Bylaw seen as greenspace protector and development blocker

City councillors and community groups remain divided over a bylaw that has Whitehorse citizens going to the polls Thursday for the first referendum…

City councillors and community groups remain divided over a bylaw that has Whitehorse citizens going to the polls Thursday for the first referendum in 24 years.

They can’t agree on whether the bylaw should be passed. Or even what the wording actually means.

Here’s the question as it will appear on ballots: “Do you approve passage of Bylaw 2006-11, a bylaw to require a planning study and a greenspace map as part of the preliminary development process for any new residential

development of any size, and a plebiscite (vote) to approve the greenspace map?”

The city says the bylaw would apply to one person subdividing one lot.

But Carole Bookless, whose original petition forced the city to draft the bylaw and hold the referendum, says it doesn’t.

“Any development does not mean somebody dividing their house lot; it does mean developments that threaten greenspace,” said Bookless.

The petition’s intent was to protect city greenspace, not cause added paperwork.

So why did the city draft the bylaw that way?

“Because they’re trying to stop it,” said Bookless.

“Because they don’t want to change anything they’re doing and they certainly don’t want to have residents vote on it.”

Nonetheless, Bookless is promoting a yes vote as a “step forward.

“Even though the bylaw doesn’t comply with what we asked for, it at least moves us forward.”

If the bylaw does pass, Bookless will lobby for two amendments: first, that the city be responsible for drafting the planning study instead of the developer; and second, the greenspace plans would cover entire subdivisions, like Porter Creek and Riverdale, rather than just small areas slated for new development.

“If it doesn’t pass, the city will continue to do things they’ve always done and there will still be conflicts and long waits to get developments through,” said Bookless.

Over the last few weeks, the city has taken out ads in newspapers and used its website to explain the bylaw and its implications.

It says the bylaw means increased costs and delays on Whitehorse development.

That was an “unprecedented campaign of misinformation,” said Bookless.

Under the new bylaw, the developer picks up the cost of drafting the study and map, which the city estimates will fall between $5,000 and $60,000, according to a city release.

The city would pay for the plebiscite, which costs between $3,000 and $18,000 apiece. This means taxpayers could foot an annual bill of between $45,000 and $360,000, the city claims.

Currently, it takes 12 to 17 months to develop a subdivision and the new bylaw would add three months to the process, said city administrative director Robert Fendrick.

“We haven’t told anybody how to vote, we’ve told them what will happen if they vote one way or the other,” said Fendrick.

“But what we do see is problems with mixing greenspace planning with plebiscites and voting procedures. I think it’s undue process.

“We like greenspace, we’ve already passed bylaw 2006-10, which means now if we wanted to change something that’s protected as green there has to be a citywide referendum,” said Fendrick.

“The city is supposed to be neutral in proposing this bylaw and it’s quite clearly not,” said Shirley Roburn, executive director of the Yukon Conservation Society.

Although the NGO cannot advocate a yes or no vote on the referendum question, Roburn says it’s important to keep the city accountable to the public.

“There’s a plan for the city of Whitehorse that clearly says where development should take place and, in the past year, we’ve seen a number of attempts to circumvent that in an ad hoc way just because a developer approached them.

“It shouldn’t be developer-driven.”

Currently, if citizens are unhappy with a new development proposal, they must make their voices heard by writing letters and attending consultations.

Few know that road better than members of the McLean Lake Residents Association, who continue to fight a proposal by a cement batch plant and gravel quarry to set up shop near the lake.

The group supports the proposed bylaw.

“It will spare future residents from difficulties we have encountered, make land-use plans more accountable and support the collective desire of citizens to have the best of our environment preserved within city boundaries,” said the association in a release.

Meanwhile city councillors are opposing the bylaw as it’s written.

“I don’t think we need another level of bureaucratic involvement any time somebody wants to do a development,” said councillor Dave Austin.

“I think we have plenty of greenspace planning in place as it is.”

Plebiscites will be costly and cumbersome for the city, said councillor Bev Buckway, who is also supporting a no vote.

“We’ll be having plebiscites at least 20 times a year and people won’t come out to vote that many times, so we’ll end up with a small amount of the population making these decisions,” she said.

“And this could cost us $300,000 a year, which isn’t in the city budget and if we have to have a tax increase to accommodate that then that’s what will happen.”

A yes vote is also a vote for higher housing prices, said Yukon Real Estate Association president Mike Racz.

Whitehorse already lacks affordable housing and prices have risen 25 per cent in the last year; passing this bylaw will worsen the problem by hamstringing new developments, he said.

“I’m not in favour of putting another hurdle in the path of development,” said Racz.

“No developer will come into the city, buy some land and then go through 50 little reviews, the YESAA board, and spend thousands and thousands of dollars to have a neighbourhood group say, ‘No, you can’t develop here.’

“It ain’t going to happen — it’s fine for the government to take 10 years to develop a subdivision like Copperbelt, but not a private developer, they want a return on their investment.”

(There has only been one significant private housing development in Whitehorse in recent memory, Pine Ridge subdivision.)

The polls will be open from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. Thursday. Voters who live above the escarpment will cast ballots at the Canada Games Centre, and those below the escarpment at the Royal Canadian Legion.