Proposed zoning bylaw a missed opportunity for Edmonton city council: River valley advocates

The North Saskatchewan River in Edmonton, Alta. in June 2022. Global News

Edmonton’s proposed new zoning bylaw opens the door for more development in the North Saskatchewan River valley and the city is missing an opportunity for ecological preservation.

That’s according to Denny Thomas, member of the North Saskatchewan River Valley Conservation Society (NSRVCS).

“We’re encouraging council and the administration to consider taking advantage of this opportunity to protect more of those areas as natural areas,” said Thomas.

Right now, only a few small portions of the river valley are designated under the “natural areas protection zone” — around 3.5 square kilometres, or less than five per cent.

The protected portions are located in the far northeast of the city in a small rural area called Horse Hill.

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The rest of the river valley is zoned as A-Metropolitan. In the new zoning bylaw that’s under debate, the zone would be called the river valley zone.

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The protected area is strict about what’s permitted. No commercial or residential development is allowed and even a building required to serve the natural area would need to come with a plan prepared by a qualified environmental professional such as an environmental scientist or biologist.

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“The natural area protective zone really does protect land. It doesn’t have any particular uses. It can only be applied to city owned land. That is a zone that would more appropriately protect truly natural areas, areas that have not been disturbed,” said Thomas.

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“Here’s your chance. If you’re really going through a rezoning, why don’t you get a far greater area of the valley more fully protected by the zoning mechanism?”

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Meanwhile, the new river valley zone allows “commercial” use in discretionary cases — a broad category that worries Thomas.

“(The current bylaw) outlined a series of the sorts of uses that are appropriate in the River Valley — for example, golf courses. They just wiped out all of the examples and replaced it with the word ‘commercial.’ And that doesn’t really track with what used to be there,” said Thomas.

After decades of narrowing what’s allowed in the river valley, this change would make more uses possible, Thomas said.

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He said commercial uses should be dealt with on a case-by-case basis when people want to open pop-up retail in the river valley, instead of broadly allowing commercial in the entire area.

“That’s the sort of decision that council should reserve and not delegate to the planning department.”

Thomas, speaking on behalf of the NSRVSC, wants as much of the river valley as possible to be zoned as protected, and for the remaining area to have more restricted uses.

“Be careful with the use definitions to make sure they’re narrowed rather than more enabling of inappropriate development,” said Thomas.

The current round of public engagement for the zoning bylaw renewal initiative is open until Dec. 18.

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