Municipal leaders are growing increasingly concerned that affordable-housing projects and other developments could be in jeopardy if local governments are unable to hold public hearings during the COVID-19 outbreak.
Saanich Mayor Fred Haynes says he and other mayors have raised the issue during weekly conference calls with Municipal Affairs Minister Selina Robinson and have been assured that the province is looking into the matter.
“Not just here in Saanich, but across the province, municipalities are concerned that the financial viability of these projects will be mortally impacted if we can’t keep them moving ahead,” he said.
Municipalities suspended all public hearings last month to prevent the spread of COVID-19 and obey provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry’s directives prohibiting gatherings of 50 or more people.
Haynes said municipal leaders hope to find a way to allow for public participation, while still protecting the health and safety of residents.
“We have some 200 applications inside Saanich and staff are working on approaches to continue to move those files forward as best we can,” he said.
“However, some 50 to 60 per cent of them must come to council, and must meet the legislative requirements for public input. This is a very important piece for openness and transparency.”
Municipal governments must hold a public hearing before adopting zoning or official community plan bylaws. They can, however, waive a public hearing for a zoning bylaw if it’s consistent with the official community plan for a particular area.
Haynes said municipal leaders want to ensure projects don’t get backlogged to the point where some critically important affordable housing and other housing and commercial applications don’t proceed.
“And then if they don’t proceed, housing is lost, jobs are lost and some companies will be out of business.”
Victoria Mayor Lisa Helps said she shares Haynes’ concerns about lengthy delays, but is optimistic a solution will be found.
“I’m hoping our staff can come up with measures to balance the need to keep those moving forward, and allowing for public participation as well.”
A report going to Victoria councillors on Thursday says city officials have been discussing the issue with other municipalities.
“Public hearings continue to be a concern given that there could be increasing interest to process applications that require statutory public hearing,” the report says.
However, staff recommend waiting for direction from the provincial government, since such hearings are required by law and must be held to the highest standards.
The Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing said in a statement that it’s working with local governments to advance development projects while still ensuring that public-health orders are followed.
Ministry staff are developing guidance to help local governments navigate meeting processes during the pandemic, the statement said.
While municipalities need to continue to comply with all legislative rules, such as electoral approval processes, public hearings can be waived where they are not legally required, ministry said.