Monday, 11 June 2012


Until to 1972 the West End had what was in effect an automatic self-regulating bylaw.  That is much of the area was zoned to encourage apartment towers that were evenly spaced from one another.  A built in density bonus ensured that the more open space provided on a site, the taller the building could be.  The system was fair in that anyone who bought into the area knew in advance, what could be built and how the owners’ lands could be affected.  The design of buildings was a product of a mathematical formula.  The bylaw was a girdle into which the building was slipped.

Partially in response to the criticism that buildings were repetitive and uninteresting, the City in 1972 introduced discretionary zoning.  This system allowed   planners to adjust the siting, height and designs of buildings.  The discretion was not absolute.  The bylaw has guidelines that must be applied.

Under the Local Government Act, the system allows variations on siting, but the use or density in an official community plan may not be touched.  Under both systems, however, spot zonings are allowed.

The Vancouver Charter does not generally allow  an owner to sue for damages to his land resulting from a downzoning.  Of course when property is up-zoned or down-zoned, assuming the values move in parallel, so do the taxes.

At common law the sale of zoning by Cities was forbidden.   The legislature, however, can overrule common law.  

Community Amenity Contributions

City governments found a way around this inconvenience.  The song and dance would go like this:  

The Developer would ask to rezone the land to a higher density.  The City would wistfully say, “We would love to but we need three new fire trucks, and many defibrillators.”

The developer would say, “No problem we will give you three fire trucks and all the defibrillators you like.”  

Eyes cast Demurely to the floor, the City Officials would sigh, “Kind sirs, -  that would be the sale of zoning.  We have our virtue to protect.  If, however, you offer us these things, and assure us that your hearts and motives are pure, we can do this.  We will enact the zoning bylaw.  One more thing *** don’t believe for a second that it has anything to do with your gift.  It is your sincerely expressed affection that has seduced  us.”

Their hearts, as pure as the driven slush, the deal would complete.

That system worked fine in other municipalities.Eventually it was expressly authorized by Local Government Act and the Vancouver Charter in the form of Community Amenity Contributions.  Now City Council can leave love out of the zoning equation and focus on the public interest.

When construction takes place on land that is already zoned for a set of land uses and at a specific density,  the City can charge Development Cost Levies.  The charges are fixed in advance by bylaw and then applied to individual developments according to a formula. That is fine.

Development Cost Levies

These are described in in Vancouver’s Web site as:

Development Cost Levies (DCLs) collected from development help pay for facilities made necessary by growth. Facilities eligible for DCL funding include: parks, child care facilities, replacement housing (social/non-profit housing), and engineering infrastructure. The DCL by-laws establish the boundaries, set the rates, and describe how to calculate and pay the levy.  Levies collected within each DCL district must be spent within the area boundary (except replacement housing projects which can be located outside). This Bulletin provides general information about DCLs:

Development Cost Levies v Community Amenity Contributions

A DCL (called DCC under the Local Government Act) is imposed by bylaw on all developments within the area covered by it.  Council must decide that the imposition is fair and equitable.  

Community Amenity Charges by contrast are a completely ad hoc thing sometimes covering the same matters as DCCs. 

The City Web Site defines them as follows:

Community Amenity Contributions (CACs) are in-kind or cash contributions provided by developers when City Council grants additional development rights through rezonings.

How does this differ from the sale of zoning?  Vancouver is allowed to do what it is doing. The question is one rarely asked in politics: Is it right?  

It could easily, over the past two years, have amended its Development Cost Levy bylaw and the Community Plan if  it felt that  the it  was not getting enough from developers. It  could have charged them higher DCC's.

Now you might ask, if this is so bad why don’t the developers complain?  The answer is simply that they build it into the cost of doing business.  Secondly, they may be getting a pretty good deal in terms of a density bonus.

And why should the residents care?  Aren’t they getting free amenities?

The reason they care is that really they are paying for it.  By rezoning the land, the impacts are unequally distributed.  People, for example whose views are affected by the extra bulk of the building lose value in their own homes.  If anyone should be getting paid cash for the gain of amenities, it is the ones adversely affected – not City Hall. 

What exactly are they paying for? What is the amenity?  Part of it is some units of low end rental housing.  But how is that their amenity?  It is  really a form of tax on low to middle income people who live in older multiple family housing stock.  Why should they bear that burden?

The West End Residents have asked Vancouver City Council to produce a new community plan, if they are intent on change. They also want them to stop departing from the existing plan by spot re-zonings until the new one is completed.  In a scene reminiscent of  the Old Testament (Exodus) the West Enders are saying to Council, Let our people plan.  

Council, Pharaoh like, has hardened its heart and indicated that they can plan all they want but the re-zonings will continue.

Given Council’s own priorities, this seems strange.  The basic Community Plan was prepared in 1972 by West End Residents, with help from the Social Planning Department. It accepted high densities. It also resulted in street closures and parks that reduced traffic and made it a safe place to walk and  bike. 

It produced Vancouver’s first urban core bike network. The plan and the process yielded exceptional results.  Vancouver became one of the very few Cities with a livable high density core under a plan that was neighborhood based.

Vancouver Council should go back to the future and give planning a chance. 

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