By Jensen, Randy on September 23, 2020.
After holding a sparsely attended public hearing on the Westminster Area Redevelopment Plan (ARP) at this week’s city council meeting, councillors decided to defer decision on approval of the plan for another four weeks to give local residents more time to provide feedback on whether or not they believe in the document’s direction.
“There was extensive community consultation and several open houses,” stated Mayor Chris Spearman. “What was disappointing was we only heard from three people (today). It would be great if people who attended those open houses; that we heard their feedback as well. We would then have a better sense of if we were meeting the expectations of the neighbourhood.”
Westminster has one of the greatest population densities of any neighbourhood in the city. It is also one of the city’s older neighbourhoods. Common complaints by community advocates include rampant crime, too many absentee landlords and too many illegal secondary suites.
Well-known Westminster community advocate Darlene McLean, who also sat on the Westminster Area Redevelopment Plan Committee, said the new plan falls far short of what her community needs to address its urgent problems.
“We have just had enough already,” she stated. “We have been here to meetings, and community planners have said older neighbourhoods are good for lower-income housing. It doesn’t say that in our ARP – that we’re good for low-income housing. The City has approved all kinds of exclusive communities. They keep dumping on us all the time, and we have had enough. We are Zone 10 for police calls for service. They (council) have concentrated and marginalized development in our area.”
The new Westminster ARP does state all future approved secondary suites in the area must be on corner lots only, but community planner Genesis Hevia Orio did admit under questioning from councillors at Monday’s meeting that exceptions could be granted either at Municipal Planning Commission or at Subdivision and Development Appeal Board despite what is stated in the new ARP.
When asked which, MPC or SDAB, would have carriage over an exception request from a developer, Hevia Orio said it would depend on the discretion of the City’s development officer and how much community opposition there was to such an exception.
McLean said this statement by Hevia Orio clearly revealed the double standard the City has always had where Westminster is concerned versus other, more affluent areas of Lethbridge.
“When the development officer gets to decide whether it goes to MPC or SDAB she bases it on neighbourhood opposition?” McLean proclaimed incredulously. “A non-resident landlord that has an illegal suite in the basement or the landlord that has a drug house down the road, is he going to send in a letter of opposition to a new duplex? I don’t think so. This happens over and over again.”
McLean noted 47 per cent of Westminster residents are renters who never receive any direct notice from the City when a proposed development might be constructed in their neighbourhood. She also called SDAB a “kangaroo court” which works in favour of developers instead of residents.
“If you go straight to the SDAB there is no further appeal,” she explained. “Also, there are no (elected) councillors on that board like in MPC. There tends to be developers on that board. It’s a waste of time. It’s a kangaroo court.”
Hevia Orio also admitted during her presentation there was very little City staff could do about the ongoing proliferation of illegal secondary suites on the north side of the city.
“I think our development department is challenged, as they said,” Spearman explained, summarizing Hevia Orio’s comments, “and there might be, and they think it is entirely possible, that we have more illegal secondary suites than we know of. At the same time, they can’t be peering into people’s windows to find out if they are secondary suites. That’s not legal either.”
Spearman acknowledged the complexities facing Westminster specifically in drawing up a new ARP.
“Things like secondary suites are very challenging, and older neighbourhoods are very challenging,” he said. “We want to support infills and redevelopments to keep older neighbourhoods vibrant, and at the same time we want to make sure we are sensitive to community concerns about density and parking, and things that can be negative influences in a neighbourhood.”
Spearman said planners admitted to council during Monday’s public hearing that the new Westminster Area Redevelopment Plan was the best compromise they could come up with given the complex mix of circumstances affecting this area of the city.
“The idea is to work with the community to bring the plan up to modern times,” he explained. “We are currently working with a 1985 plan. So we have a 35-year-old plan, and some improvements are better than no improvements is generally what the sentiment is. We don’t want to continue working with a 1985 plan, but we may not be able to meet everybody’s expectations.”
McLean put it far more bluntly than that.
“I can tell you they haven’t honoured the one we have had for the last 40 years,” she said. “This is the same junk that we have had for the last 40 years.”
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