This article will appear in the November 2018 issue of Bridges, the official newsletter of the Bridgeland-Riverside Community Association (BRCA). It was authored by Brian Beck, BRCA President, and Ali McMillan, BRCA Planning Director.
This question sometimes gets asked of us, or sometimes a related point is made during consideration of a planning matter if somebody chooses to say: “BRCA does not speak for me.” Perhaps especially nowadays, though, when our community of Bridgeland-Riverside has so many generational changes happening all at the same time, it’s important to be especially thoughtful and considerate when talking with one another about what the role of a community association is where community planning matters are concerned. If we start with the question that is posed as a title to this article, then such a conversation can perhaps at least begin in a pretty straightforward way. That’s because the answer to the question—“Who does BRCA represent?”—is always hiding in plain sight.
The first part of the answer to the question is the easiest part to state.
BRCA is a society and it speaks for, and represents, only itself. BRCA has bylaws, and, under those bylaws, all adults resident in the community of Bridgeland-Riverside have a right to become members. Members elect the board. And the board governs the society. Various other documents and policies further structure its affairs. And when all of that is working right—as it mostly is these days—it means that when BRCA “speaks for itself” it is speaking for an open and transparent network of community representation, process, betterment, and fun. All of this stuff is posted online: brcacalgary.org Turning out to participate is always the best way to change any message if you think it needs to be changed. And this goes not just for members of BRCA but for all members of the community. Despite BRCA being a member-based organization, meetings are open to anybody who may be directly affected by a planning file or who simply takes an interest.
But mostly that first answer about BRCA being a society that speaks for itself doesn’t suffice, because mostly if somebody is questioning BRCA’s “representativeness”, then that somebody disagrees with something related to a particular planning file or maybe even the City of Calgary’s involvement of community associations in the planning process overall. And, in that sort of case, if BRCA and some person seem to be on opposite sides of an issue, then the assumption is too often made that BRCA is advocating some opinion or position being protected by a privileged few. That’s not how it works, though. Instead, everything that BRCA presently does in the name of planning is effectively aimed at the goal of BRCA ensuring the widest possible dissemination of information, the collection of viewpoints (whatever they might be), and the communication of results to the City of Calgary.
Community associations in Calgary have standing in respect of the community planning process under Alberta law. BRCA didn’t invent this; it’s simply part of the current structure. In jargon, community associations are considered to be “directly affected” by community planning matters and are therefore entitled to have notice from, and to be heard by, decision makers. Decision makers include the City’s administrative File Managers, the Subdivision Development Appeal Board (SDAB), and City Council itself. However, just because BRCA is entitled to have notice about planning matters and to be heard, that does not mean that BRCA has authority to make any substantive decisions. Instead, when BRCA representatives meet with community members who turn out to discuss particular planning files, we often say something like this: that our job as volunteers is to listen to community feedback, to help our neighbours understand better what kind of feedback is considered relevant within the City’s process, and then to distill the particular feedback we hear in response to specific applications—together with some of the broader context we gather over time when reviewing the same sorts of issues over and over again—and then to deliver that distilled message to the City.
The following is a good introduction to the role of BRCA’s Planning Committee, or really to the work of any well-functioning planning committee in Calgary. It is taken from The Community Guide to the Planning Process, Federation of Calgary Communities:
Community association planning committees may take on a number of roles and tasks related to community building, change and improvement. Although most community association planning committees will be primarily involved in reviewing applications for redesignation (rezoning), subdivision and development permits, there are other equally important (and in some ways more proactive) opportunities for planning committees to affect change in their communities. It is desirable for planning committees to move beyond a reactive position (strictly responding to applications) to include more proactive planning pursuits (such as community development initiatives and projects).
- Provide advice, background information, community context, and community issues and concerns to The City of Calgary
- Advocate for planning activities within their community
- Attract desirable development to the community
- Act as a vehicle for community improvement and as a voice for the community
Insofar as the Planning Committee’s role is sometimes to comment on the “bigger picture” that it hears over time or across applications (“advice, background information, community context”), the comments relayed by BRCA may not align with the views of some individuals in the community about particular issues. The point, though, is not to drive toward agreement. Instead, BRCA will over time simply pass along whatever it hears or whatever views have accumulated. Sometimes there is reasonable consensus, but sometimes there is clear disagreement or even just confusion or frustration. Whatever is heard, that is what BRCA passes along to the City. We take it as a duty.
A reasonable synopsis of key points concerning how the BRCA is involved in City planning for Bridgeland-Riverside is the following:
- Any property owner always has the right under Alberta’s Municipal Government Act to apply for a development permit, to allow a change of use, or even for a land use redesignation (aka “rezoning”). No matter what is being applied for, though, if an application fits all the rules that apply to it, then the Community Association is simply notified and really has no role to play. Most obviously, if a proposed application for a development permit “ticks all the boxes”, then BRCA does not even get formal notice at all, but simply learns about what’s happening if it chooses to investigate. All applications, even the ones that “tick all boxes ones”, can always be viewed online at Calgary.ca/pdmap.
- A different process is followed whenever a proposed development does not neatly meet all the rules, because in that case the application instead enters the so-called discretionary stream. Within this stream, there can potentially be more flexibility (aka more “relaxations”) in terms of considerations like design, heights, and various other things, but along with flexibility comes additional scrutiny from the City. For example, in the case of an application for a discretionary-use development permit, there is a list of 10 considerations that must be taken into account by the City under Section 35 of the Land Use Bylaw and some of these are very broad and policy based (for example “plans and policies”, “appropriateness of the location”, “compatibility”, and even “sound planning principles”).
- All applications for discretionary developments in Bridgeland-Riverside are circulated to BRCA (as an “affected person”) for review. When our Planning Committee receives a development permit for review we (as a courtesy outside of the requirements of the City) drop notices to other potentially “directly affected” neighbours who are likewise probably stakeholders according to law. We try to reach out to those who might be considered “directly affected” (for example, because of proximity) so that such residents may comment on their own and choose to take a position. In such notices we also invite stakeholders to the Planning Committee meeting at which the file will be discussed, both to share ideas and also just to be neighbourly. This is more productive than waiting for people to get upset at some unexpected point during the process. We also invite the applicant/developer to come and present their plans and ideas. There is a point here that deserves emphasis: only if interested people communicate with BRCA somehow (g. attend the meeting, send an email, make a phone call) can BRCA possibly know to include that person’s comments in any analysis or even temper or modify altogether the understanding that otherwise exists concerning any topic.
- Occasionally the process will get a bit more complicated. Sometimes—and a recent example would be BRCA’s receipt of several simultaneous applications for cannabis store approvals—it is hard for us to guess who might be considered “directly affected” because an issue may have community-wide implications, and so in such cases we may send out a broad notice through whatever channels we can manage so that anybody interested can make representations to the City should they wish to do so.
- Volunteers on the Planning Committee are residents and BRCA members who apply to be on the Committee. They may or may not have a background in planning and design, but committee composition is defined in hopes of reflecting the true diversity of the neighbourhood (e.g., age ranges, skill backgrounds, where they live in the community, owners vs. renters, type of residence (condos, houses), etc.). Additionally, we take steps to ensure that the Planning Committee operates professionally, free from conflicts of interest, and we make sure that its process is transparent so that it fairly represents whatever diverse viewpoints may be forthcoming from the community. There are formal Conflict of Interest and Code of Conduct policies and forms that apply, and these are posted online. Meetings are open to the public and those interested can always reach out to the Planning Committee anytime via email@example.com.
- Planning Committee members are responsible for educating themselves through courses, and through regular workshops put on by the City of Calgary and the Federation of Calgary Communities about the planning process generally, about the applicable bylaws, and about the appeals process. Committee members also must put in the work required to make sure they have a working knowledge of the Land Use Bylaw and applicable policy documents.
- For every proposed development, the Planning Committee writes a letter to the City (before the City’s deadline) reflecting the inputs received and especially views heard at the designated Planning Committee meeting. The letter is provided in the City’s preferred format, and therefore must identify both strengths and challenges of the application and also any suggestions for improvement. We never purport to say that we represent the whole community, although we try to take a high-level view considering that the volunteers who do this work tend to be broadly informed about all that is going on in our neighbourhood at any particular time. In our letter we always define the scope of our process (how we gave notice, who attended our meeting, and therefore who participated in forming the views expressed in the letter) so that the City will understand the scope of our “representativeness” in relation to the particular file.
- Eventually the City makes its planning decisions at the administrative level: a File Manager either approves or denies each application. At this point any “directly affected” stakeholder can choose to appeal a decision. Sometimes, although quite rarely, BRCA will itself appeal a decision, but in practice this most often happens when two conditions are present: first, if it is clear that another individual community resident plans or wants to appeal independently, then BRCA will sometimes be inclined to support that resident but will itself appeal so that it “can stand on its own two feet” before the SDAB, so to speak; and, second, BRCA will choose to appeal or support a resident’s concerns only if it is reasonably felt that there is an issue at stake that affects the broader community, and where the issue is not clear (the appeal has planning merit) or there is some lingering uncertainty that is being resolved for the first time. Appeal issues always escalate to BRCA’s Board of Directors for the fullest airing possible prior to approval.
These days Bridgeland-Riverside is awash in applications for change and renewal. BRCA, as one part of our great community, takes great pride in being maturely structured and governed so that we can properly represent a broad range of views on whatever planning issues the City sends our way. It is not—and should not be—BRCA’s primary goal to focus simply on the pros and cons of each file (and certainly it is not BRCA’s role to express only the views of BRCA’s representatives personally), but more fundamentally what we do is try to make sure that people have as much information as possible about what is happening, and also clear information about how to participate in the planning process. So if you want to be heard, it is best to participate!
Perhaps you would like to sit in on a Planning Committee meeting (meetings are open to the public and dates listed on our website) or maybe you would like to apply to join the Committee itself? And, of course, you can always also contact us directly if you have questions on planning files or to express support or opposition at firstname.lastname@example.org.