Changes could be coming to a committee that advises Fredericton city council on which development proposals to approve.
City staff are considering changes to Fredericton's planning advisory committee, with discussions being had that include the possibility of removing the public hearing process for proposals, said Mayor Kate Rogers.
"I'm committed and very much support the requirement that we provide that space for the public to come in. Does it need to come in front of the technical body? I'm not certain," Rogers said.
"I would not want PAC members to be lobbied. They don't sign up for that job to sit on that committee to be lobbied by the public, and so I want to make their experience as positive as possible."
The current process
When a proposal to develop a property does not align with the rules laid out in Fredericton's zoning bylaw, the developer needs to file an application with city hall.
That application will then go before Fredericton's planning staff, who complete a report advising whether they recommend the proposal be approved or rejected.
That report is then forwarded to the city's planning advisory committee, which is made up of three councillors and five members of the public.
Rogers says the city is thinking about changes to the committee process as it anticipates to get more housing built with help from the federal government's Housing Accelerator Fund. (Stephen MacGillivray/The Canadian Press)
They will analyze the staff's report, and hear from the applicant and members of the public before they vote on whether they think council as a whole should approve the proposal.
The proposal will then go before council, which also hears from members of the public before ultimately voting on whether to approve it.
'Increasingly political' work
Rogers said the planning advisory committee is supposed to consider applications based on their technical merits.
However, in recent years, she said their work has become "increasingly political" due to the kind of feedback they're hearing from the public.
"Sometimes [members of the public] are speaking about things beyond the actual land use. They're speaking about how it is that they experience their neighbourhoods in their community, and they would speak more in the self-interest of their neighbourhoods."
Rogers said in recent years, the city has also had challenges with recruiting members to sit on the planning advisory committee, and worries it could be a result of that increased pressure from the public.
"Councillors certainly feel the influence of that and that's appropriate," Rogers said. "We should feel the influence of that."
"I'm not certain that PAC should be politicized so that they're having to be influenced by that."
Rogers said city staff have not decided on any changes yet, but she expects they'll bring something forward for council to consider in the coming month.
Relates to timing of new housing initiatives
She said the talk of changing how the planning advisory committee process works is happening now that the city is planning to ramp up the amount of new housing it allows to be built.
Last week, the federal government announced it was giving Fredericton $10 million to help it build 300 new units on top of what would already be built in the city over the next three years.
Rogers said with all the new development, the city wants to ensure the committee's members are looking at proposed zoning changes "from a technical perspective."
An application defeated at council last December sought to have two properties, one being zoned parkland, rezoned to allow townhouses as tall as three storeys. (City of Fredericton)
At least one recent example of a rezoning application shows how a decision by the committee contributed to blocking new housing from being built.
When committee members vote against an application, the proposal later needs a majority of Yes votes from councillors present at the general council meeting.
But when committee members vote against an application, the proposal instead needs a majority of votes from council as a whole.
In the case of a controversial proposal to build 88 townhouse units at 501 Gibson St., Fredericton city planners recommended approving the development, but the planning committee voted to recommend against it.
When it got to council last month, the proposal was defeated, even though six councillors voted in favour of it, while five voted against it.
Public hearings not held by Moncton's committee
A municipality's obligation to let the public weigh in on zoning changes is dictated by the provincial Community Planning Act, said Andrew Smith, manager of long-range policy planning at the City of Moncton.
Andrew Smith, Moncton’s manager of long-range policy planning, says that city's planning advisory committee doesn't host public hearings during its meetings. (CBC)
Smith said Moncton's process for handling a development application is similar to Fredericton's, except Moncton doesn't hold public hearings during its planning advisory committee meetings.
"We haven't taken that path that Fredericton has taken where there's almost kind of two opportunities and forums because the way we've structured it based on the way we've interpreted the provincial law," Smith said.
"It's not to say that there's, you know, pros or cons associated with each and with public feedback. You know, there's always opportunity for that NIMBY [not in my backyard] effect to be amplified in either forum."
Feedback to committee important, says former member
Getting rid of the public hearings at Fredericton's committee meetings might not be the right choice, said Fiona Williams, who served on the committee between January 2021 and last month.
She said it's important to allow the community to have input when it comes to development proposals.
While Williams agrees that committee meetings should focus on the technical merits of proposals, she said she thinks there's room for the public to go beyond that in addressing the committee's members.
"It is important to hear the emotional impact, because there will be times when people are talking about … [how] they want a development because they can't get, you know, services they want or rents that they need and all that kind of stuff," she said.
"So, you know, there needs to be that opportunity to hear about the real-life impacts of these decisions, programs, policies, all that stuff."