Why can’t Squamish council just stop a development or stop development period? Why don’t they just say stop?
Local Governments are essentially governed by two provincial legislative frameworks that empower and guide decision making and set limits to their authority. The Local Government Act and the Community Charter establish how a local government is formed and how it operates such as council accountability, municipal procedures, land use and planning, public participation, bylaw enforcement, financial reporting and borrowing, and a myriad of others government functions. It’s highly regulated.
So what can a council say no to?
Municipalities are fundamentally the arbiters of land use (with some exceptions). This authority is specified through the bylaws a municipality has adopted, of which the Zoning and Official Community Plan (OCP) bylaws are the two most notable. Under legislation, a landowner has every right to develop their lands as long as they adhere to the zoning rules that govern them.
Council has absolute decision-making discretion when a landowner is asking for a change in land use. In any zoning or OCP bylaw amendment, a council member has the prerogative to vote against it for any reason or no reason at all.
So if council controls land use why don’t they just rezone land to parkland to stymie a development? The short answer is legally they can’t. The legislation is very clear about preventing councils from making land financially valueless.
Councils also have non-discretionary decision making. Examples of this are Development Permits (DP), Building Permits and Temporary Use Permits to name a few. In this purview, council may delegate the decision-making authority to staff or a body such as the board of variance, or they may maintain decision-making authority themselves.
Yet a council or staff’s ability to influence the outcome of a permit is only as good as the regulations and guidelines that measure and guide it and the interpretation of the person evaluating it. For example, if a development permit guideline stipulates a townhome development must be walkable and provide amenities for children, the discretion is left to an individual’s interpretation whether a guideline has been met or not. Many councillors don’t believe they have discretion in a DP. They absolutely do but the rationale must be articulated within the parameters of the bylaw or policies that guide it. Unlike a rezoning, a councillor cannot simply say “I don’t like it, therefore I am voting against it.”
The rate of development is controlled by the laws of supply and demand, strategy of larger landowners and the availability of workforce, not generally by council.
Despite these narrow decision-making confines, councils can chart a vision to encourage walkable and natural neighbourhoods and innovative housing forms, to minimize sprawl and focus density along transportation routes, and to encourage strategic development of employment lands. With the right policies and bylaws, councils can influence those outcomes well into the future.