St. Albert city council is considering bringing back a municipal planning commission to change the way development decisions are made in the city.
Council was presented with a 360 review of the Municipal Planning Commission (MPC), which consulted stakeholders and explored how other communities across Alberta make decisions on city development.
MPCs are committees that are able to make decisions on behalf of the city with regard to subdivision and development. They function as a public consultation step in the process of development in the city.
Proponents of the move to reinstate the MPC say that it will create more transparency, give a platform for more meaningful public engagement, take a load off council’s plate and help the city make better and more informed decisions.
Those who oppose the move to reinstate it say that it will cause delays that will create barriers to development and will not add any significant value to the process. The addition of the MPC may also cause extra costs to the city and an additional staff member may need to be hired to help with the process.
Councillor Bob Russell has been championing the idea of a MPC since the election. He sees the MPC as creating a more transparent process and he said that citizens have been asking for the return of the commission.
“It gives the public far more opportunity to speak on issues. It is not as rigidly controlled as a meeting in front of council. I think it’s just far better for the public and it’s more open and we get far better decisions,” Russell said.
The development community said that they see no advantages to creating an MPC as the current system works “fairly well.” City administration is also against the move to reinstate the MPC.
Council’s support is mixed, with some members supporting the move to reinstate it, while others feel it would not be a business friendly move.
Mayor Nolan Crouse said that he does not want to see the MPC come back.
“We have just continued to nurture a business friendly approach. Right now you are seeing a request to add time and cost at the expense of the development industry,” Crouse said.
The return of the MPC has been a debate that goes back to when Crouse was a city councillor. At that time the council decided to get rid of the MPC after the city was not seen as very business friendly. It was one of many changes at the time that were made to help foster more business and development in the community.
Former city manager and general manager Bill Holtby, who worked for the city from 1990-2011, said that the MPC could sometimes be a duplication of process and confusing for the public. Holtby said that while it did allow for public consultation on the issue, the public and developers would be making their case twice; once to the MPC and then again at council.
Holtby said that he doesn’t support the return of the commission.
The MPC was created in the ’70s after St. Albert wrestled planning power away from Edmonton. It continued until 2005, when council voted to strip its power and transfer it to administration. In 2008, after the group hadn’t met in three years, council voted to formally dissolve it.
Once the MPC was dissolved, the public consultation process for development was re-jigged. Rather than developers and citizens meeting at the MPC to discuss projects, developers are now required to hold open houses with the public to collect feedback. The official transcript of events is sent to council and city administration works with developers to hammer out the details.
Citizens have an opportunity to address council before they make their final decision.
Former city mayor Richard Plain, who was responsible for helping create the MPC and was also part of the MPC during its final years, said that he supports the MPC coming back. Plain said that council sometimes has to make less informed decisions because they don’t have a committee that explores the issues more thoroughly.
Russell said the rezoning of the historical Hebert House at 11 Mill Drive would have gone to an MPC and allowed for more public input. The issue of the Braeside land swap between a developer and the city would have also have gone before the MPC. The issue has drawn public outcry and protests.
The former MPC was made up of seven members including the mayor, two councillors, a resident, the city manager and the director of planning and development. Russell said that if the MPC is to come back he would like to see more citizens on the commission and see it as a decision-making body rather than just as an adviser to council.
Russell has asked for the issue to come back to council for a vote in the next couple of weeks.