Friday, March 14, 2014

Did Trinity Western University Kill the Livable Region?

Whether it be the accreditation of teachers and lawyers, and now land-use, the private Christian Trinity Western University seems find itself at the centre of controversy. Trinity Western and the Township of Langley would like to remove 375.6 acres from the Agricultural Land Reserve to allow the university to expand and create housing. So far the Agricultural Land Commission has allowed 23.4 acres to be excluded from the ALR for university expansion, and 13.5 acres of land still within the ALR to be used for 67 single-family houses. The Township of Langley created the University District with a change to its official community plan in 2013.

I should note that this isn’t the first time a university has undermined regional planning. In 2010, UBC had the Province remove them from Metro Vancouver, so the university didn’t have to follow regional land-use plans.

In July 2011, Metro Vancouver adopted a new regional growth strategy to replace the older Liveable Region Strategic Plan (LRSP). Member municipalities had until July 2013 to align their official community plans with the new regional growth strategy.

The Township of Langley updated its official community plan to allow for the University District and also allow residential development on the 4.46 hectare Hendricks Site in North Murrayville (both within the LRSP green zone) before having to adopt the new regional growth strategy. The new regional growth strategy is much more prescriptive than the older LRSP. The University District would not have been allowed under the new regional growth strategy.

Metro Vancouver had a pretty weak case, but decided to take the Township to court over the University District and Hendrick site as it believed that both plans violated the principles of the old LRSP Green Zone. Justice Sharma threw out Metro Vancouver’s claim that the University District and Hendrick site impacted the Green Zone.

While Justice Sharma outlined the technical details about how she thinks a regional growth strategy, municipality’s official community plan, and zoning bylaws fit together, the root issue is a matter of scope. The Local Government Act requires that regional growth strategies and municipal official community plans/land-use align on regional matters. According to the act this “means a matter that involves coordination between or affects more than one municipality, more than one electoral area, or at least one of each, in a regional district.” Metro Vancouver took a very broad interpretation of this as it believed that any impact to the Green Zone impacts the livability of the region as a whole. The justice took a narrower view. She found that Metro Vancouver was micro-managing local land use, which she believed was not a regional concern, and therefor out of the jurisdiction of Metro Vancouver.

While I cannot rule out the possibility that a large scale development could be seen to radically alter the character of the Green Zone, notwithstanding its location wholly within one municipality, those are not the facts before me.

This could mean that a local government could undermine a regional growth strategy with death by 1,000 cuts. While each small land-use decision may not impact the region, the culmination of these decisions over time, will. Regional growth strategies came out of the 1970’s as people were alarmed at the steady destruction of green space in BC due to urban sprawl.

Also interesting to note was Justice Sharma’s view that the Agricultural Land Commission is authoritative when it comes to the viability of farm land. If the ALC believes that removing land from the ALR or allowing urban sprawl in the ALR won’t impact, or may improve agricultural viability, Metro Vancouver can’t make the opposite argument.

Also, Justice Sharma was critical of Metro Vancouver taking the Township of Langley to court and noted that the aberrational process outlined in the Local Government Act is what should be followed when there is a perceived conflict between a regional growth strategy and official community plan.

At the end of the day Justice Sharma basically stated that Metro Vancouver has no intrinsic right under the Local Government Act to overrule local land-use decisions. I would have to agree.

The new regional growth strategy includes regional land-use zoning, an urban growth boundary, and procedures on how this all works. The Local Government Act allows, but does not require, a regional growth strategy to guide decisions on growth, change and development.

This court case was about the old LRSP and not the new, more prescriptive regional growth strategy. The big question for me is if local governments agree to a more prescriptive regional growth strategy, can that more prescriptive strategy’s provisions be enforced? If not, the Agricultural Land Commission really becomes the only authority to keep urban sprawl in check.

The provincial government could strengthen the authority of a regional district in relation to regional growth strategies, but I doubt they will. Between this ruling, the Provincial government’s threat to weaken the Agricultural Land Commission, and the upcoming transit referendum, not since the 1970’s has the livability of Metro Vancouver been so highly threatened.

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