What Price “Progress”?

Ron Bolin — July 11, 2010
Last Thursday night Council attended a Public Hearing to listen to the views of citizens on applications for spot zoning bylaw changes which would lead to changes on the ground in their areas of interest. While the request for the rezoning of a parcel of land within the Harbour Park Mall to raise the height limit for a proposed condominium tower from 6 stories to 26 stories got most of the pre-hearing press, and indeed did draw cautionary comments from three neighbouring community organizations as well as both favourable and unfavourable opinion from attending individuals, the most stimulating discussion of the evening came on another parcel.

A very well organized and prepared group of Hillcrest Avenue home owners presented an impassioned and compelling case against permitting a 6 unit development in their midst on a lot zoned for single family dwellings. Their concern was that this development would provide a disruption to their quiet family neighbourhood enjoyment as well as reduce the character and the value of their properties. Most of those attending appeared to be members of young families who prized their neighbourhood and their homes highly.

Here is where the rubber hits the road in the ongoing challenges brought about by a growing and changing city. Who is to prevail in the struggle between those who seek quiet enjoyment of what they have and those who seek change –and personal gain in the process?

It seems to me that the contest involves the following scenarios:
1) The proponent of change convinces those opposed that they too will gain by the change. In this case there is little or no opposition and Council can approve the change with a clear conscience.
2) If such agreement cannot be found, then Council is faced with making a decision in the matter. But how are they to decide? It seems to me that there are two possibilities:
a) If there is no compelling community interest to make the change, but only the interest of its proponent, Council should deny the request, siding with the many and the existing bylaw against the one;
b) If, however, a substantial and overriding benefit to the community can be demonstrated to offset the interests of the opponents, then Council should side with the proponent and the community interest and approve the change.

The obvious problem in these simplified scenarios is, of course, the definition of community interest. If the definition is so broad that “growth is good” or “density is good” or “a dollar more in property tax is good” then the question is moot, but so is any property right protection anywhere, and zoning which is supposed to protect those rights is a sham. It seems to me to be exceedingly difficult to show a community interest in any spot rezoning which affects a single lot –in effect block busting at its’ finest. If community interests are involved, then community rezoning rather than spot rezoning should be implemented by Council. Taking value from one or more citizens by abridging their property rights in order to give value to another requires careful scrutiny and evaluation. On Thursday, Council was unable to enunciate the principles which they use to determine these interests. They should be required to do so. We need to know the values that shape their decisions about our community.

What do you think?