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Wednesday, February 04, 2009

Perhaps YWAM should have offered to erect a giant windmill on their roof

In Vancouver, the Christian youth missionary group Youth With A Mission (YWAM) has been trying to get permission to turn an old and vacant hospice in East Vancouver into an operations centre for their work. (Shotgun readers will recall that I wrote on the early agitation against YWAM"s plans last April.) Well, on Tuesday, Vancouver's  city council refused to re-zone the building. I'll grant that I have my own biases here -- as several of the YWAMers  trying for the rezoning are friends of mine. However, I would still say that this decision, when compared to one quietly and quickly passed two weeks ago, shows that the left has taken control of Vancouver politics and they are already making their own rules.

Last spring, the city's planning department, wanting to help YWAM, suggested that the group seek to have the old building rezoned as a "vocational school", which seemed to be the closest thing to what YWAM does -- bringing youngsters into a neighbourhood to teach them how to do evangelism work and other projects to help the surrounding community. After the first open house meeting on the YWAM plans, where some of the immediate neighbours had an attack of the NIMBYs, the skittish planning department recommended that the city not allow YWAM to proceed with the rezoning.

Last fall, though, the city's then conservative majority on city council, decided that YWAM deserved to at least go to a public hearing on the proposal. The latest municipal election then gave the two leftist slates a 9-1 majority on city council and the stage was set for the Jan. 20 public hearing on the rezoning proposal. That evening, city council heard YWAM's case and then, for the next three hours, heard public comments for and against what YWAM was proposing.

On Tuesday, YWAM's efforts with this building came to an end as Vancouver city council decided not to rezone the building. From what I understand, councillors were very worried about setting a precedent by bending the rules to call YWAM's activities a vocational school and being obliged to make similar rulings in the future. One of the speakers at the January 20 meeting may have foreshadowed this when they asked the councillors whether "putting special interests ahead of the public interest is a good idea."

But, there are precedents and then there are "precedents". I'll explain.

On January 20, in the run-up to opening the floor to comments on YWAM's proposals, city council debated and approved a sweeping principle that would override many city building and renovation bylaws. Perhaps it was only an in-principle vote, but it all happened in under ten minutes, tops, including the representative of the city planning department rattling everything off (and skipping items) at top speed, so readers will perhaps forgive my uncertainty.

The representative from the city planning department noted that the councillors had ran on a platform urging more green and environmentally friendly building projects. Unfortunately, the representative noted, Vancouver has all these bylaws and regulations that prevent the city planning department from allowing exceptions on environmental grounds to the building rules that affected all the buildings already in place. They cited several possible examples. One, for example, is that city height bylaws might prevent an on-roof garden. Regulations regarding the look of a commercial office building could prevent special roof outcroppings or coatings to give more shade to a building.

Wouldn't it be better, the planners asked, for council to give them permission to grant a lot of blanket exemptions to current rules if those behind the project can show that these exceptions are for green or environmental reasons? Council agreed heartily, passing the planners' proposal by voice vote.

I'm no fan of excessive regulation, but it would seem to me that there might be a lot of valid reasons for the bylaws and regulations already in place. What if these exemptions are abused, such as that green-friendly roof garden growing a lot of smelly foliage that blows off the roof onto other people's property? What about the competitive market advantage offered to the owners of a brand new building compared to the owners of a building that just finished last fall under the last council's regulations?

I anticipate niggling annoyances and problems in several neighborhoods that Vancouverites will have to sigh and deal with, because "This is going to be a green building!" will trump all, thanks to that quick council vote.

Which brings me back to YWAM's proposal. We can guess that there certainly will be hassles caused by the "big green exemption" that the new Vancouver council eagerly passed. However, this same council, seeing a group that has a proven record in our city of not causing problems and trying hard to be a good neighbour, saw its exemption refused, on the grounds that another group wanting the same privilege could bring in a problem. Vancouver city council must never bend the city's rules...except when it does?

I'd argue that any problems caused by a YWAM exception pale when compared to the possible problems caused by the "big green exemption " just passed. Denying YWAM on potential-to-cause-future-problems grounds is sort of like saying that a skateboarder skating down his street on Sunday afternoon would cause the same sort of problem for Vancouver residents as Patton's Third Army using the Lions Gate Bridge to come into downtown Vancouver during rush hour.

It's clear that Vancouver's new city council can be quite ideological when it comes to its decision making. No exceptions to the rules that affect everyone allowed...except when they want them for their pet reasons.

I also have a sinking feeling that in a year or two a group beloved by the progressive politicians in charge at Vancouver city hall will ask city council to rule that their new-to-them building is something that it is not (according to the current zoning bylaws) only to have the politicians decide that what the group wants to do to help the community is so important that of course an exception will be made. Should that happen, I hope that Councillor Suzanne Anton, the sole conservative on council, will throw the decision to deny YWAM their rezoning in the face of her fellow councillors.

Posted by Rick Hiebert on February 4, 2009 in Municipal Politics | Permalink


I think this is an excellent example of how even the most petty government regulation -- and by that I mean small and seemingly of no consequence -- can have a profound impact on our liberty.

Martin Luther King was arrested once – it might have been his first or second arrest – for not having a parade permit for a public demonstration. It was a thinly veiled ruse to obstruct his peaceful activism. If I were to ask someone "Do you think parade permit requirements could be used to suppress freedom of speech and expression" the answer would surely be "of course not."

This historic incident taught me to never discount what even a small government intrusion or rule can do to diminish liberty.

This is a commercial space, a former hospice. Why can it not now be a place for young Christians to train as missionaries?

I believe in restricted covenants, which I trust would be much more rational in dealing with appropriate uses for a building. Zoning restrictions become political tools and create opportunity for corruption.

Posted by: Matthew Johnston | 2009-02-04 9:52:06 PM

Good reporting, Rick. I hadn't heard about the 'big green exemption.' You make a good point in contrasting it with the dismissal of YWAM's modest rezoning request.

Posted by: Terry O'Neill | 2009-02-04 9:56:34 PM

Spot on, Matthew. Had it been an application for an abortion clinic, it would have been approved in Vancouver. Indeed, zoning restrictions, in fact most government induced restrictions, are simply tools to promote state doctrine and ideology.

Posted by: Alain | 2009-02-05 12:04:34 PM

If it had been gay radicals wanting to preach about the advantages of being a homosexual that council would have approved it 9-1. Same deal if it had been an abortion clinic or a radical feminist bookstore. What happened to Vancouver? Didn't they used to elect conservative mayors? Bring back Mayor Tom Campbell!

Posted by: James | 2009-02-05 3:53:40 PM

This was never a NIMBY issue; those of us in the neighborhood who opposed the rezoning request have no quarrel with YWAM's presence, or their beliefs or work. This has always been a land use issue; concern about the impact on the neighborhood of an office building with dormitories for twenty-five full-time students, offices for twenty-five full time staff, and a commercial kitchen, right in the middle of a residential block. If you watch the public hearing, viewable here, you will see that those opposed to the rezoning application consistently express concern about the land use, while those in favour simply refer to YWAM's good work in the community, which is not in dispute.

This was never about whether or not YWAM should be in the neighborhood; this is all about whether an office building belongs in the middle of a residential block.

Posted by: Brian | 2009-02-07 11:08:16 AM

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Posted by: Alanna | 2009-02-23 2:39:10 AM

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