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Who does municipal planning?

As a councillor it is important to have a clear understanding of the role of council and the various planning authorities it establishes to carry out municipal planning responsibilities.  It is also important for councillors to anticipate some of the challenges they will face as councillors in dealing with planning matters. 


Council is responsible for establishing broad planning policy through the adoption of intermunicipal development plans, municipal development plans, area structure plans, area redevelopment plans and the land use bylaw and other non-statutory plans and policies as appropriate.

Different challenges will arise at each level of plan development. When dealing with intermunicipal development plans, challenges arise from a different understandings and expectations as to the role of each community and what is necessary for each community to achieve success. Differences in community lifestyles, spending priorities, and perceptions of the impact on each other can prevent participants from looking at the long term. Often there is a history of either agreement or disagreement that can transcend the issues at hand. It is important to take a regional and long term perspective when looking at intermunicipal relations.

At the general municipal plan stage debates can centre on fundamental questions of whether, when, how, and where the community should grow. This stage can also include debates around the development of major transportation corridors (especially as these might affect existing communities) and the municipality’s role in development. Public opinion on some matters as well as the views of developers can be very strong at this stage. Again, a long term perspective is important.

Rezoning is the stage at which matters tend to become very personal. Development proposals often affect the use and enjoyment of the private home. Emotions can run high when debating the impact on quality of life and character of the neighbourhood. Some impacts such as parking, traffic, and shadow can be addressed through changes in the site design, the location of parking areas, and/or access and egress from the site. Sometimes however these changes are not enough to satisfy the affected parties.

The lifecycle of communities and implications for council

Residential neighbourhoods undergo change as both the houses and the population age. Changing demographics mean that once highly prized community services such as schools and active playgrounds are no longer in demand. Even with newer families moving in, household sizes are generally smaller. Where there once was a school in every neighbourhood, schools now must draw upon much larger catchment areas forcing school boards to consider school closures to rationalize classroom space. Older homes may be acquired for rental purposes. Absentee landlords may not have the same standards of maintenance and care leading to changes in the character of the neighbourhood. Depending on the economy in the community, there may be demands for higher density housing to replace lower density housing that is deteriorating. Even infill single family homes can present challenges with the size of the home and coverage on the lot being out of character with others in the community.

Commercial and industrial areas also undergo changes usually as a result of functional obsolescence. This means that uses and buildings which once were well suited are no longer able to meet the demands of the current economy. At the neighbourhood level this often affects the viability and mix of commercial uses in local strip malls. Larger commercial or industrial areas may be completely redeveloped to new uses which can cause stresses on neighbouring communities.

It is difficult for communities to ignore such changes and councillors will need to prepare themselves for proposals to redevelop that may be met with significant opposition. Broad policies on infill housing and neighbourhood redevelopment can assist in easing this transition by reducing the frequency and intensity of individual conflicts.

Difficulties can also arise in newer communities. Depending on the market, multifamily sites, neighbourhood commercial, and institutional uses such as schools, fire halls, or major recreation facilities may not be developed for several years. This can mean that early residents become accustomed to and prefer long time vacant sites which may have become informal parks or recreation areas. A changing economy can also result in demands for a different use than originally planned. It is an ongoing challenge to keep the public informed about future plans for vacant parcels.

As if these challenges were not enough, councillors must be ever vigilant in remembering that they are one of several who have been elected and that that they must work for the benefit of the whole community.

Bias and planning decisions

People elected to council often come with strong views on issues that matter to the community. Indeed, it is often strong views that get councillors interested in running for office and elected in the first place. However, while an important part of municipal politics, strong views can become problematic when they prevent a councillor from considering the views of others. Bias in planning decisions can result in decisions being overturned in the courts at great expense to the municipality.

Planning documents and policies that have been approved by council are valid until amended. Councillors must adhere to adopted policies and plans when carrying out their planning duties, even if these policies run counter to their own views or contradict their election platforms. It is also important that councillors demonstrate a willingness to consider a broad range of views on planning issues. To help achieve this, councillors must distinguish their role on council from their role on a municipal planning commission or a subdivision and development appeal board. As a councillor they are elected to represent the views of their constituents and strong opinions are to be expected. The standard test for bias in a councillor acting as a member of council is whether the councillor demonstrates a “closed mind”, in other words, “an expression of a final opinion on a matter that cannot be dislodged”.  Councillors must be careful when meeting with their constituents and when speaking at council that they not show an unwillingness to consider the opinions of others. When a councillor is acting as a member of an administrative body such as a municipal planning commission or a quasi-judicial body such as a subdivision and development appeal board the test for bias is much stricter. Here, bias is determined on the basis of whether a reasonable observer identifies impartiality. Thus, where a councillor has expressed strong opinions, or where the council as a whole has expressed opinions before and during the appeal, it may be best if the councillor does not participate in the appeal hearing.

Municipal planning commission

A municipality may establish by bylaw a Municipal Planning Commission (MPC) and prescribe in the bylaw the functions and duties of the commission including, but not limited to, subdivision and development authority powers and duties.

As the formation of a municipal planning commission is enabled but not mandatory, a council should consider what functions a commission would perform and whether it would address the needs and expectations of council, administration, and the wider public.

An MPC that is strictly advisory can be valuable where there are substantial planning policy questions to be explored. The MPC, operating at arm’s length from the council, may have greater freedom in engaging the public, thus broadening support for planning actions. An MPC can openly assess options, allowing the council greater freedom in making a decision. There is a risk, however, that an MPC can become too attached to particular recommendations, causing the commission to challenge council’s authority. It is critical that the MPC have clear terms of reference for its activities, especially with respect to its function and relationship to council. It is recommended that MPCs be firmly integrated into governance frameworks and not be implemented as afterthoughts to the decision making process.

Council and administration must have trust and confidence in the competence and value of MPC contributions. Finally, it is important that there be sufficient meaningful activities for MPC members to maintain their interest.

Many MPCs are also delegated authority to make decisions on subdivision and development permit applications. Council should carefully consider what problems it is trying to solve in delegating this authority. An MPC might prove valuable in relieving administration from making politically sensitive decisions. In some communities there may be a preference for any discretion in decision making to be exercised by a panel rather than a single individual. There may also be a feeling that a panel is less subject to bias. However, it is also important to remember that forming an MPC can significantly add to the time required to make decisions.

MPC member selection is crucial, and should be considered carefully. Attracting competent commission candidates can be a challenge, especially in smaller communities where the number of volunteers may be limited and already overburdened. In implementing an MPC it must be decided whether councillors should be appointed to the MPC. Having one or two councillors on the MPC can assist the commission members in understanding the background to issues. Council members of the MPC can also provide the council with a broader perspective on matters. Appointing a majority of councilors to the commission, however, may affect the utility of the MPC as an arm’s length body.

Subdivision authority

A municipality must adopt a bylaw to provide for a subdivision authority to exercise subdivision powers and duties on behalf of the municipality. A subdivision authority may include one or more of the following:

  • Any or all members of Council;
  • A designated officer;
  • A municipal planning commission;
  • Any other person or organization.

Most municipalities assign subdivision authority to a member or members of staff. Some municipalities assign more complex subdivision approvals to a municipal planning commission. Some smaller municipalities contract with a consultant or planning agency to carry out subdivision duties on behalf of the municipality.

Development authority

A municipality must adopt a bylaw to provide for a development authority to exercise development powers and carry out duties on behalf of the municipality. A development authority may include one or more of the following:

  • A designated officer;
  • A municipal planning commission;
  • Any other person or organization.

The development authority is usually carried out by one or more staff members. Some municipalities provide that applications for discretionary uses are referred to a municipal planning commission.

Subdivision and development appeal board

A municipality is required to adopt a bylaw to provide for a subdivision and development appeal board (SDAB) to hear appeals from decisions of the subdivision or development authority. The Municipal Government Act (MGA) presently does not specify training or other requirements for appointees to the SDAB. Councillors may be appointed to the SDAB but may not form the majority of the board. The following persons, however, may not be appointed to the SDAB:

  • An employee of the municipality;
  • A person who carries out subdivision or development powers on behalf of the municipality;
  • A member of a municipal planning commission.

The SDAB bylaw sets out the number of members on the board, typically 3 or 5. An odd number of members is preferred in order to avoid tie votes. A problem that is frequently encountered with an SDAB is failure to obtain a quorum for a hearing because one or more members are absent. Consideration should be given to appointing alternate members who may sit on the board in the event one or more regular members are unable to attend.

Smaller municipalities sometimes have difficulties finding sufficient volunteers to sit on the SDAB. The MGA allows a municipality to establish by agreement with one or more other municipalities an intermunicipal development appeal board with representatives appointed from each of the participating municipalities. Limitations on membership are the same except with respect to council participation. Councillors may not form the majority of the SDAB from the municipality where the appeal is located.

Making planning decisions

The mechanisms for making decisions on development permits allow for varying degrees of direct council involvement. Council members can also participate on the Subdivision and Development Appeal Board but since persons who are involved in making decisions on development permits cannot also serve on the appeal board, council needs to decide on which body it wishes to participate. The range of choices and the relationship between participation in approval and appeal processes is illustrated in the chart below.

Maximum council involvement Some council involvement Limited Council involvement
Establish a municipal planning commission to act as a development authority. Appoint council or councillors to the MPC. Establish a municipal planning commission to decide on development permit applications for discretionary uses. Appoint a minority of councillors to the MPC. All decisions on development permits are made by administration.
No councillor who is acting as a development authority can sit on the subdivision and development appeal board. Appoint some councillors to the appeal board and some to the municipal planning commission. No councillors on the appeal board.

Some councils prefer to maintain a high degree of involvement wherever discretionary authority is exercised. However, no municipality has gone so far as to establish a municipal planning commission consisting of all councillors with exclusive authority to issue development permits. Many, however, do maintain some involvement with some councillors sitting on a municipal planning commission to deal with discretionary uses and other members sitting on the subdivision and development appeal board. Some councils take the view that administrative matters should be left to administration, while council deals with policy. There is no absolute right or wrong approach; rather, configurations must be considered on a case by case basis. When deciding upon MPC membership it is important to keep in mind that sitting on these committees can be quite time consuming. It should also be noted that while council committees normally only meet once or twice a month, more frequent meetings are often required meet the time sensitive demands of development permits.