The Charest government’s draft bill on land-use planning has received scant attention since being made public on Dec. 9. Its arcane 97 pages are a cure for insomnia. But if you get as far as Article 82, you’ll sit up straight.
Article 82 yanks away the right to referendums by citizens concerned about nearby land-development projects.
It’s a powerful right. We saw its effect just last week when Mayor Gerald Tremblay, reversing his previous stance, rejected a developer’s request for a zoning change that would have allowed a condo complex on the site of the Redpath mansion. Neighbours (including the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts) had threatened to demand a referendum to block the zoning change.
Under provincial law, people living in the immediate vicinity of a proposed project anywhere in Quebec have the right to ask for and vote in a local referendum. This draft bill, sponsored by Municipal Affairs Minister Laurent Lessard, would now remove this popular measure under certain circumstances.
The proposed legislation requires each municipality to draw up an urban plan reflecting the land-use principles laid down by its municipal regional county or its equivalent, such as the Montreal agglomeration council. Any land that the plan designates as a “priority for urban renewal, rehabilitation or densification,” says Article 82, is a “zone exempt from referendum approval.”
Translation: City councils and town councils across the province can decide what development goes where, regardless of what citizens say. A rural town could place a housing development next to farms. A city could order high-rises in a neighbourhood of two-storey homes.
To be sure, the draft bill offers a proviso against high-handedness: A municipality must hold “at least one public consultation meeting” on its intentions to declare the land immune to referendums.
But this is a pseudo-safeguard. Even if elected officials were to give adequate advance publicity to their consultation (which is not always a sure thing), and even if plenty of citizens were to show up at the meeting to voice displeasure, nothing would oblige the officials to respect the wishes expressed.
But isn’t a mayor’s desire to be re-elected enough to deter any ramrodding of an unpopular measure? No, that’s seldom the case with land-use decisions. They generally affect only people living in the immediate environs of the land in question -a small part of the electorate.
It’s easy to imagine how this bill’s supporters might respond to criticism. They can say that removing the right to referendums solves NIMBY, the not-in-my-backyard syndrome. All one has to do to stigmatize opponents of a given project is to accuse them of NIMBY -code for being narrow and self-centred. The opponents will immediately go on the defensive.
It’s true that the NIMBY tag is sometimes deserved. I’m thinking, for example, of some homeowners in my neighbourhood who protested against a plan to turn a residence into a halfway house for female ex-cons. The signers of a petition said that the middle-class area would become unsafe and property values would suffer. That was a decade ago. I’m unaware of any crimes, any effect on property values. You can walk by the halfway house and never realize what it is. A society that claims to be caring ought to be able to make room in its communities for its less fortunate members.
That said, I think the NIMBY epithet is widely misapplied. People are entitled to enjoy the best quality of life they can get from their home. Homeowners’ concern for property values, when those values are truly threatened, is nothing for others to sniff at. For a great many people, the worth of their house, condo or farm represents their wealth, their retirement money. When acquiring their property, they might have had no way of knowing that a shopping centre or residential tower would spring up next door.
Mayors sometimes back schemes with little regard to their wider social impact. Think, for example, of Gerald Tremblay’s support a few years ago for a giant casino at Peel Basin, next to a low-income area particularly vulnerable to problem gambling.
No, Article 82 must go. It threatens a vital bulwark of municipal democracy.
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