Zoning bylaw hearing draws different visions for Yellowknife's future

Some residents want to see the commercial developments in residential areas turfed, to protect the character of the neighbourhoods. Others said they support the bylaw — with one saying mixed-use zoning is what makes the city's Old Town neighborhood a desirable place to live.

City touts climate change adaptation and affordable housing stock as bylaw benefits

A public hearing on Saturday marked the last opportunity for residents in Yellowknife to have their say on a proposed zoning bylaw that could change the way development in the city is carried out. (Graham Shishkov/CBC)

Several residents feel Yellowknife has taken its draft zoning bylaw a "step too far" and that commercial uses in residential areas need to be curbed — or turfed altogether — for the sake of their neighbourhood's character. 

But a public hearing on Saturday, in which residents had the opportunity to address councillors on the proposed changes, also drew a handful of supporters. 

"Mixed-use zoning is a positive thing," said Cat McGurk, who lives in the residential central zone, and who described why she supported the bylaw as an eco-anxious young person, a foster parent, a homeowner and a non-profit president — among other things. 

"Things have to change. If when I'm 50 things haven't changed, well I might be dead," she said. 

"It sounds like a laugh to equate the passing of a zoning bylaw to the environmental and economic collapse of society, but it's resistance to change that's the real killer. It isn't just a nail in the coffin, it's death by a thousand paper cuts." 

A zoning bylaw regulates what can and cannot be built on different lots throughout Yellowknife, and sets rules for the things that can be built, ranging from minimum parking requirements to the height of a building and even landscaping. 

One of the purposes of the new zoning bylaw is to adapt to climate change by minimizing greenhouse gas emissions and limiting builds in areas that are prone to flooding, hazardous or already natural areas. 

It also aims to increase housing options and create economic opportunities. 

The matter of mixed-use zoning

McGurk said what makes Old Town special and worth cherishing is that it's always been zoned for mixed use. She said a person could leave work at the end of the day, grab a new toque at Weaver and Devore and arrive on time for a reservation at Bullocks Bistro an hour later, because a myriad of buildings all exist in the same neighbourhood.

But a number of residents spoke out against the bylaw on Saturday, specifically because it could allow new commercial development in current residential areas. 

Under the new bylaw, some parts of the city — near, but not inside the downtown area — are dubbed residential central (RC) and residential central 1 (RC-1). 

The RC-1 zone, added to the draft zoning bylaw a few weeks ago, has a long list of permitted uses including commercial retail sales, convenience stores and food and beverage services. It also allows for higher density dwellings, like detached homes, duplexes and townhouses — all with a maximum height of 12 metres. 

The RC zone comes with a slightly longer list of permitted and discretionary uses, and would also allow for townhouses as tall as 45 meters. 

A map of the current proposed bylaw zones. A number of people at Saturday's public hearing said the bylaw would allow too many permitted uses in residential neighbourhods. (City of Yellowknife)

"The city is abdicating its responsibility to oversee development by attempting to put so many permitted uses in the RC-1 zoning area," said Tom Hall, the first of nine people who opposed the bylaw at the hearing. 

"This would effectively mean a developer could build anything within those permitted uses without any additional approvals, without council approval and free from appeals."

Hall said regulations within the bylaw deal with the nuances of construction, and the type of siding on an all-night strip club in the middle of a residential neighbourhood would do little to ease residents' concerns. 

He also argued the public was given little opportunity to participate in consultation, and felt the consultation that did take place was rendered "meaningless" when city politicians decided to add more permitted uses to RC-1. The zone was initially created with fewer permitted uses to appease residents' concerns. 

Of the 28 written submissions sent to the city on the matter, six were in favour and 22 were opposed. 

Chickens and democracy

Linda Bussey says she's chosen to live on the outskirts of downtown for 26 years.

"I think more people living in our area, in any area in fact, can be a positive for neighbours and  the city, and for its development," she said. "Densification can be a positive development for sustaining a vibrant atmosphere." 

However, the 50A Avenue resident said the RC-1 zone, as proposed, would not preserve the character of her neighbourhood. She said the permitted commercial developments would "present major changes to our environment" and would hinder traffic flow and parking on her narrow street.

Honeybees crawl in and out of a colony at an apiary in Newfoundland. Linda Bussey said she has a beehive in her own backyard in Yellowknife, and would like to see backyard chickens and beehives permitted under the new zoning bylaw. (Garrett Barry/CBC)

Bussey said she would support urban agriculture in RC-1 if livestock were removed from the permitted use. She also suggested capping backyard chickens at four per home, and beehives at one per home. 

Lois Little had harsh words for city politicians.

If the zoning bylaw were to be passed as presented, she said "the quality of life is going to diminish significantly, and that will be the legacy of this council." 

She also argued the proposed zoning bylaw itself is undemocratic. 

"It appalls me that a public government, like the city of Yellowknife, would in effect mute the voices of residents when it comes to decisions about permitted developments and permitted uses," she said, addressing politicians via Zoom, during an hours-long public hearing on the matter. 

Continuing her point, Little said the bylaw would be undemocratic because it would allow anything to go anywhere, and because many developments wouldn't require a permit. She then called on the city to add a mechanism to the bylaw that allows residents to be heard.

Civic staff said they purposefully avoided a "much more involved process" for residents, in an effort to balance public feedback with gathered data. 

Rebecca Alty, the city's mayor and chair of the meeting, also noted the public hearing was, itself, the "biggest" mechanism being used to hear people's thoughts on the bylaw. 

"I want to point out this is really that democratic process of deciding what's permitted in our neighbourhoods, under what conditions, what should be discretionary uses and what shouldn't be allowed at all." 

Backyard enjoyment

Dave Jones, meanwhile, spoke about the R1 zone. It covers a large amount of low-density residential neighbourhoods throughout the city, and would allow duplex and townhouses up to 12 metres in height. 

"While I'm not opposed to infill and densification, which is one of the hallmarks of this bylaw … the addition of apartments and townhomes in the R1 zone is something that gives me concern for the character of my neighbourhood." 

Jones said such buildings could straddle up to three lots, and — as seen elsewhere in the city — might end up with a gravel parking lot and cars in front of them. 

Crestview Apartments is an example of a three-storey, multi-unit building in Yellowknife. (Walter Strong/CBC)

He also worried about the impact of secondary buildings that could be built on the lots of existing homes in his neighbourhood. 

"I do enjoy my backyard. I like having access to the sun and I have a garden. I don't want a three-storey building looking over my yard," he said. Though some of the principals of the zoning bylaw are good, said Jones, he feels it's a "step too far."

"It hasn't taken a baby step to the next step," he said. "It's gone five steps ahead." 

The public hearing was the last opportunity in which residents could have their say on the proposal. Now, it's up to councillors to deliberate and decide which way to move forward.


Liny Lamberink


Liny Lamberink is a reporter for CBC North. She moved to Yellowknife in March 2021, after working as a reporter and newscaster in Ontario for five years. She can be reached at