Q & A with the Planning Team
In this month’s feature article for Business Beat, we are taking a bit of a different direction. We interviewed some of the members of our planning office to ask the questions that come up quite frequently with our business community. Big thanks to Colton (CN), Michelle (MG) and Colin (CG) for providing some insight into the world of planning.
Question: Explain planning in a nutshell
CN: "Planning is a very generalist profession. We aren’t generally experts in a particular field, but typically, the majority of planners in municipalities have to touch on a wide swath of disciplines on a daily basis, including landscaping, urban design, sustainability planning, transportation and so on. We rely on various other experts depending on the inquiry (and scope)."
MG: "A really important piece to convey, as planners, is that we strive to consider all perspectives when processing applications. For example, we may go to a development permit (DP) meeting that includes members from Waste Services, Engineering and Economic Development – all with differing interests – so we try to balance these interests with those of the applicant, while considering Council objectives and abiding by applicable regulations and policies. Sometimes, this is why it can take much longer to process. We have to engage more than just one department in order to find that balance. This is especially so with large projects."
CN: "To build on Michelle’s point – there is always the struggle between political elements in the desires of the free market vs. balancing public interest. There is always a relationship with other projects, but the fact is, each project is different. Different locations, different history, and different development objectives – the reality is there are so many factors at play."
Question: What is the most common issue that arises when working with businesses?
CN: "It isn’t so much an issue, as more of the question why? We get a lot of questions around the reasoning behind our process."
MG: "Agreed, and it can be hard to explain the process in an easy way. In part, it’s about having some level of regulation and some level of review, but it is very much dependent on the project. A certain level of regulation allows for consistency in how areas develop, but each project is unique. There are some projects that are very cut and dry, and can get a quick answer, but more often than not there are areas that need a development process review to understand the impacts to surrounding businesses and the community."
CG: "There are a lot of process considerations. Part of the challenge is that everything flows from other legislative requirements that apply. Municipalities are bound by legislative requirements that impact how bylaws and plans are developed. We are also required to balance those considerations with what businesses want to do, such as the approaches they want to take, and how that impacts businesses and landowners.
We are often asked: Can’t you just change this rule or bylaw? But it depends on a lot of things, including mandatory requirements and provisions, different legislation, bylaws and policies, and things such as safety codes or the Water Act and Migratory Bird Act. There is always a lot to consider."
MG: "Once again, and to that end, it’s about balancing individual land owner interests with the greater good. It’s not just about the specific applicant – we want to provide that flexibility – but we have to consider the broader impacts to the community."
Question: Ok, so why does it always seem take so long to get an answer?
CN: "Compared to other municipalities, we are quite quick. But there are also regulations that we have to abide by, such as:
- When we get an application we have 40 days, once it is deemed complete (everything submitted correctly) to review and make a decision on the application,
- This time period can be extended for more complex applications if both parties agree;
- There is a 3 week mandatory provincially legislated appeal period.
- During this appeal period, affected parties (typically stakeholders that are adjacent to the proposed development) can appeal the decision of the Development Authority;
- Providing the opportunity for impacted people to appeal, can provide lengthy delays as well.
Question: What can I do as an applicant to make this process as smooth and fast as possible?
CG: "Ideally what speeds up the process the most is coming in with a proposal that meets all the Land Use Bylaw (LUB), statutory plan requirements and then submit all the materials that are required in the application. If it conforms to the provisions in place, then the approval process is relatively straightforward. However, it’s where variances from the standards occur, or there is much more of a discretionary proposal, this is where there will be some back and forth discussions. If the applicant is willing to work with the municipality, and discuss the development, then things can move much quicker; notwithstanding there are set standards and processes for fairness to the applicant and anyone who has concerns (legislated). The understanding is that everyone is given a fair standing in the process."
MG: "As staff members we are a delegated authority to implement Council's adopted plans and policies, including and not limited to the Municipal Development Plan (MDP), Land Use Bylaw (LUB), etc. There is some latitude built into these that allow us some discretion, but we have to ensure that we are meeting the intent of each document – so if we are pushing back on a proposal that doesn’t meet these requirements, it’s because we are trying to work within the confines of these plans, and we don’t have the authority to completely go against them. So, we can often find a solution, as long as there isn’t too much deviation from these plans."
CG: "To take that one step further – planners in general, and any of those bound by our framework and regulation, are always balancing public good vs. private interest. We cannot in good conscience just move forward with something that is benefitting a private developer if it conflicts with a matter of public interest. With the understanding that one or two adjacent landowners being upset about a development doesn’t necessarily equate to the public interest."
CN: "Engage with the Town as early as possible in the process. In larger markets, it is quite common for large developers to have planning consultants – who can help guide the developer through the myriad of rules and regulations that need to be navigated. This isn’t the reality in Okotoks yet, as we are quite small and nimble, but engaging the Town as early as possible and working to understand the planning and regulatory framework will assist you in moving your project forward."
CG: "All of this is project dependent. Every project is different, and that is why we are here – to help! If you have questions or concerns, then get in contact with us early. We are here to help guide you through this process. We start to have major challenges and delays when applicants are unwilling to work with Town staff in helping to move your project along within the guidelines and framework that guides the growth of the Town. We aren’t here to make everyone’s life difficult. Really, we are here to scrutinize and ensure that development happens in accordance with the Town’s planning framework.”
Question: Alright, so final question: what’s with all of the acronyms?
CN: "ASP, MDP, LUB, DP, BP… it’s because the full names are such mouthfuls! The terms tend to have too many words, so we just shorten them. It’s so common in planning that we call it plain language – It’s our attempt to make explaining planning items as easy as possible for the public.
About Okotoks Planners
Colin Gainer (Senior Planner), Colton Nickel (Development Planner) and Michelle Grenwich (Planner) are part of the Community Investment, Growth and Sustainability (CIGS) team at the Town of Okotoks. As part of the CIGS teams, they work collaboratively with other business centres, including Economic Development, to help grow the Town and bring development to fruition.