Judge halts Canmore development by overturning bylaw

Residents of Canmore fighting to keep development away from an urban reserve in their neighbourhood won a victory this week as a judge overturned the land-use bylaw amendment.

Environment impact study was 'devoid of the appearance of fairness,' Justice David Gates writes

Portions of Peaks of Grassi in Canmore are designated as an urban reserve. (Bryan Labby/CBC)

Residents of Canmore, Alta., won a victory in court this week in their fight to keep a forested urban reserve from being turned into a residential development.

A judge has ruled that a land-use bylaw amendment for the site was invalid.

"We're very pleased and relieved with the decision. It was a long time coming," lawyer Mark Gruman said Thursday.

Gruman, who lives in the Peaks of Grassi neighbourhood, filed the judicial review protesting the area's expansion.

Lawyer Mark Gruman, who lives in the Peaks of Grassi area, argued against the town's decision to rezone part of his neighbourhood for further development. (Bryan Labby/CBC)

The four-acre site in question, consisting of three parcels of land, is part of the Peaks of Grassi neighbourhood on the southern edge of the town.

One of the three plots is on a rocky outcropping and another is in a flood zone.

In 2014 a developer proposed adding an additional 40 units to the street of 49 homes, which would have contradicted a 1998 settlement agreement capping development in the neighbourhood and leaving parts of the site as an urban reserve.

City council approved a bylaw amendment for the site in 2016, and dozens of residents, represented by Gruman, filed a legal challenge.

Past coverage of this situation:

Alberta Court of Queen's Bench Justice David Gates' decision, dated Tuesday, rested on whether or not town administration had misled or misinformed council on the flood risk, the geotechnical risk of building on a rocky outcrop and the environmental assessment for the site.

"I find the manner the EIS [environmental impact statement] requirement was dealt with was so 'devoid of the appearance of fairness that the administration of justice is brought into disrepute,'" Gates wrote in his decision.

Construction had been halted on the site in advance of the ruling, said Michael Fark, general manager of municipal infrastructure for the Town of Canmore. The town will have to cover the costs of the legal challenge, he said.

The proposed plan for the Peaks of Grassi development would include a mix of affordable housing and single-family townhouses. (Town of Canmore)

One of the parcels was set to be developed into affordable housing, with the rest becoming townhouse-style single-family homes.

But a full environmental review now will have to be undertaken before another application for a bylaw amendment could be approved.

"Obviously Canmore has a very limited land base, and part of the attraction of this development for council was the addition of the affordable housing component," Fark said.

"It's a good learning opportunity for us and for our council as to what kind of language we include in guided documents and how to manage the process going forward."

Fark said he anticipates the developers will bring forward another application.

Development has been a hot-button issue in Canmore in recent years, as residents have weighed the need for more housing with a desire to keep a harmonious balance when it comes to human-wildlife encounters. 

Alberta Parks closed the urban reserve in Grassi from July to September 2017 in an attempt to prevent interactions between bears and humans.

'Most densely developed' neighbourhood

As for the residents, Gruman said he's hoping the town comes to the conclusion that the area doesn't need further development. 

"The development itself, the Peaks of Grassi development, is probably the most densely developed in Canmore as it is," he said.

"We're hoping that if the town follows its rules and conducts the appropriate and required impact study they will conclude the area is not suitable for development."

With files from Elizabeth Snaddon.