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Unanswered questions remain for new B.C. housing density rules: Nelson mayor

The new law would overrides cities’ control over zoning to create more housing
New B.C. housing legislation is designed to fill in the “missing middle” – housing that is more dense than single family dwellings but not as dense as condos or apartments. Photo: Province of B.C., screenshot from Homes for People report

The B.C. government intends to take over some parts of municipal zoning to allow the creation of more housing, but Nelson’s mayor says how that looks in practice is unclear.

They will do this by allowing more housing units on lots traditionally reserved for single family dwellings. This new legislation will apply to all communities with populations over 5,000, and it will override current municipal zoning.

This is part of a recently announced provincial strategy to create 130,000 new, small-scale multi-unit homes over the next decade.

Mayor Janice Morrison agrees the province needs to do whatever it can to create more housing, and she agrees that it’s a good idea to allow more residential density. But she also has reservations.

“Do I believe it’s a bit of an overreach? Yes, because now they’re setting our zoning,” says Morrison. “And zoning has always been something that municipalities have been able to go to the public and get public feedback on.”

For building lots of less that 276 square metres, Nelson currently allows one dwelling unit. The province is proposing three. These could include a house plus secondary suite and/or laneway house.

For lots larger than 276 square metres in size, Nelson currently allows two units, and for lots larger than 555 square metres, three units. The province is proposing four units in both categories.

These changes are not requirements for new construction — a single family home on a single lot will still be allowed — but a builder wanting to put more units on a lot will be guided by these maximum densities.

The new legislation will apply mostly in the white-shaded residential areas of Nelson (R1 zoning, low density) and in the few areas colored light pink (R2 medium density). Photo: City of Nelson zoning map screenshot

But there are still many unanswered questions, says Nelson city planner Sebastien Arcand, such as allowable heights, setbacks, and lot coverage.

“Density is one thing,” he says, “but (there are still questions of) how much space can I actually assign on a lot? And how high can I go?”

He says the province intends to publish a policy manual in the near future that will clarify such details.

When that manual arrives, Arcand says his department will analyze how the city will have to adjust its bylaws and its Official Community Plan to conform to it. Then he will take a set of recommendations to council.

Arcand says there are also uncertainties related to infrastructure. What will increased density mean for such things as parking, water supply, and traffic volume?

More density means more of the ground is covered by buildings.

“Where is the storm runoff going to be?” Morrison asks. “Where’s the snow melt going to go?”

Morrison and Arcand both pointed out that Nelson is a little ahead of the province in creating density because it has allowed secondary suites for years and also instituted a laneway house program preceded by a design contest that resulted in several pre-approved designs.

This new provincial initiative is based on its action plan published earlier this year entitled Homes for People, which states that its goal is “unlocking more homes, faster.” The plan is aimed at filling in “the missing middle” — housing that is more dense than single-family housing, but less dense than multi-storied apartments and condos.

The legislation will also create even higher allowable densities for residential neighbourhoods in the vicinity of transit hubs. Arcand says it is unknown yet whether this would apply to Nelson’s soon-to-be-constructed transit hub on Victoria Street.

Also in the new rules will be measures to streamline local housing development approvals, and to drop the need for public hearings in some rezoning applications, but the details of this are still to come.

The province has promised to provide $51 million to municipalities across the province to help them adapt to these new zoning requirements.

Morrison says that’s a good thing because the new rules will require that cities renew their Official Community Plans every five years and create a constantly updated housing needs assessment.

“Those activities cost money,” she says.

The new legislation accompanies another new provincial housing law designed to limit short-term rentals in the hope that this will free up long-term rental housing.


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Bill Metcalfe

About the Author: Bill Metcalfe

I have lived in Nelson since 1994 and worked as a reporter at the Nelson Star since 2015.
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