Sunday, November 14, 2010

The Complications of Annexation

It was good to be back at council last week, after a month away. I found that coming back reminded me of why I like this job - the opportunity to ask questions, and force others around the table to think, rather than just vote mechanically, is my favourite part of council meetings.

Most of the media coverage from that meeting has been on the proposed annexation of land south of town, to provide more land for industrial development. This land, currently zoned as agricultural and part of the RM of Prince Albert, would be rezoned as industrial. The problem, of course, for residents of the area next to the proposed annexation, is that they aren't interested in living next to industrial development. You would think that, after the ongoing conflicts raised by the residents who live next to the Belly-Up Bar, a situation in which the area had been zoned commercial for quite some time, this council would be wary of getting into what seems to be a fairly obvious area for potential conflict.

And the residents have taken the opportunity to let their concerns be known - first, at the council meeting on Monday, and then again, at a meeting in the neighbourhood, at which, despite being held at an inconvenient time (5:30 p.m.) on an inconvenient evening (the night before a statutory holiday), more than 100 residents showed up to ask questions and express their opinions.

There are several steps to annexation - it basically means taking land from the rural municipality, adding it to city land, then rezoning. This doesn't happen for free - the RM has to be compensated for loss of taxes, for example. In this case, apparently discussions with the RM have already set the price - the same that Saskatoon paid to the RM of Corman Park for a recent annexation. That land, of course, already has industrial development and some servicing, so for Prince Albert to agree to pay the same level of compensation for land without industrial development or servicing, seems to be a bit naive.

Land within the area that is privately owned may also have to be purchased, should the owners not be interested in living within an area zoned for industrial development, so that will be an additional cost. Finally, the provincial government has to approve the annexation.

As is often the case, council members have only been provided with partial information. I was quite surprised, at the Wednesday evening meeting, to see maps and reports that hadn't been provided to council. I'm always amazed that there are people who think that information should only be doled out to us in dribs and drabs, and who don't recognize that we can't do our jobs properly without being provided with all relevant information. It's interesting that as soon as problems were identified, out came the information.

Do we even need to annex this land? That should be the first question. I'm not aware of any situations where we've turned away potential industrial development because we had insufficient land. Are there other options? How about the much-bragged about green industrial park, which as far as I know, is still tenantless. Or there's an area west of the current landfill, which was identified for potential industrial development during the site selection process for the green industrial park - I think that it would have been a better site, since it wouldn't have been limited by the airport. That land is still there. And of course, there's industrial land along the highway to the pulp mill which is also available. What we should try to avoid is putting an industrial boundary about the city, which will cause problems when residential areas try to expand. An example would be the relocation of Barzeele and Burkowsky, which took several years of discussion, when their historic location started to conflict with commercial development and the associated traffic patterns with the Cornerstone development.

The city manager was fairly insistent that this has to be done, but didn't provide any reasons that I found particularly compelling. For example, he stated several times that we can't afford to develop anywhere else, ignoring the fact that developing this land will have a cost. It's also somewhat ironic that the previous council managed to find $12 million dollars to service potential residential land in the west hill - this is land owned by private developers, who now have serviced lots to sell, but even having that incentive has not caused a wave of residential development in the area. When we want to, we seem to find the money.

A number of residents have pointed out that this potential development is not included in the city plan released to great fanfare not that long ago. Of course, the soccer centre wasn't included in the west hill development plan of a few years back either. This is not a council that worries much about plans that have been developed, which makes one wonder why we go to the effort and expense of preparing plans, and asking for public input on them, if we're only going to ignore these plans once complete.

The maps showed the proposed area divided into three phases. An attempt was made to placate residents by saying that only the first phase was likely to be serviced - phases two and three would be too expensive to service. This brings two questions to mind - why, then, annex it all, and, is this council going to continue the pattern of the previous council, and rezone with abandon, whenever the spirit strikes? If so, don't count on these comforting words to hold much weight down the line.

Council postponed its decision on Monday, to wait until after the public hearing, which is part of the process when applying to the province for annexation. Wednesday evening's meeting was actually supposed to be that public hearing, but the unexpected level of opposition changed that plan.

Another factor that will be key in the equation is the location of the new bridge (the report on which has yet to be presented to council). A new bridge, and any supporting highway, will undoubtedly have an impact on land uses at the edge of the city.

Once again, we're approaching things in a piecemeal, uncoordinated fashion. We've had the west hill residential development, the green industrial park, and now this new proposed industrial annexation, all brought before council as separate, unrelated developments, without an overarching plan that sets priorities and funding requirements. Until this happens, we'll continue to lurch about, making decisions that in the long run, will cost the taxpayers far more money than if we did our homework and looked at the big picture.

I commend the citizens who took the time to come to either the council meeting or the public meeting, and who presented their concerns respectfully and coherently. Despite whatever reassurances some members of council or administration may have tried to provide, the truth is that no one has a crystal ball - we can't promise what will or won't happen on this land in the future. And, as has been demonstrated once again, the voices of private citizens get the attention of some members of council in a way that their colleagues don't seem to be able to.

"The most important political office is that of the private citizen." - Louis Brandeis

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