the changes we expect in our city as we grow and change to a city of two million people.”

Council will hear from speakers and discuss the 118 Avenue, Jasper Place, Central and Scona district plans starting Monday.

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More than 70 people voiced their views during the public hearings to date. Close to 80 per cent opposed. Just over a dozen more people are still awaiting their turn to speak starting next week.

Industrial land, or agricultural?

Discrepancies in different city documents about whether the city wants lands in southwesternmost part of Edmonton to be used for industrial purposes, or just agricultural, also sparked concern from some council members.

While the new Rabbit Hill district maps show temporary agricultural use for the lands and residential redevelopment in the future, another planning document — the City Plan — shows there could be industrial or business use there.

However, the 2021 regional agricultural plan passed by the Edmonton Metropolitan Region Board deems those lands “transition” agricultural lands that should be kept as such until the population grows substantially and the land is needed for new homes or employment in 25 to 50 years. That policy strongly encourages preserving the lands this way to reduce the rate “prime agricultural areas” are “lost to development.”

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But Paul Grewal, speaking for a group of landowners in the Rabbit Hill area near the Edmonton International Airport, wants the city to consider industrial projects there.

He said the landowners, and the city, may have lost out on an alternate energy project from a major international company because of the lack of clarity.

“We realized it would be impossible for them to get their project approved on agricultural lands, and discussions ended,” he told council at the hearing.

“There is a lack of immediately developable industrial lands next to the airport, and yet the city of Edmonton wants to convert these lands to agricultural lands. Is the city of Edmonton expecting millions of dollars in tax revenues from farmlands now instead of industrial and commercial lands? Is that the new plan to reduce residential tax bills for its citizens?”

Kamaljit Benipal said the city has been losing money for years because of its “unrealistic and restrictive industrial development policies.”

“Surrounding counties collect millions in property taxes from industrial developments every year and give tax relief and better services to their citizens,” he said. “It’s time now for the City of Edmonton to learn from these counties … the city is competing with these counties and losing big time.”

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Several councillors showed concern about the discrepancy in plans and were curious about whether that land could be used for industrial projects. Ward Dene Coun. Aaron Paquette said the concerns are “not falling on deaf ears.” Ward pihêsiwin Coun. Tim Cartmell said he would be interested in amending the plan to potentially allow non-residential use starting from close to the airport and working north toward the city.

Landowners may work with city administration to draft new area plans for council’s approval down the road.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to correct the final date of the public hearing.

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