PUBLIC HEARINGS in B.C.
Can We Do It Better ? A Personal Opinion
A Public Hearing :
A formal device to involve the public in the approval process for zoning and land use changes which has the unfortunate habit of creating misunderstanding, conflict and hostility.
The Process : The formal process for a Public Hearing is laid down in the Municipal Act (890 - 892). This requires that a Public Hearing be held after first reading and before third reading of a proposed land-use, zoning or OCP bylaw. Members of the public are allowed to make written submissions and to speak, but there is no laid-down provision for dialogue or discussion on controversial aspects of a proposal (but nor is there any clause which says this may not happen). Following the Public Hearing, council or board members sometimes assume the attitude that they may not receive any new information, although there is nothing in the Act which stipulates this. After the public hearing, the council or board may adopt or defeat the bylaw, or alter it before adoption, providing that the alterations do not (i) alter the use, (ii) increase the density, or (iii) decrease the density of any area without the owner's consent.
The Problems : In municipalities or regional districts lacking Advisory Planning or Design Commissions, a council or board receives a proposal from the developer, makes whatever modifications staff or council may recommend, drafts the relevant bylaws and proceeds to 1st (and usually 2nd) reading before bringing the proposal to a public hearing. By this time, the momentum for approval is strong, and the developer has invested a considerable amount of time and money in the proposal. The mechanism for public input allows members of the public to comment on the plans (for or against), and to make suggestions for improvements, but there is no way to correct misleading information or dialogue around proposed changes. After the public hearing, if a council or board is set on proceeding to third reading, their resistance to hearing any new information eliminates the opportunity for constructive dialogue to improve or adjust the plans. Since Public Hearings allow anyone to speak, whether or not they understand the facts of a proposal, they can generate increased misunderstanding and conflict, which does not further a considered, reasoned analysis of a proposal.
1. Establish an Advisory Planning and Advisory Design Commission, with a fair and transparent method for choosing members.
2. Create a process for public review of a project before the bylaws have been drafted, and before it moves to first reading. Call it a 'Public Pre-Hearing' to attract attendance.
3. Establish a process to facilitate good communication, eg :
(i) Representatives from the developer, the planning department and the local community sit down to discuss the proposal and decide on the key issues of public concern (eg density, parking, landscaping, transport impacts, affordability, etc). They choose an independent facilitator to run the pre-hearing.
(ii) At the pre-hearing, after the initial overview presentation by the proponent or developer, time is allocated for each area of concern eg:
ISSUE A (eg density). Brief presentation followed by a facilitated discussion, questions, answers and interactive dialogue. Each item which generates alternative proposals or suggestions is noted by the facilitator for later attention.
ISSUE B (eg parking). The process is repeated - and so on. When all issues have been covered, there is a final period for general statements of support or opposition.
4. After the pre-hearing, arrange another meeting between the developer, planners and local community re to go over the key issues, and discuss possible solutions. A formal arrangement should also be made to communicate results and progress back to the community.
Guy Dauncey, Sustainable Communities Consultancy
395 Conway Rd, Victoria BC V8X 3X1 Tel/fax (250) 881-1304
email@example.com September 1998