Edmonton zoning public hearing gets heated as opponents speak

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Residents began voicing their opposition to Edmonton’s planned zoning revamp at city hall Tuesday afternoon on the second day of a lengthy multi-day public hearing.

Some opponents’ comments mirrored the concerns of those who supported the zoning bylaw on Monday and Tuesday morning — such as impacts to the environment and housing affordability — but believed the rewrite would have the opposite effect. Others worried increased density would cause problems with traffic and parking, impact property values, and harm the look and feel of neighbourhoods with more infill that does not keep enough greenspace. Some remarked the changes largely benefit developers and the public’s involvement in the creation of the bylaw hasn’t been sufficient.

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Comments became more heated in the afternoon as some speakers voiced their anger with the zoning plans, some accusing city council of conflicts of interest amid worries their minds had already been made up. Mayor Amarjeet Sohi at one point reminded the room to keep their comments respectful.

By Tuesday afternoon, 142 people had signed up to oppose the bylaw and 126 had registered in favour. The hearing is scheduled to run into Thursday but may run over into next week. If approved, the new zoning bylaw will update rules about what can be built and where in nearly every corner of the city.

Bev Zubot, speaking for the Scona District Community Council, told council increasing density doesn’t necessarily mean the city will become more environmentally sustainable, inclusive and affordable. She suggested council require more from developers before allowing for greater building rights, recommending inclusionary zoning in medium and large-scale residential zones to create more market affordable housing.

“Improvements are needed before the final reading of the zoning bylaw,” she said. “We recommend the city not give away development rights without getting sufficient social benefits in return.”

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For instance, Zubot argued all residential properties should have 30 per cent set aside for soft landscaping because it is more environmentally friendly, for wider setbacks in the larger residential zones, and offering density bonuses for builders of large three-bedroom child-friendly buildings and inclusive design.

Not all NIMBYS

Devon Beggs wanted to challenge the perception that all detractors are NIMBYs. He’s not concerned about sightlines, property values, or the character of his neighborhood changing or becoming more diverse, he said.

“I believe the city needs more density. I believe it needs more affordable housing in all neighborhoods. I believe it needs to improve its infrastructure, and I believe it needs to be more environmentally sustainable,” he said. “I am not convinced that this bylaw will address these issues.”

Instead, Beggs said he’s concerned about the goals of the entire project being to reduce regulatory barriers for developers instead of focusing on making the city more affordable and environmentally sustainable.

“Why is there this assumption that a variety of housing will be built under this new bylaw and not just what is the most profitable?” he said. “Making it easier and cheaper to build housing will not make rents cheaper. It will simply increase the profits of developers as they build more luxury housing and short-term rentals.”

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Beggs questioned why city council hasn’t changed any regulations on short-term rentals. He also pointed to reporting by Postmedia in 2021 that eight city councillors each received at least $58,000 in donations from developers during the last election.

“How can the people of Edmonton trust that the council will vote with the best interests of their constituents in mind when many of them are in the pockets of powerful developers,” he said. “It is the job of city council to regulate developers so our city will grow in a way that works for everyone, not just the people with the most wealth.”

If approved, the new zoning bylaw will allow for higher density in all residential zones in most cases. Townhomes, row housing and small apartments up to three storeys tall with eight units could be built in even the smallest residential zones where only single-family homes with a garden suite can be built today.

Allowing a broader range of amenities and housing types in every neighbourhood is one of the intended outcomes of revising Edmonton’s zoning bylaw, which hasn’t been significantly updated since the 1960s. It will be easier to run some small home-based businesses and childcare spaces in neighbourhoods if the updates are approved.

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