Public hearing on divisive community guidebook draws about 150 Calgarians to speak at council

Public hearings are underway at city hall so Calgarians can tell council what they think about the controversial proposed community guidebook.

Nenshi acknowledges 'confusion' as questions and concerns arise

A public hearing is underway on Calgary's guidebook for communities. (James Young/CBC)

A public hearing continues at city hall on Tuesday, as Calgarians voice their concerns or support for a controversial community guidebook that is up for council approval.

The Guidebook for Great Communities took five years to design, is 131 pages long, and, if approved, aims to help with the drafting of new local area plans.

The city said the guidebook will not change any land zoning, alter the current process for changing land use or amend the existing land use bylaw.

However, concerned stakeholders fear it could lay the groundwork for unwanted population density in residential neighbourhoods and feel it hasn't been developed with enough public consultation.

About 150 people registered to address the guidebook with council in five-minute presentations on Monday and Tuesday, and the sessions have seen many concerned Calgarians take the mic.

"The city should acknowledge there has been insufficient public involvement relative to the impact of the proposed changes, and that there is a tremendous amount of confusion about what the impact of the guidebook could be," Elbow Park resident and presenter Lisa Poole said Tuesday.

Tell us what you think!

Help shape the future of CBC article pages by taking a quick survey.

A lot of confusion out there

Mayor Naheed Nenshi has acknowledged — and attempted to dispel — the confusion that surrounds the guidebook.

To try to set records straight, the city has posted a myths and facts page on its website.

Muddying the waters, in part, is that Nenshi also previously said the guidebook is neither a law nor a statutory plan. 

But on March 19, Coun. Jeromy Farkas pointed out on Twitter that the guidebook itself says it is a "statutory document," while the bylaw that council is slated to vote on refers to the guidebook as a "statutory plan."

Asked to explain the difference on Monday, Nenshi said, "It's so complicated. Here's the issue: that Coun. Farkas is implying is that this plan actually changes anything. It actually does not; it is a recipe book," Nenshi said.

"It's just a document repository that sits in statute so that the [land development plans] can be shorter … clearly, we haven't been clear enough in our communications. I've tried to be but it seems there's still a lot of confusion out there."

However, presenter Phillip Dack seemed to respectfully challenge council's own understanding of the guidebook with his five minutes on Tuesday.

Dack said he has 40 years of experience with community planning and was called "the guy who basically saved Inglewood" by Coun. Gian-Carlo Carra for once drafting an area plan that included a flood-protection berm.

In a presentation that Nenshi called "super interesting," Dack said that if the guidebook is approved as a statutory plan, it could carry significant weight in determining future land uses in Calgary, as it would also ensure any local area plans must be consistent with the guidebook, and vice versa.

"It is true that approving the guidebook will not immediately change the land uses in Calgary communities … [but] approving the guidebook, absolutely, will legally force the changing of land uses and zoning over a period," Dack said.

"If you approve the guidebook as a statutory document today, you are also determining the basic land-use policies of all the local area plans that follow from it … once you stick your toe in that water, and approve the guidebook, you can't back off."

'What our communities need'

But some Calgarians fell on the other side of the issue, including Bob Morrison with the Calgary Climate Hub.

He said the group supports the guidebook — if it is subject to some amendments and regular reviews — and that it would help make Calgary more environmentally sustainable, and spark the redevelopment of brownfield areas that could incorporate more density.

"The guidebook is essential. The city's planning has not kept up with what our communities need," Morrison said.

"The guidebook provides the opportunity to move beyond simply building things. Instead, our communities can become complete communities and realize their full potential."

However, Nenshi acknowledged that in general, the constant refrain he is hearing from concerned citizens is that they aren't clear on how the guidebook will be implemented, and many were presenting interesting ideas.

His only concern is that it could be a delaying tactic, he said, that would have the guidebook never materialize.

"It's really helpful that we're listening to citizens today. If it means that we have to go back to the drawing board for a little while, I'm not really opposed to that, but I need to have very specific direction on what that means," Nenshi said.

After the public hearing is done, city council will decide what happens next with the proposed guidebook.

With files from Scott Dippel and John Gibson