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Zone On, Dig In, Sort Out

Edmonton’s current core population is just over one million.

What comprises the present-day version of the City of Edmonton’s Zoning Bylaw, and the general zone definitions included therein, was created in 1961 — when Edmonton’s population was just over 276,000.

Of course, there have been changes since; the addition of Direct Control zones in the early 80s for specialized developments, plus other incremental changes and additions over time. But the overall bylaw has not had a fulsome review in 62 years. Instead, we’ve continued to add more to an already complex and hard-to-understand bureaucratic document that governs what is arguably the most important function for a municipality.

Enter The City Plan and our bold ambitions for Edmonton’s future.

The reality is that the traditional outward spread of low-density residential housing is no longer fiscally sustainable for growing cities. Municipal services for these areas become more cumbersome and expensive to maintain due to the low density of the resulting tax base, and the unfortunate result is poorer service for not just those communities, but for all communities across the city.

Mixed-use small scale residential zoning is the key to get us to a responsible growth future that still maintains and creates desirable neighbourhoods. I often hear feedback from residents worried about the impact that increased development will have on their property values, but I would counter that development as outlined in The City Plan — walkable and vibrant communities with good amenities close by and options for multiple modes of transportation — will have the opposite effect. A number of Edmontonians have been asking why they are only just hearing about the bylaw renewal now. This is something of a difficult question for me to answer, particularly because the level of engagement from the team working on the Zoning Bylaw Renewal has been so extensive and thus far has included:

All that aside, when people say that hardly anyone knows that this is happening, I believe them. The uncomfortable truth is that most folks aren’t regularly paying attention to municipal policy work, despite the direct impact that it has on our lives. We have busy schedules and limited attention to give.

The good news here is that this engagement process is not over. Engaged Edmonton is still open for your feedback on the draft bylaw until the end of July, and residents can come speak at Public Hearing on October 16 to voice their support or opposition to the final draft bylaw.

Once public engagement is complete, the draft goes to City Council for discussion, debate, and a vote on approval. If passed, the Zoning Bylaw Renewal team will return again to Council with a Work Plan for implementation in early 2024. Following that, the process continues, with City Administration continuing to engage and refine the bylaw as required.

In short, we are far from the end of this process.

I do want to take a moment to address some of the more urgent concerns that I’ve been hearing about the changes coming to residential neighbourhoods.

To start, the proposed small-scale residential zone has a maximum height of 3 storeys, not 8, and must be properly scaled to the neighbourhood. As it stands, the bylaw currently allows for up to 6 dwellings per lot; the changes proposed would bring that up to 8 dwellings.

A reduction to setbacks is proposed, yes, but must still be sufficiently sized to allow space for trees to grow, and any new developments will still require plantings of trees and shrubs.

What kind of impact can Edmonton homeowners expect?

For starters, the positive fiscal repercussions of this change extend past the City Budget.

If you think of the CoE operational budget as something akin to a community barn raising, each taxpayer contributes to the workload —ie: property taxes. The overall level of work required remains the same — we have set operational costs and cannot use debt to fund them — but many hands make light work, even if some of those hands aren’t quite as strong as others.

If I lost you in that metaphor, the operational budget is a static amount, and the more home and business owners there are to contribute, the smaller the tax burden is on individuals.

My lens on city building is informed by optionality. I want you to have the option to wake up and drive or bike or transit to work or school. I want you to have the option to walk to get a coffee in your neighbourhood on a snowy day, or cut across town to visit with a friend. I want you to have the option to stay in your neighbourhood if you need to downsize your living space.

That’s not to say that there are no more issues to evaluate or consider here. I have concerns around what additional infill development may mean without a fully funded and functional regulatory process — including enforcement — for ensuring responsible development and experienced developers. I also hear you on the confusion of “zone modifiers” and will be looking for additional clarity on possible caveats to maximums. There is also the matter of ensuring clear protection for historical properties.

All that said, I remain fully confident that there is ample time to work with the Zoning Bylaw Renewal team on ensuring some of these potential loose ends are wrapped up, and my hope is to extend some of that confidence to Edmontonians. My sense from some of the speakers at committee last week is that is seems as through we are already too far down the rabbit hole to amend or clarify, but that is not reality. Even if passed, the bylaw will remain a flexible and changeable document in perpetuity.

Change is hard, and it's incumbent on City Council to help manage that change. Edmonton will grow, whether or not we overhaul this bylaw. People will need homes and services, and we will need to maintain those core city services for both new and existing residents.

Responsible growth should happen in a clear, cohesive, and well-planned manner, rather than the one-off method of muddling through an outdated bylaw like we’ve been doing through successive City Councils. The City Plan is ultimately the way for us to get there, and this Zoning Bylaw Renewal is the first major step of many.

Please continue to engage, share feedback, review documents and discussion material, talk to your neighbours, call or email your Councillor, reach out to the Zoning Bylaw Renewal team.

As our city grows and changes, we need to ensure your leadership is responsive to that change, while still preserving the things that make Edmonton such a special place to live — our sense of community, our love of natural spaces, and being a city full of possibilities.

- Sarah

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