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Coming Up: June 4 and 6

Council meets Tuesday. The most interesting agenda items:

  • Accessible Transportation: members of the public are coming to address Council on this topic

  • Small Lot Residential Developments: a proposal to temporary restrict how much are allowed in new neighbourhoods

  • Child Healthcare: a potential advocacy issue for Council.

Additionally, Council will meet on Thursday to discuss a new Fees and Charges Bylaw.

Following is more information and my take on agenda items.

As always, any mistakes or opinions belong to me and me alone, not to Council or City staff.

While I express my current views below, I always go into meetings ready to listen and with an open mind. I learn new information and participate in debate. This always informs and sometimes changes how I vote on issues.

If you would like to watch the meeting or read any of its supporting material for yourself, you can do so by clicking here. The City will post the highlights of Council’s decisions here.

Accessible Transit

During every Council meeting, members of the public are welcome to address Council. This week, some residents have said they plan to come talk about accessible transportation.

The Disabled Transportation Society (DTS) recently made dramatic claw backs to its service and is calling into question whether or not it can operate beyond June. Click here for a media article with some more context.

Both transit and accessibility are very important to me. Over my term, I’ve been working hard to see us protect and enhance them. I am excited that citizens care enough about accessible transit to come talk to Council. That being said: I don’t know if we will have an immediate response for them on Tuesday night.

DTS’ recent decisions took us by surprise. I first heard about their changes by reading the news rather than through any direct communication. This means that I am still learning what is happening with DTS. Here is what I know with certainty:

  • Council set its 2019 allocation to DTS back in December.

  • This 2019 allocation has not been reduced since it was set at the end of 2018

  • In March, DTS sent this letter to Council asking to receive some of their allocated funding early. The DTS manager also met with the Community Living Committee. At that time, DTS said that changes which were going to be made very soon would allow them to finish the year in the black. From the letter: "DTS will be able to position itself into a positive financial position." At that meeting, I don't recall a request for their total 2019 funding to be increased. I left this meeting encouraged that DTS was on a very good course to providing efficient and effective service within its current funding.

Council only received a request for additional funding very recently. Seeing that request was the first time I was made aware that DTS would be unable to maintain its full services and finish the year in the positive.

I found out through DTS’ media releases last week that it would only service wheelchair clients on priority one trips and that it would contemplate closing in June without increased City funding. This was not anything I was given a heads up on from the organisation.

Due to lack of earlier and direct communication, I still don’t have a full picture of what is happening with this organisation. Mayor Given and our staff are working to get more clarity from DTS. I am hopeful that its board will be open to talking to Council directly. Unless that happens, I don’t know if I’ll be able to have a well informed opinion on best next steps.

However, I do have two strong values I’m bringing into this discussion:

1) People of all abilities deserve to get around our community. Accessible transportation is a vital service in a municipality of our size. Council has a responsibility to work with community partners to ensure it is available.

2) Council also has a responsibility to ensure that taxpayer dollars are wisely spent. While it may be appropriate for Council to invest more in accessible transportation, it should not assume that all increased investment should be through DTS. There may be better options available to maintain or enhance aspects of this service in our community. Council should consider what else is available before deciding what to allocate to DTS.

I know that very recent changes by DTS have created current hardships for its users. I also know that the recent press releases from DTS have been very scary for them to read. Coming up with a sustainable plan to deliver quality accessible transit is my top priority right now. I believe that the rest of Council sees that this is an important an urgent topic.

Small Lot Residential Development

One type of residential land district in the City of Grande Prairie is Small Lot Residential (RS). In these districts, development can be created more densely than in General Residential (RG) districts due to different lot size and setback requirements.

For example: in both districts, for single-detached homes, lots must be a minimum of 10.4 m if there is rear land access provided. However, they must be larger if no rear lane is present. In a Small Lot Residential (RS) district, lots without a rear lane need to be at least 11m wide. This is 1.2m less than General Residential (RG) districts, where the minimum width would be 12.2m

In 2006, Council had concerns about some new neighbourhoods which had large proportions of RS lots. These developments were creating challenges connected with snow removal, on street parking, aesthetics, and green space. In response to these challenges, Council modified the Municipal Development Plan to only allow for up to 25% of new developments to be RS districts.

However, right now the housing market is suffering. New house builds have dramatically declined over the past few years. This is making it harder to find housing. It is leading to job losses. And it is preventing new taxable properties from being built, which increases the tax burden on existing properties.

This is a problem across the country. However, in Grande Prairie we have an additional challenge: not only are less new homes being built in our region, but a higher proportion of them are being built in the County rather than the City. Having more taxable properties being built which access City services without paying City taxes is increasing the tax burden of City residents.

Developers have identified the 25% limit on RS properties to be a major reason that few houses are being built in the City. Every foot of property width adds thousands of dollars to development costs for roads, pipes, and other infrastructure. It also adds costs to the municipality’s servicing and maintenance of the property. A smaller lot can be built and service for significantly less than a larger lot.

In October, the City received a request from the Urban Developers Institute to increase the limit of 25% for RS land in new developments. Since then, a working group made up of City Councillors, City staff, and industry representatives has been looking at this issue. It is undertaking a comprehensive review of narrow lot development. In the meantime, it is recommending that Council temporarily relax the 25% rule.

On Tuesday, Council will be debating bylaw amendments to create this temporary relaxation. If passed, developers will be able to submit Outline Plan applications that have greater than 25% of their area dedicated to RS. However, these Outline Plans will need to be approved by Council. There will be no requirement for Council to approve a plan that it feels will create challenges due to having too many RS lots.

I intend to vote in favour of these amendments. I’m very worried about our housing market. This change may help it significantly. At the same time, it won’t allow development to happen in an uncontrolled manner. Council will maintain full discretion on whether to approve plans with a high proportion of RS land. I’m confident that City staff and Council will demand a high quality of neighbourhood design as it considers them.

I know some will be concerned about this change due to a few problematic small lot neighbourhoods in our community. We don’t want to see those problems duplicated in new developments. However, over the past 13 years, there have been a lot of changes which make small lots more viable. These include:

  • The minimum width of Small Lots has been increased by 4' on properties with no rear lane and 2' on properties with a rear lane

  • Driveways have been limited to 60% of a lot's width (there was no limit before). Not allowing super large driveways creates more green space on lawns and more on street parking

  • Now, when a rear laneway is present, driveway access must be from it. This creates even more landscaped space and on-street parking at the front of houses

  • Builders are now providing side and rear doors a lot more than they used to. There are older houses with rear lanes that are seldom used by the owners because they only have front doors

  • Neighbourhoods are being designed so that rear lanes aren't as long, which also encourages more use of them for parking

  • Secondary suites have a lot more regulations around them, including proximity limitations and increased on-site parking requirements. Secondary suites also require a lot width that is larger than the minimum in a Small Lot Residential district

Given these changes, I think it is very possible to create developments with small lots that are desirable to live in and not overly challenging for the City to maintain. There have been some bad small lot developments in the past. But that shouldn’t prevent us from allowing good small lot developments in the future.

When they come before us, I may not vote in favour of all Outline Plans with high proportions of RS. I will need to examine them on a case-by-case basis. But I think that these plans at least deserve consideration from Council. The bylaw amendments under discussion will allow that consideration to occur.

Advocacy for Childrens’ Health Care

One role of municipal government is to advocate for our citizen’s needs to senior levels of government. In Alberta, a lot of our advocacy takes place through the Alberta Urban Municipalities Association (AUMA). It does a very good job of talking to the provincial and federal governments on behalf of members.

Member municipalities can present resolutions to the AUMA membership. If approved, these resolutions become advocacy priorities for AUMA.

Mayor Given has asked Council to submit a resolution calling on the government to prioritize enhancing resources in regional hospitals to provide a better network of care for children.

In principal, I’m supportive of this idea. However, I need to know more specifics about this resolution before I can vote in favour of it. I don’t know what circumstances have led to its proposal, or any particulars about how it will ask the government to prioritize care. I also don’t know how it is intended to intersect with municipal roles. I have a lot of questions to ask at our meeting. The answers I get will determine how I vote on this issue.

Fees and Charges Bylaw

On Thursday, Council will be having a special meeting to introduce a Fees and Charges Bylaw.

Right now, all the fees and charges the City levies for its services are laid out in over 25 separate bylaws, policies, and procedures. If passed, the Fees and Charges bylaw would layout everything the City charges in a single document. This will greatly enhance our transparency and efficiency.

I am completely and enthusiastically in support of this consolidation.

This bylaw will also change some of the fees the City charges. It lowers some, but it also raises others: it will increase the revenue we take in. In general, I am in support of its fee changes. But there are a few particulars I opposed.

Council set a course for raising some fees during our budget deliberations. At that time, Council set a goal of increasing revenue from fees and charges by $250 000, which achieved a tax decrease of 0.2% (you can read more about this here).

I was supportive of this goal.

When I look at our fees compared to other Alberta municipalities, ours are often low. This is because most of our fees haven’t been adjusted in well over a decade while fees elsewhere have been adjusted due to inflation. Grande Prairie’s comparatively low fees contribute to our comparatively high tax bills. I’ve heard loud and clear that our community expects our tax bills to be brought more in line with others. The primary way we can do that is through better targeting and spending our funds. But examining our non-tax revenue sources also needs to be part of our strategy for tax reduction.

I believe that those who access services should pay a higher proportion of costs in order to lessen the subsidy given by taxpayers. This is especially important in Grande Prairie as many non-City residents (who don’t pay City taxes) access City services which are subsidized by City taxpayers.

I am against some of the specific changes in the bylaw. However, I will not be opposing them on Thursday. I will be voting in favour of the Fees and Charges Bylaw as presented.

At the end of April, Council Committee of the Whole met to discuss the particulars of fees and charges. We examined recommendations made by administration and debated amendments moved by Councillors. Based on what Council decided at that meeting, administration drafted not only a Fees and Charges Bylaw, but also amendments to all the other bylaws, policies, and procedures that touch on fees. This was a very complex and time intensive task. It would not be appropriate to derail it at this time.

However: going forward, Council will be reviewing all City fees and charges on an annual basis during our fall budget deliberations. I have a few changes I anticipate suggesting in November.

You can see the proposed Fees and Charges bylaw here. If you want to see what fees are changing, the best document to read is the report presented to Committee in April. If you want to see how its recommendations were modified, you can read the minutes of that meeting here.

That’s what is on our agenda for Tuesday. I’d love to hear your thoughts.

You can comment below. Or, you can contact me at or 780-402-4166. I'm happy to talk online or over the phone. I'm also always willing to setup a time to meet for coffee.

We also always have great conversation in the GP Round Table group on Facebook.

After Council meeting, you will be able to find highlights posted by the City here.

Thanks for reading!