New BC Housing Legislation Brings Changes to the Public Hearings Process
December 15, 2023
BY Kira Davidson
The BC government has made significant changes to residential development in the province following the Royal Assent of three new housing statutes in late November. One of these statutes, the Housing Statutes (Residential Development) Amendment Act, 2023 (Bill 44), introduces a suite of amendments to both the Local Government Act and the Vancouver Charter which will require local governments to adopt official community plans and reform zoning bylaws to allow for increased density on single-family lots. Alongside these reforms are amendments that will affect the availability of public hearings for certain land use planning decisions.
In consideration of BCLI’s ongoing work as part of the Renovate the Public Hearing Project, this legislative comment will outline changes to the public hearings process introduced by the Act and consider the reasons for amendment and the consequences for public engagement going forward.
What Amendments Does the Act Make to Public Hearings?
Section 464 of the Local Government Act requires municipalities and regional districts throughout BC to hold a public hearing before they adopt an official community plan (OCP) bylaw or a zoning bylaw. The statute is clear that the purpose of holding a public hearing in these circumstances is to “[allow] the public to make representations to the local government respecting matters contained in the proposed bylaw.” Prior to the introduction of Bill 44, the Local Government Act provided one exception to this rule, allowing local governments the option to hold a public hearing on a proposed zoning bylaw if the bylaw was consistent with the area’s official community plan. Local governments were required to provide notice under section 467 when they chose to waive a public hearing according to this provision.
Changes introduced by the Housing Statutes (Residential Development) Amendment Act now limit the discretion that was previously afforded to local governments. Amendments to section 464 now state that a local government cannot hold a public hearing in two specified circumstances: first, where a proposed zoning bylaw permits residential development that is consistent with an existing OCP, and second, where a proposed bylaw relates to small-scale multi-family housing developments. Bylaws that permit the development of mixed-use projects are expressly caught by the first of these exceptions, so long as the residential portion of the development accounts for 50% or more of the total development area. Other amendments now require local governments to give notice when they are prohibited from holding a public hearing. The content of the notice to be given is the same as that required where a local government elects to not hold a public hearing.
Similar amendments have also been made to the Vancouver Charter. Like section 464 of the Local Government Act, section 566 of the Vancouver Charter requires Vancouver City Council to hold a public hearing before it “make[s], amend[s], or repeal[s]” a zoning bylaw. However, unlike the Local Government Act, the Charter does not include a provision that offers City Council the choice to waive a public hearing. Rather than limit any existing discretion, then, amendments introduced by the Housing Statutes (Residential Development) Amendment Act instead create a new exception where public hearings cannot be held. Specifically, amendments to section 566 now state that Council “must not” hold a public hearing on a zoning bylaw that relates to the development of small-scale multi-family housing. A framework for such zoning has been expressly set out in the addition of sections 565.03-565.09 to the Charter. As with the Local Government Act, Council is also required to give notice when they are prohibited from holding a public hearing.
What is the Reasoning Behind These Changes?
The Provincial Government introduced Bill 44 to streamline residential development and support the delivery of more homes, all in an effort to combat the housing crisis in BC. It is expected that these amendments to the public hearings process will aid in that goal. As the Minister of Housing, Ravi Kahlon, explained when introducing the bill for second reading on 7 November 2023, “public hearings can slow down getting approvals for new homes, delaying construction and adding costs to housing. These delays often result in fewer units being built or in developers making the units more expensive, to offset the added costs.” By barring local governments from holding public hearings on zoning bylaws that conform to an existing OCP, the Provincial Government seeks to eliminate redundant processes and increase efficiency in residential development.
What Are the Implications for Public Engagement?
Changes introduced by the Housing Statutes (Residential Development) Amendment Act do not seek to deny public engagement opportunities. Although local governments are now prevented from holding public hearings in prescribed circumstances, a public hearing remains mandatory where a local government seeks to adopt an OCP or a zoning bylaw that does not conform to an existing OCP (including where an OCP is not in place). In Vancouver, meanwhile, public hearings will remain mandatory for all zoning bylaws that do not concern small-scale multi-family housing.
Alternative forms of public engagement also remain available in those cases where public hearings cannot be held. The Local Government Act, for instance, still requires local governments to provide opportunities for consultation in the development of an OCP. This means that public engagement is not lost where local governments are precluded from holding public hearings. Rather, public engagement will take place earlier in the land use development process. And although other processes for public engagement are not mandated by legislation, they may well take on increased significance as the new framework comes into effect. In cases where public hearings cannot be held, the requirement for local governments to give notice will also ensure that residents remain informed of the developments taking place in their communities as projects proceed forward.
Even in the face of these statutory reforms, public hearings remain an important tool for public engagement and will continue to occur. There is still room, therefore, for discussion of the public hearing’s place in land use planning, and of public engagement more broadly. This is something that BCLI will be exploring further in its upcoming Renovate the Public Hearing Project consultation paper, due for release next week.