Secondary suites no longer Calgary City Council’s problem as administration takes over process
Changes to how secondary suites get approved or denied in the City of Calgary was given the green light by council on Monday night.
“Big day, I am very happy,” exclaimed Mayor Naheed Nenshi as he talked to a small group of reporters who held out to the bitter end of a marathon day for city council.
Starting just before 10 a.m. Monday, citizens grouped in clusters of five came before council, taking up to five minutes each to speak about the proposed changes to the process for adjudicating secondary suite applications.
Previously, applications to change the land use designation of a property where an owner wished to create a secondary suite would come before council for approval. Often, presentations would be laced with tales of woe, hardship, or other extenuating circumstances as to why applicants felt their bids for suites were worthy of council’s rubber stamp. The process was protracted as neighbours would appear, often to voice their opposition to the project.
“Calgary was the only major city in Canada that continued this ridiculous system of forcing people to come to city council meetings and beg for the right to do something with their own property,” Nenshi said.
Going forward, property owners will take their applications to city administration, where it will be evaluated against a set of planning guidelines and policies which are instituted and can be adjusted by city council. Additionally, R-1, RC-1, and RC-1L residential zones have now been given the ability to apply for a secondary suite as on a discretionary basis.
The city has also made it easier for owners of illegal suites to apply for the proper permits to bring their suites up to code. It’s a change the city said should encourage more owners to commit to upgrades.
A mandatory registry has been introduced, but with a two-year amnesty in which the development permit fee and suite registry fee will be waived.
Not everyone is elated with the changes, however.
A significant contingent of the roughly 100 Calgarians who addressed council expressed concern over taking the application process out of council’s hands. Some were outright opposed to secondary suites existing at all, although that topic was not up for debate or consideration by city council.
At times, it was evident that some residents who presented to council and wrote letters expressing opinions about the secondary suites didn’t fully understand the proposal at hand Monday.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if people misunderstood what’s happening,” said Coun. Druh Farrell, “For one thing, it’s complicated. And for another, we don’t do the best job of communicating in plain language.”
It’s a sentiment Coun. Peter Demong agreed with.
“I think we could have done a better job as the city to have rolled out what exactly we are talking about today.”
Calgary homeowners living in areas covered by restrictive covenants were especially bothered by the proposed changes to add a discretionary use for secondary suites to select residential zones. The covenants, some dating back decades, dictate specified uses for land in their neighbourhoods which do not include multi-family dwellings like secondary suites.
Council was told by administration that the matter of enforcing those covenants was up to the courts, with council agreeing in a 9-6 vote not to exempt those properties from being potential sites for future secondary suites.
Another group of homeowners expressed concern over so-called laneway suites, which are built as second storey homes above back lane garages. Some homeowners showed photos of alleyways clogged with snow, questioning how emergency services could respond to problems in such a tight space. Others were concerned the elevated homes would erode their privacy, giving tenants a clear view into neighbouring backyards.
In response to the concerns raised, council agreed to send administration back to the drawing board to create a design standard for laneway suites before any are permitted under the new system.
“Laneway units will be a discretionary use, but not today,” Nenshi said. “Administration has to come back with standards and guidelines for how those laneway units look before they become a discretionary use.”
Mayor Nenshi will sign the bylaw bringing into force the changes to the secondary suite process on Tuesday morning.
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