Tractor parades, and the disconnect of Land Use planning vs. Land Use decisions

I thought that given that Michael has been so prolific at blog writing (the guy is a machine!), that I might start to contribute. I couldn’t help but laugh at the current state of affairs for a large-scale (comparatively) development proposal in the City of Penticton. This week saw a parade of tractors (literally, that’s not a figure of speechdown Main Street in opposition to this proposed development. The reason for the parade was due to an upcoming rezoning application decision that will be considered by City Council in the next few weeks.

The reason I laugh is that from a planning perspective, it’s ridiculous and a tragedy if anyone in Penticton should be either A: surprised about the proposed development or B: haven’t already had their chance to voice their opposition. To help me explain, please find below a bullet point list of past planning documents developed that have included this proposed development in it. Also included is the engagement methods utilized in the more recent plan development processes:

  • 2002 Official Community Plan 
  • 2005 Comprehensive Development Plan
  • 2005 North East Sector Plan
  • 2014 Spiller Road/ Reservoir Road Area Neighbourhood Concept Plan 
    • Meetings with individual landowners in study area;
    • Public open house to present land use concepts and provide feedback;
    • Steering committee review and refinement of draft plan
  • 2019 Official Community Plan (OCP) 
    • A phase 1 ‘visioning’ outreach process that included 1,260 contacts, numerous open houses, and 1,100 hits to a project-specific web page;
    • A PenTALKton event (i.e. Pecha Kucha style event) attended by 200 people; 
    • An ExpOCP multi-day workshop event in a downtown storefront location that had 500 in attendance;
    • Multiple open houses (again) to review the draft plan goals and policies of the plan, and an interactive mapping tool. 240 people attended these events;
    • A ‘Design Penticton’ Panel discussion attended by 140 people, which included a week-long design ‘charrette’, followed by another open house of 167 people;
    • A City-wide communications campaign to confirm the planning direction and policies including a full-page newspaper insert, Exec Summary, and (you guessed it!) numerous open houses in June, 20191

In each of the above plans, this proposed hillside development was contemplated, shown clearly on ‘land use concept’ and ‘urban growth node’ maps, and land issues such as environmentally sensitive lands, geotechnical concerns, and servicing planned for. I’m sure that the above planning hierarchy provided enough justification for the developers to purchase the site in 2006. They have since been holding onto it and having planning discussions with City staff for only 14 years! They were probably told at multiple points - “no worries, it’s in our plans, all that is required is a simple rezoning amendment”. 

The 2019 OCP actually reined in proposed growth in hillside areas, and cut a substantial amount of urban growth area that was previously planned in the 2002 OCP, with a focus on infill development in existing core areas. However, it left this one, remnant growth node in the North East sector, presumably due to ongoing discussions with the developer. 

The 2019 OCP plan was adopted by City Council just over a year ago (August, 2019). Given the level of recent engagement effort, you would think that every landowner with an interest in the proposed development would have had a chance to voice their concerns on the development and the community was ready to move forward with it (or not). However, given recent parading events, it’s obvious that there is a disconnect here. 

Here are a few theories why there’s a disconnect:

  1. People don’t read plans (or at least not until they are directly impacted by one). This one is pretty obvious, and should be pause for concern for the whole professional planning community.
  2. Planners don’t engage to elicit community preferences or tradeoffs. This is similar to the themes in Michael’s recent post on Levine. 
  3. The community hasn’t had the chance to go through a participatory decision process where they express their views on a potential proposed hillside development in their (respective) neighbourhood (and evaluate their own views on how this may relate to housing affordability, environmental sustainability, taxation impacts, servicing benefits, rural ambiance, etc.)
  4. Similar to Michael’s past posts, only ‘certain’ people show up for open houses (And most likely, it's the very same people at each various open house hosted around the City at various points in the plan development process). 

The City’s extensive OCP process, coupled by recent parading events, demonstrates that this disconnect is the size of chasm and poses a real threat to planners everywhere. If no one is reading or paying attention to any of our plans (until they’re impacted), what’s the point of the plan in the first point? Think of all the money spent on consultants and staff time on the completion of all the past plan development processes listed above. Also, think of all the money, time, and resources spent by the developer since 2006 with relative assurance that their development will move forward given the City’s planning documents (including the most recent OCP). All of it will be for naught if people keep parading tractors down Main Street. 

Perhaps we should just not develop any large scale, community-wide or area-specific plans and ask all development applicants and staff to throw all their time and resources into a one-time development approval process similar to a rezoning for all development projects and have all-out wars of attrition in Council Chambers of NIMBYs versus YIMBYs and Developers (see City of Vancouver model).

OR, we can change our engagement methods, seek to evaluate a community’s preferences for hillside growth in the context of social, economic, and environmental values of individuals, include these scenario and value-based preferences in our long-term planning, and provide Council the decision support through high n, statistically valid, community representations of the implications of future hillside growth in their community. Then, when a proposed development comes forward, Council would have the justification to proceed, and the hard community data to back it up, and can explain to neighbourhoods why the specific development proposal in their backyard may be required for the greater public interest benefit of the larger community.

1  Side note: The City of Penticton won an 2020 award from the Planning Institute of British Columbia (PIBC) in the category of Excellence in Policy Planning - Small Town & Rural Areas. In the award description, PIBC noted that “the process to create the new OCP was the largest engagement effort undertaken by the City, involving over 3,600 conversations and interactions in a diversity of innovative ways”