Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Thoughts on Public Hearings

Over the last decade, I have attended a fair share of municipal public hearings. Public hearings are legally required in BC before council can vote on an approval or rejection of a rezoning application. Over the years, I’ve come to question the effectiveness of the public hearing. It basically allows people to vent some steam, but I don’t think the format provides a representative view of the community or allows for people to be fully engaged in a productive discussion about the implementation of land-use policy. The best kind of community planning includes citizens in a productive feedback system that starts from the official community plan and works its way down to a development application. The public hearing format is almost setup to be adversarial.

Last night, I was at a public hearing for a proposed higher-density development near 68th Avenue and 200th Street. You can read more about the proposal on a previous post. When a development proposal comes forward with higher-density in a newer neighbourhood with lower-density, some people in the neighbourhood get upset. The issues are normally around parking, traffic, land-value, schools and crime. Last night was no different with people who live in lower-density housing blaming people in higher-density housing for causing all that is wrong with their community. I’ve seen people who live in single-family housing think that people who live in townhouses are the problem, and people who live in townhouses think that people who live in apartments are the problem. It’s all very interesting when you consider the facts.

Parking is usually an issue in single-family neighbourhoods because single-family homeowner’s have a habit of building illegal secondary suites. Also both single-family and townhouse dwellers tend to store everything but their cars in a garage. Apartment dwellers are only allowed to store cars in their parking spots. Generally as you increase density, you reduce the amount of parking required.

The notion that traffic is only created by apartments is also interesting because lower-density neighbourhoods only support the auto as a viable form of transportation. A mix of housing types is important and higher-density developments like walk-up apartments is needed to make public transit viable and give people an option out of congestion. The one thing I did notice at this public hearing was that people didn’t see the connection between their own travel habits and the creation of traffic.

The other interesting thing that I noticed is that people who live in lower-density housing think that people who live in higher-density housing create more crime and will lower their property value. This couldn’t be further from the truth. Crime has more to do with social-economic conditions than whether you live in an apartment or single-family house. Property value tends to increase when you have a community that is walkable and can support a diversity of transportation options. If this wasn’t the case, Vancouver wouldn’t have multi-million dollars houses. I should point out that apartments exist in West Vancouver too.

People get very excited about schools at public hearings. It’s interesting because if people have issues with their school system, they really should be talking to their MLA or School Board Trustee. Municipal councils don’t have control over schools. For some reason people in single-family homes think that apartments will be chock-full of families with children ready to overwhelm their schools. I’d venture to guess that more families with children live in townhouses and single-family houses than apartments. In fact, I would put money on the theory that townhouses create the highest child-per-acre metric.

Public hearings are always interesting to attend because most people do not have an understanding of community development. This is not their fault. Beside changing to a more consultative process for community planning, it would be good if the Township could host an event about community planning like they do in the City of Surrey. It would give people the opportunity to form more educated opinions about how their community is changing and how it should change.

At the end of the day, adding a higher-density development to an established lower-density neighbourhood will always generate some opposition. I don't think there is any way around that fact.

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