Waters: Bid to limit public input troubling

West Kelowna moves to stop public comment on development permit applications

Apparently it is possible for local government to gather too much public input—just ask West Kelowna.

City council there has been asked to rein in comments from the public on development permits that don’t require variances because what residents have to say could—horror of horrors—influence how the folks who they elected to office in the first place, vote.

In fact, just having a policy that lets the public comment about a development permit could create an expectation the public will be listened to, say staff. Well yes.

“It may also create an impression that council has the discretion to refuse to issue a development permit based on public opposition similar to a development variance permit or temporary use permit, which is not the case,” says Nancy Henderson, West Kelowna’s general manager of development services in a report to council.

Now before any angry mobs of disgruntled West Kelownians reach for their pitch forks and organize marches to city hall demanding free speech, it should be noted that the city’s move stems from provincial legislation and court rulings.

The Local Government Act does not require a municipality to give notice of any intent to issue a development permit (DP) and the courts have ruled in the past that a city council must not consider public input as part of the approval of a DP.

According to Henderson, a developer who has a development permit application rejected could sue a city to reverse the decision and seek “special costs” if the rejection was based on “extraneous reasons” above those permitted to be considered under the act.

In other words, a council can only deny a DP if the application runs afoul of the city’s Official Community Plan.

The move to limit public comment on straightforward development permits is not total shutdown of what residents have to say, however. The yeas and nays will still get their chance to speak their minds at public hearings or when variances are required.

But the fact that moves have to be made to limit public input in order to (potentially) safeguard the public purse is troubling.

A development permit addresses the form and character of a project, i.e. what it’s going to look like. And that is always going to elicit a response from the public—both positive and negative. Taking away that opportunity is surely going to rile residents and should raise the dander of the politicians too.

After all, the elected folks are the ones put in office to represent the community and make decisions based on what the community wants. So one would think, the more public input, the better.

The bid to remove development permits from the public input equation does not shut down residents’ ability to make themselves heard, it just removes one of the opportunities.

Everyone should be concerned when any government is not allowed to gather as much information as possible from the people it represents when decisions are being made in the public interest.

Alistair Waters is the assistant editor of the Capital News.

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