ASK PAT: Noise bylaws

CG asked—

Noise bylaws. Why are the allowable hours different for construction (which I presume includes homeowners working on their property) and for other noise?

Because that’s the way things have always been! That as bit of a tongue in cheek, but the real answer to why the City (and most other cities) do most things the way they do. However, in this case I can see why the bylaws are set up this way.

The “regular” Noise Bylaw in the City says no-one in the City can make a sound that “…disturbs, or tends to disturb, the quiet, peace, rest, enjoyment, comfort, or convenience of the neighbourhood or persons in the vicinity” unless that noise is specifically permitted by the Bylaw. There is another part of the Bylaw that says sounds can further not exceed some legislated level (60dBs in the day, 55dBs at night), but the Bylaw is written so that even a sound under those prescribed levels could be considered disturbing.

Most people (including me, but I listen to a lot of the Pixies) have no idea what a decibel is, but there are lots of on-line examples that will tell you 60dB is about regular conversation level, 55dB is about the noise level of a coffee percolator, and 110dB is a jet engine. I’m not sure those help.

There are various exemptions in the Bylaw for things like “power equipment” which can be used within certain hours, so leaf blowers can continue to disturb the many for the benefit of the few. There are also obvious exemptions like emergency vehicle sirens, street sweepers, parades, concerts, and the such, some requiring specific authorization, some not.

Like most Cities, New Westminster has a different Bylaw regulating noise made at construction sites. This is because construction sites are (usually) temporary in nature, and they are places where noise is made outside of the regular standards that would apply in a community. We relax regulations for construction sites because of their ephemeral nature, and because we, in general, want things to be built. However, we limit construction noise hours to those typical of business (daytime and Saturdays). We have recently made some changes to the bylaw to reduce those hours and bring us more in line with adjacent cities, and to more tightly regulate pile driving.


It has taken me forever to answer this, but funny that this ASK PAT raises two different things that have been on my mind a lot recently: whether predictable sleep is more important than predictable traffic, and Oslo, Norway. I promise this will make sense.

A few months ago, I did something I had not done before. I voted against a nighttime noise variance for a road construction project. The City often hands these out to utility companies, Metro Vancouver, or construction companies to allow them to do noise-generating construction work at night because the work involves digging up a major road. The thinking is that the traffic chaos caused by digging up a road during the day is worse for community well being than some people near the construction site not being able to sleep at night. I voted against this one variance because I wanted to challenge that idea – maybe the livability of my community is served more if residents can get a night’s sleep than it is if regional through-traffic is inconvenienced. I made some comment about this being my new position on these variances.

Of course, in governance, when you make a strong proclamation of principles like that, something else comes along a challenges it immediately. In this case it was a request to close Front Street in a way that would impact Quayside Drive and River Market at a time when they are already dealing with significant traffic disruptions that is hurting their business. Is a good nights sleep for one night more important than a day’s traffic chaos *and* another hit at a keystone business in the City already reeling from the impacts of adjacent construction? Then we recently got a request for nighttime work for track maintenance along the Skytrain line which we approved. Is a good night’s sleep more important that providing timely maintenance to a regional transit line where there are literally not alternative routes? In the end, I voted “no” and “no” to those two questions and voted to allow the night work. Then around the same time, I once again said that traffic disruption on Brunette Ave is not reason to keep people living near Brunette up all night for three days, and Council agreed.

This is not to say I was right, it is to say governance of complicated, and guidelines are not standards. I can see how this looks like inconsistency (nay, hypocrisy?), but balancing various community standards is part of the reason why these variances have to come to Council in the first place. The answers ultimately require some kind of compromise of one community standard to satisfy another, and as much as I’d like to think I am consistent on what I think our standards should be, there are subtle differences in every application.

Now, what does this have to do with Oslo? A friend of mine who happens to be the Mayor of another BC City was recently on a tour of Oslo where the city has developed a progressive procurement strategy. The City has said that all City construction sites are going to have to shift away from using diesel equipment. No more diesel excavators or cement mixers. No more diesel generators to spin the hydraulic pumps or air compressors or drill rigs or cranes. Through a combination of wiring up the sites for electricity and battery tech on equipment, they have major building construction happening without burning fossil fuels.

My friend noted one thing first while visiting the site – how quiet it was. Aside from the folks next to the drill rig (busting rock still makes noise), no-one as wearing ear protection. The sound of shovels and nail guns and saws are still there, but the difference was (apparently) profound in how the construction site integrates in to the neighbourhood.

I think we are a decade behind Norway on progressive policy like this. The City of New Westminster doesn’t have the procurement power of the city of Oslo (The “County of Oslo” apparently procures about 10% of the construction in the entire nation), and you know, socialism and all, but it is interesting to challenge our own assumptions about what are reasonable community standards. It is also interesting to think that so many GHG-reduction strategies have spin-off benefits that make our community more livable. Dare to dream.

ASK PAT: Bees and Boulevards

CN asks—

Are there any plans in New West to plant bee-friendly/drought resistant native plants in medians and other city-managed land? I’ve noticed many enterprising residents have taken this task on themselves by replacing grass with curbside gardens that attract pollinators but I think there is a lot of opportunity for a city initiative in this area.

If you consider trees to be bee-friendly and drought resistant, then yes! But I think you had something else in mind, so before I talk about the trees, I’ll talk about boulevard maintenance and pollinators.

“Boulevards” are the colloquial for that metre or two of grassy area between the road and the sidewalk in front of some residential properties in New West . If you have one in front of where you live, you most likely don’t own it, but you are responsible for some maintenance of it. See this diagram put out by the City:

Image
(above is official communications from the City, nothing else I write here is official communications from the City. It is kind of important that people recognize this, so I try to point it out whenever I can)

You may have noticed some boulevards like the one in the photo above are not your typical grass-with-the-occasional-tree, but have shrubs, flowers, even garden boxes. This may actually, technically, be against the law.

The City’s Street and Traffic Bylaw states:

6.30 An owner of land shall:
1 cut grass and weeds on the Boulevard abutting that owner’s property;

And

8.10 No person shall:
1 significantly alter a Boulevard without the consent of the City Engineer;

So that reads to me like you need permission to do anything on your boulevard except mow the grass and maybe water the tree, which is the thing you are you are required to do.

That said, some people have clearly done more, planting flowers, vegetables, and shrubs. Some have even gone so far as to install garden boxes, faux golf courses, and (I am not making this up) life-sized sculptures of harbour seals. The best advice I can give you is that you should probably not do anything that is a violation of City Bylaws. But, if you were to do something good for the environment like put a diversity of pollinating plants in your boulevard, I would avoid doing anything that will rise the ire of the City Engineer or Bylaw officers, by perhaps following a few tips:

Keep it neat so the neighbours don’t complain. Keep it modest so that it doesn’t restrict views or ingress for emergency responders. Don’t let it intrude into the sidewalk space making the sidewalk less accessible for your neighbours. I would strongly recommend against putting any kind of structure, even garden boxes, on the boulevard, as they can create a hazard, and the City may have to remove them (at your expense!) if they need to access the boulevard for utility maintenance or anything of the sort. Remember the boulevard doesn’t belong to you, so don’t be surprised if the City one day has to remove anything you put there, either to dig up utilities or do sidewalk or curb and gutter repairs – if it is valuable to you, the boulevard is not a place to store it. Also, you need to be very, very careful about digging in the boulevard. Anything more than a few inches down and you may run into utilities (water, gas, fiber optics, street light power, etc.) and breaking one of those lines could be an extremely expensive fix for you, or even dangerous. Finally, any digging, piling soil, or installing things like planter boxes within the critical root zone of the City’s boulevard trees is a violation of the City’s Tree Protection Bylaw. The root zones are really sensitive to damage or compaction.

Now, back to the City’s plans. Yes, we are working on pollinator gardens (I even talked about this during the last election campaign). I don’t think these will be on City boulevards so much as replacing some less ecologically diverse areas of green space in City Parks. Replacing programmed grassy spaces, or planters that have traditionally held annual flower plantings with native and pollinator-friendly plant species has already begun with our first installation at Sapperton Park with help from the NW Horticultural Society. And hopefully more will be coming from this soon, though I am not sure our public boulevards will shift this direction. As beautiful as pollinator gardens are for bees and hummingbirds, they definitely challenge our traditional aesthetic ideas of public space (nature is messy, Colonialism likes sharp lines), and of course operational changes would have an impact on landscaping budgets that we would need to consider. So progress, but probably slower than you might like.

As for trees, we are finally at a point where we can begin the serious tree-planting part of the Urban Forest Management Strategy the City adopted a couple of years ago. It has been a bit of time in coming, as staff first wanted to put their energy into getting the new Tree Protection Bylaw operating smoothly, and get caught up on some of the tree pruning and maintenance backlog (it makes sense to stop trees from going away before we start the work of putting new ones in). The plan is aggressive, with almost 12,000 new trees planned in 10 years. Most will go on City Boulevards prioritizing neighbourhoods like the Brow and Queensborough where the tree canopy is not as dense, and in un-programmed green spaces in City parks. There is a real short-term cost to taxpayers for this program, but our willingness to invest today will make for a much more livable city in the decades ahead.

The phrase I have been repeating since we started this Urban Forest Management Strategy is the old saw “The best time to plant a tree is 20 years ago, the second best time is today”. Well, today has come, and I’ll see you in 20 years.

Ask Pat: Smoking Bylaws

Norm asked—

I live in a low-rise condo in New West. Our Strata bylaws prohibit anyone from smoking in common areas, including decks and patios. The resident in the unit below me is a smoker. He stands in the patio doorway of his unit and holds his cigarette outside. He also blows the cigarette smoke outside. If I have my patio doors open, the smokes comes directly into my unit, which is several times a day. It’s a problem year-round, but obviously worse during the summer. After many complaints to the Strata Council, they say there is nothing they can do because technically he is standing inside his unit. I’m wondering if Bylaw 7583, 2014 3(p) would apply in my situation?

I was just flipping through Bylaw 7583, 2014 yesterday and…. um, no, I’m kidding, I had to look this up. And it wasn’t the easiest Google.

The City’s Smoking Control Bylaw 6263, 1995 regulates smoking within the limits of the City’s jurisdiction. Bylaw 7583, 2014 is an amendment to that Bylaw which includes your cited Section 3(p). Altogether it reads:

3. No person shall smoke:
(p) within 7.5 metres of any opening into a building, including any door or window that opens and any air intake;

Which sounds like a slam-dunk, except that Section 4 of the Bylaw reads:

The provisions of this Bylaw do not apply to private residential properties

So just like a homeowner is allowed to make rules about smoking in their own house or backyard, your strata is allowed to make such rules about smoking around doors, balconies, and common areas on your strata Lot. And I feel your pain, as MsNWimby and I once lived in an apartment where the person downstairs was a smoker, and there were no rules preventing them from second-hand fumigating our apartment. If your strata has an anti-nuisance Bylaw, and you manage to argue to the strata council that your neighbour’s action constitute a nuisance, you might get some relief, but unless one or the other of you move, there is no quick fix here. Unfortunately, there is also not much technically or legally the City can do.

This is, I suspect, going to become an increased problem in the next short while as cannabis legalization causes those who choose to use the product to be less bashful about it, and strata councils are going to be uncertain how to manage it.

The enforcement of smoking laws is really difficult for a City – the nature of the offence is that it is short-lived and ephemeral. There are varying and possibly overlapping rules between private property, city property, and other public property (i.e. enforcement around New West Station) and our Bylaw officers do not have a lot of power to detain or force people to give them ID.

Alas, I don’t know what we can do other than rely on public education and peer pressure to manage the nuisance, and it seems to me that there is currently no public pressure to change the behavior of smokers. I sat near New West Station the other day for 30 minutes watching person after person stand right next to a “No Smoking” sign and light up. Every single one of them tossed the butt on the ground. The tossed butt alone is a $200 fine, but not a fine anyone enforces, because cigarette butts are the last bastion of free littering, despite their significant impacts on our storm drainage systems and river ecosystems. Smokers don’t seem to give a shit, nor do most of the public it seems.

I’d love to see if a Bylaw crackdown would work to address this, but also recognize much of this behavior is by people already marginalized and for whom interactions with the Strong Arm Of The Law could have seriously negative consequences. There is also the addictions issue – being addicted to nicotine is a medical condition for which there is limited access to support, especially for marginalized populations. Unlike alcohol, smokers cannot go into a pub to get their fix, and if they are lower income, they are more likely to live in a setting (rental or other shared housing) where they are legally not able to use it in their own home. Parks and most public places are also illegal. They are addicted and suffering from a prohibition – not a legal one, but a geographic and socio-economic one. We can debate the addictive properties of cannabis, but the situation is essentially the same.

So short version is I don’t know what to do. In your condo or as a City. You can check to see if your building’s nuisance bylaw is any relief, but I suspect that is a long row to hoe, with questionable results. The City could have Bylaw Officers and police walking the streets telling people to put those things out, handing out fines if appropriate, but I am not sure it is the way to change behavior or community standards, and I wonder about our actual ability to collect on those fines and the potential for further marginalizing people. I’ve banged my head against this sine I started on Council, everyone agrees that someone should do something. I’m open for suggestions.

Ask Pat: Protecting Trees

Someone asked—

I’m curious about the tree protection bylaw that was introduced a few years back. The amount of protection barriers around the city is quite high and frankly questionable. The city of New Westminster neither supplies the materials to build these barriers, nor do they facilitate the recycling of either wood or barrier fencing. In fact, the orange barrier fencing is not recyclable at any Metro Vancouver transfer stations. How have we come to having to contribute substantial, single use construction waste, both plastic and wood, to landfills in order to protect trees that in many cases are not in harms way. I challenge someone to accurately estimate the amount of waste we are creating. We are cutting down trees, so we can build a barrier around another tree and then throwing the wood away . It’s all a bit of a head scratcher imo.

Yep, that is a good point.

First off, let’s go over how we got here. New West adopted an Urban Forest Management Strategy back in 2016. At the time, the City’s tree canopy was measured to be about 18% of landcover and trending downwards. The City set a goal to increase this cover to the North American average of 27% over 20 years. To do that, we need to do two things: Stop cutting down so many trees (during a time when we are densifying our neighbourhoods!) and plant more trees. The Tree Protection Bylaw is primarily about the former, but if well administered will also help with the latter.

When the City introduced the Tree Protection Bylaw, we did so building on the existing Bylaws that exist around the region. Why re-invent the wheel when other nearby communities have already taken a test drive? This allowed us to get out of the gate quicker, but also resulted in a few parts of the Bylaw that didn’t really work so well in our local context, so we have been making some changes to the Bylaw as we go along, and have made some adjustments in how it is implemented. This happened in a context where (frankly) not all of Council was on board agreeing that a Bylaw was needed, or felt that the protection provisions were too strict. I don’t agree with that position, because I think trees are fundamentally important to the livability of our community – the more the better – and the cost of protecting them is easily offset by the cost benefit to the community.

One of the aspects common to most tree protection bylaws is tree protection fences at construction sites. The idea is that a fixed temporary fence line to protect the branches and critical root zones of protected trees when construction happens around them. This is to stop the occasional (usual accidental) bumping over of a tree by an excavator, or the excavation of tree roots required for the tree to remain healthy. Sometimes they are located away from any visible excavation work, however this is likely because they are located in a location identified as a likely laydown area for building supplies or fill or drive alleys for construction vehicles – loading critical root zones can be almost as damaging as excavating them.

These fences – staked-in lumber with polypropylene safety fencing – is pretty typical of these bylaws. It uses materials typical to construction sites (i.e. doesn’t introduce something builders aren’t used to) and are relatively durable and cheap to put together. They do, admittedly, look a little overkill in some applications, but they are definitely on the cheap & easy solution side of things.

However, you do point out rightly that they seem pretty wasteful. Most scrap lumber at construction sites is kept out of the standard waste stream, it is commonly “recycled” into wood products used to fire turbines and generate steam or electricity. The polypropylene, however, seems destined to the landfill. I’m not sure it is a substantial proportion of construction waste for a typical project, but there is no reason for us to add more.

I have had a preliminary discussion with city staff about this to understand the need a little more, but will follow up to see if there has been any effort to explore alternatives. I suspect temporary modular fencing might be much more expensive (so we will get backlash from builders already irritated by the need for tree protection), or if the City can suggest alternative materials, or even provide at a cost-recovery rate recyclable materials that meet the needs of the Bylaw, the industry, and homeowners. Thanks for the idea.

Bylaw 8085

For the second week in a row, we had a Council meeting where many people came to speak to a bylaw that is meant to reduce the incidence of renoviction in the City. Ironically, this week’s bylaw has much more far-reaching implications than the very limited rezoning discussion of the previous meeting, but we had nary a landlord or members of the development community come to speak against this move. We did, however, have a large number of people come to speak about the real human impacts of renoviction in our community, and remind us why these kinds of aggressive actions are needed.

As a bit of nuance, this was not a Public Hearing as constituted by the Local Government Act, like we had last week. This was an Opportunity to be Heard. We effectively operate these like a Public Hearings in New West, but they don’t have the same regulatory baggage. In short, it is a non-regulatory opportunity for the public to either send us a letter or come and speak to Council on a point of public interest.

Business Regulations and Licensing (Rental Units) Amendment Bylaw No. 8085, 2019
As I said about last week’s Bylaw to protect 18 properties in the City with Rental Tenure Zoning, we are going to need many more tools to address housing affordability in the City. This step is another bold measure that will give the City more ability to protect people who are precariously housed. This and last week’s bylaw are part of a larger Rental Housing Revitalization Initiative that will provide both metaphorical carrots and sticks within our legal authority to protect safe, secure, and affordable housing in the City and hopefully mitigate the current rental crunch and its impact on lower-income residents.

The step being adopted here is to use a tool that is not typically considered when dealing with land use tenure: our business licensing powers. Cities typically look at demo- or reno-viction through a planning context, which invokes zoning or building bylaws. However, it happens that all businesses operating rental buildings in the city require a business license to do so, and we have great flexibility in how we administer our business regulations, as long as they are fair to all businesses. Our staff have found a creative way to apply these regulatory powers to create new protections against renoviction.

Nothing on this Bylaw prevents renovation of older rental stock buildings. Instead, the Bylaw requires that the building owner provide the City a demonstration of the efforts they have taken to accommodate the residency needs of tenants prior to the City providing them a permit to perform a major renovation that requires tenant displacement. This may include providing them alternative accommodation, providing them priority to rent the same unit after renovation, or other methods to assure the resident is not made homeless. This also gives the City the ability to determine if a renovation even requires tenant removal or not.

The City can apply fines and/or a business license surcharge if these conditions are not met, and those charges may be built upon each other. We can even pull a business licence if the violations are egregious enough. Of course, exceptions are considered for life safety improvements, immediate repairs necessitated by an emergency or natural disaster, or other reasonable causes.

Much like the previous Bylaw, this change will not stand alone, and indeed the few criticisms I have heard of the Bylaw are based on thinking that it does. We cannot stop renovating our older building stock, or the most affordable housing in the City will eventually become the least livable. This is why these Bylaws exist within the framework of a wider Rental Housing Revitalization Initiative. The entire program includes an updated Rental Replacement Policy to create clear guidelines for the development community about how and when we would address the replacement of any rental stock lost through development, and an incentive program through fee and tax reductions to encourage and make more affordable the renovation of older buildings.

This is a comprehensive program that will help assure there continues to be market rental in New Westminster that is safe and livable, but stays at the affordable end of the market rental scale. This, in turn, is enhanced by the admittedly less-affordable new rental stock that is coming on line in the City which will help on the supply side and hopefully put downward pressure on market rent costs. Of course, this also relies on all three levels of government working together to bring more non-market housing on line, because “the market” will never supply the type of affordable housing needed by those 500+ families currently on the waiting list for supportive housing in New Westminster.

The work goes on. Housing affordability is a pernicious problem and we are indeed in a crisis situation in the Lower Mainland. I am proud to sit on a Council where we support taking bold action, and thank our staff – planning, business license, and legal – who have worked to find creative ways for the City to address the problem. Mostly, though, I want to thank the residents of New Westminster who live in rental buildings (44% of our residents!), some of them in somewhat precarious financial situations, for uniting and bravely bringing your voices to Council so that we have the political support to do the right thing, and so that the rest of your community can understand why the need for bold, progressive housing action exists.

Bylaw 8078

The Public Hearing on Monday was well attended, with a couple of dozen people presenting on both sides of the issue. We received a significant amount of correspondence going into the public hearing, and some media attention after. I am going to try to outline here what decision Council made, and talk about my motivations for voting the way I did. You might want to put on some tea.

The Bylaw being debated, Zoning Amendment [Multi-Family Residential Rental Tenure] Bylaw No. 8078, 2019, changes the zoning of 18 properties in the City to a new designation called “Residential Rental Tenure”. This new zoning type was recently permitted by the provincial government to provide local governments another tool in addressing housing affordability. Twelve of the properties are City-owned lands, and no one raised any concerns with this. However, the remaining 6 are multi-family buildings that have always operated as rental buildings, and though each building is owned by a single entity (Corporation or Limited Partnership), they have carried Strata title for many years. This detail is important to what the City is trying to achieve here by this slightly clunky method, and that requires some background.

The City has had a moratorium on stratification since the mid-1970s, which means buildings operating as rental in the City have not been able to shift their title to Strata and convert to condos. This was enacted to protect the affordable rental housing stock in the City, and has been largely successful. Last year a building in the Brow of the Hill that had operated for 40+ years as a rental was sold, and the new owners renovicted the tenants and sold off the condos as individual units. When the City looked into this apparent violation of the moratorium, it was discovered that the building had always been titled as Strata, though all of the units belonged to a single owner who had operated as a rental. The moratorium did not apply, and there was nothing the City could do to prevent (effective if not literal) stratification of this rental building.

In doing this research, staff discovered that there were 6 other buildings in the City, representing about 250 rental suites, where a building was built as purpose-built rental before the Strata Title Act was implemented in 1966 or was stratified at the time of construction and has operated as a rental building since that initial construction. These six buildings could potentially do a similar conversion to condo units, violating the spirit of the moratorium, and the City would not have any ability to prevent this.

The reasoning behind applying the new zoning to these 6 buildings was to create a disincentive to the stratification of these buildings (I use that term recognizing the buildings are already strata title – so perhaps “effectively stratify” would be a more accurate description?). The property owners who delegated to Council, and their supporters from LandLord BC and the development community, argue that this was an arbitrary “downzoning” of the properties, that the City has stolen value from the property owners in a capricious way that will chill the market for future development in the City. The tenants and their supporters who delegated were glad that the City was being creative and proactive in preventing eviction of renters from their affordable homes.

But don’t let me put words in their mouth, you can watch the video here.

I have spent a couple of weeks thinking about this Bylaw and its implications, reading 50+ pieces of correspondence, and listening to Public Delegations. In this, I have compiled a long list of things I would like to say about it, but risk veering off onto a long stream-or consciousness rant about affordable housing and things that we within and outside of the City’s jurisdiction and how those often do not overlap so well with things that are within our duty to our residents. That may still happen below, but I am going to try to keep this short (Too Late!) and hit on only three points.

1: This Bylaw does not stand alone. This Bylaw is one tool the City has, and we are applying it in a very limited way to address one small part of the vast spectrum of housing affordability. It isn’t going to make new apartments more affordable and it is not going to protect all affordable apartments from renoviction. It wasn’t meant to do those things. It is going to create a disincentive for renoviction for 250 rental homes in our community. Whenever the City or another government does any small move to address a regional housing affordability crisis, the public response gets bogged down in “whataboutism” about the other problems we are not solving. The housing crises are a complex problem affecting every level or housing, and it will take a combination of tools to make housing secure for everyone in our City.

2: This action was not arbitrary. Much of the rhetoric from the development community and other opponents of this Bylaw suggested this was an arbitrary act by Council that this was applied in a random way, and would send a chilling message to developers that New Westminster was no longer a safe place to invest in new rental housing because this may happen to them. That is hyperbolic and not reflected by the reality of what this Bylaw does, or how this Council operates.

The Bylaw was applied to 12 City-owned properties to send the signal to the community and future councils that the priority for those lands should be purpose-built rental and affordable rental. It was also applied to 6 privately-owned properties that are not protected by our 40-year-old moratorium on conversion of rental buildings to condominiums. Although it does not change the tenure of the current buildings, it does remove some incentive to convert these buildings into condominiums like happened to the building I mentioned above.

We have a current incentive program to encourage developers to build purpose-built rental in the City. It has been somewhat successful, and there have been something more than 1,000 new rental units opened in the City over the last year. All of these developments occurred because the City offered the developer some incentive to make it economic for them to build the rental, in exchange for the developer entering in to a “Housing Agreement” with the City, which secures the use of the building as a rental for (typically) 60 years. We are expanding our incentives for building non-market affordable housing as part of new developments, and you see the initial results of that now. There is no reason why this more recent Bylaw to limit future use of 6 stratified buildings that have always operated a rental, has any impact on how those incentivized rental developments occur. The economics for those developers has not changed.

3: There was a reason to act. Renoviction has been the one part of our affordable housing crisis that we have not yet found tools to address, and you would have to have been in media blackout not to know how this issue has been impacting our community. If you need a primer, read this, or this, or this, or even this.

I know that the owners of the buildings impacted by this Bylaw have assured us that renoviction was not part of their plan for their properties. Thee UDI and LandLordBC representatives came to Council and said none of their members ever do renovictions. Everyone who came to Council to argue against this Bylaw said that they would never support renoviction – they all agree it is an unacceptable situation. Yet renovictions are happening in our City, in at least 15 buildings representing more than 340 units – 340 affordable homes – in the last three years. And it is pretty obvious why.

As an elected official, I hear form these residents. I live in the Brow of the Hill, these people are my neighbours. I see them at coffee shops, and they literally knock on my door and ask me what the City can do to help them. For the last couple of years, I have pointed them at City resources, connected them with our Social Planners and other support organizations, tried to made sure they knew their rights, and the responsibilities of their landlord. I tell them we are advocating to the provincial government to get more tools to help them. I tell them we are making progress, that more tools are coming, and I hope they can hold on. Looking at my neighbour Laverne when she tells me about the real fear she has about becoming homeless after 28 years in the same apartment and telling her there is nothing I could do but she should try to hold on hits me hard. This shit gets personal really fast.

I didn’t get into this job to be a housing advocate. I am an environmentalist, a sustainability guy, an active transportation advocate, someone who wants to see activation of our public spaces. Those were my fights to have. But if four years on this job doesn’t make you an affordable housing advocate, you have no soul. so now this is the fight I have to have.

Here we have a case where staff have identified affordable units that are potential targets for eviction, and the provincial government has provided us a tool to address that risk. All this during a housing crisis that is hitting New Westminster hard. We have been talking about the crisis for a few years, it is time we started acting like it is a crisis. The provincial government is taking steps, and so are we (including considering a few more bold moves at the February 4th Council meeting). The only way we will get out of this crisis situation is by challenging the status quo and taking action when it is available to us. The status quo is residents on our city being priced out of the City – priced out of one of the most affordable cities in the lower mainland. And I cannot stand still while that happens.

Ask Pat: Smoke and edibles.

DB asked—

The bylaw regarding Cannabis Regulations No. 8043, 2018 has a section saying retail shops cannot sell edible cannabis. I live in an apartment in New West that has a strict no smoking/vaping policy (which I am very happy about). Edible Cannabis is a work around for situations like mine – unless it will be legal to smoke on the streets (which I am assuming is not the case). I understand it has been adopted but, I still wanted to voice my opinion on it.

That was not strictly in the form of a question. But I’ll take a stab at it.

We are one day away from the legalization if cannabis in Canada, and all three levels of government have been scrambling to get a regulatory regime together. It is a challenge – this an unprecedented change in the regulation of a psychotropic drug. From a local government side, we needed to put together zoning and business bylaws to support the operation of the stores that coincide with the model that the province put together. We also have to think about the inevitable nuisance complaints we are going to receive around the legalization of what is, for all its alleged benefits or harms, a pretty stinky substance.

On edibles, our Bylaw is designed to parallel the federal regulations. There will be no legal edibles sold in Canada in 2018. I suspect this is related to a myriad of packaging and labeling concerns, and addressing the risk to children when sweets and drinks are made containing the psychoactive elements found in cannabis. There is some suggestion that they will address this in 2019, but until then, dried product intended for smoking is the only legal form of recreational cannabis.

Your point about Strata rules prohibiting the smoking of cannabis is definitely a concern. With the existing prohibitions around public smoking – no smoking in parks, in bus stops, 7.5m from the door to any public building, or inside any business or public building – you are right that there will be limited places where it is legal to smoke cannabis. Unlike alcohol, you will not be able to go to a business (like a pub or coffee shop) to smoke, but you will be able (as best I can tell) to smoke on the sidewalk or the street, as long as you are not within 7.5m of a door or air intake. Still, if you are restricted from smoking at home because of strata or rental rules, your opportunities are really limited. This creates a fundamental unfairness – this completely legal product will be inaccessible to some.

I honestly don’t know how to address this and remain compliant with the various laws at all three levels of government. If you have the skills, I suppose you could bake your own edibles using the dried product meant for smoking (I don’t think that would strictly be illegal, as long as you don’t sell the baked goods). Or you can wait until the federal government gets the edibles part figured out. The transition to this new regime is going to be challenging for several reasons.

As a city, we tried our best to put together a comprehensive set of regulations. We had a few workshops with Council and staff, and heard from the public and stakeholders in the industry. After some pretty challenging debates around what the limits should be, we settled on what will no doubt be an imperfect regime, but we will learn as we go along. We will be ready to accept applications for cannabis retailers as soon as legalization occurs on Wednesday, but as the process to get a store approved and operating may still take several months, don’t expect to be buying cannabis in New West until early in 2019.

Update: Time between the legalization of cannabis and the first e-mail complaint received by Mayor and Council abut having to smell the smoke in a public place: 16 hours.  

Council on Cannabis

My reports on the January 29th regular meeting and Public Hearing are here and here, respectively, but we also had a constructive Workshop session during the early afternoon that you can watch in its videotronic glory here.

Implementation of Cannabis Legislation
The Federal Government have announced that some time in July, 2018, the production, distribution and sale of cannabis for recreational use will be legal in Canada. This has resulted in a bit of a rush (by government standards) to develop appropriate regulatory controls around an industry that will transition from underground to commonplace. This has involved every level of government working at essentially the same time, trying to figure out where the overlaps and gaps are. At a national level, there is no precedence for this, so complications ensue…

What we know right now (and I am simplifying a bit here) is that the feds are going to regulate the commercial production and packaging, and create quality and other standards. The provincial governments are going to be responsible for distribution systems and regulating the retail market. Local governments will do what we always do – regulate local land use (through zoning) and business regulations to manage parochial concerns (business hours, signage standards, buffer zones, etc.).

The pressure on local governments right now is that we can’t really do our job until we have a good understanding of the framework that senior governments will provide. They are putting together laws, but we are not yet certain about what the details will be. In the regulation-as-sausage-making sense, we cannot just create new Bylaws instantly: between doing the drafting work, community consultation, legal review, Council approval, Public Hearings, and implementation, it can take 6 months or more to build an effective bylaw regime. July is 6 months away.

With this in mind, Council held a workshop to give staff guidance on a proposed regime for managing cannabis sales and production locally, within the limits of our regulatory role. Staff prepared some briefs on the ways they see this rolling out, leaving significant wiggle room as we are somewhat reading the tea leaves of semi-complete senior government regulation. It isn’t perfect, but it is a proactive approach.

All ideas were discussed as a set of basic principles to be put together into draft bylaws, with the intention of taking this out to public consultation to get a sense of where the community is on this. Therefore, take my comments and those of Council on this as a set of starting principles, which may change by the time we are finished this process later in the year. The discussion revolved around 5 basic areas:

1) Limiting retail locations (Zoning Bylaw)
The Province has indicated there will be government-run cannabis retailers and private retailers. This looks a bit like the current liquor store model. We can write a zoning bylaw to allow the sale of cannabis as an “add on use” to existing retail-zoned areas. Similar to a liquor retailer, an applicant would come to City Hall with a proposed location, staff would evaluate against a general set of guidelines and process an application that would require some public input. The actual guidelines are currently up in the air. What restrictions to put on these retail stores (if any) are the meat of the public discussion to come. Should there be a 300m buffer to the nearest school? 100m buffer from each other? Should it only be allowed in some retail areas, not others? Should there be a prohibition on selling in neighbourhood corner stores as opposed to retail strips? This is the conversation we need to have right now.

Notably, it does not look like consumption sites will be legal in the short term. There are a bunch of WorkSafe BC and other rules around smoking in work places, and edibles and tinctures will apparently not be legal until 2019, so we are limiting our discussion in the short term on retail sale for off-site consumption (think liquor stores, not pubs, for the alcohol corollary)

2)Production facilities (Zoning Bylaw)
It is anticipated that production will be pretty industrial, and due to security and energy costs, relatively large operations. Whether there will be a smaller “craft” production market is yet to be determined. The Federal Government is regulating this, but the City will need to assure our Zoning Bylaw allows this use in appropriate places. We have larger M2 zoned properties, mostly in Queensborough and the Braid Industrial Area, where staff feel it is most appropriate, and we have smaller M1 zones that are more light industry like in the Braid Triangle and adjacent to Stewardson Way. Which of these is most appropriate?

These industrial operations may smell, and it is a little unclear how prepared Metro Vancouver is to regulate air quality from them. It is not even clear where the proposed federal rules government production will intersect with the air quality bylaws of the regional government. This is something to watch.

3)Business licensing rules (Business License bylaw)
This is where we regulate things around the day-to-day operations of businesses, like hours of operation, staffing, limiting age of customers, and business streetscape. I am generally in favour of making this as similar to liquor stores as a starting point, but am willing to be convinced that either a more rigorous or more lax approach is appropriate. One important aspect is how we regulate the sale of “paraphernalia”: should it be limited to places that sell the product? we currently have (somewhat dated) Bylaws restricting the sale of “drug paraphernalia” in the City – these will need an update.

4)Public Consumption (Smoking Bylaw)
Another challenge that falls somewhat in to local jurisdiction is our public smoking law. Not all marijuana is smoked, but the nuisance and negative health impacts of second hand smoke are as real for pot as for cigarettes. Our current Bylaw does cover all smoking materials, so no big change needed here, though some clarifying language may help. I have other concerns around public education, but will cover that below.

5)Domestic production
The feds are going to make it legal to produce a few plants at home for personal use, and the city may want to create regulations around this, such as requiring that it only be done indoors or in an accessory building. I’m not sure if we need to take these measures, as I suspect much of the negative impact of previous “grow-op” practices were a product of growing under a prohibition regime – the need for intensive lights, hydroponics, etc. People growing a plant in their living room or deck may be no different than growing poinsettias or tomatoes, but I really don’t know. I feel we need some input from our Fire Chief and buildings staff to better understand potential issues.


This, and the smoking bylaw part above, brings up my final concern: New Westminster has a high proportion of people living in Multi-Family Buildings, be they condos or rentals, and I don’t really know how these new rules are going to impact that sector. Will building managers or stratas regulate the growing of plants on decks, the smoking of cannabis on decks, or even within apartments? Does the Strata Act or the Residential Tenancy Act address these issues already? What are the rights of residents (be they owners or renters) and what are their responsibilities? How much can stratas self-regulate this? I am afraid the City will be asked to intervene in this type of conflict between neighbours, and I don’t know if we understand how to manage this.

I want to know from the province about their efforts to educate the general public about the new rules, and where funding will come from to support local governments in addressing conflicts.


The City is initiating a public conversation about all of these issues, in the hopes that we can have a solid framework as soon as we have certainty on senior government regulations. I’m not sure we will have every piece in place by July, but we did emphasize to staff that we don’t want to drag our feet on this, even if it means holding Public Hearings in the summer (which is not a preferred practice).

Staff suggested we need to make a few changes to our existing Bylaws now in order to prevent unanticipated problems leading up to July and the city getting its entire regulatory regime passed. It is still illegal to sell cannabis from a storefront in Canada, and in New Westminster we have taken the approach of not providing business licenses to businesses wanting to engage in illegal activity. Staff recommended updating the language in our Zoning Bylaw to clarify that practice, and bring the language up to date with newer Federal regulations. They are not recommending changing any practices here in the short term, just making sure the language meets the current standard to remove uncertainty. Council agreed to give those Bylaw updates First and Second reading.

So stay tuned, folks, and let us know what you think about this new direction we are taking. I think we are entering with open minds and clear intent, but also aware that there will be some hiccups along the way.

Ask Pat: Whistle cessation update.

I’ve been a little behind on my “Ask Pat” responses. There are a few questions on different aspects of the Whistle Cessation theme, so I’ll cover them all with my answer to this one:

J.S. asked—

RE: new westminster train whistle cessation

I do not understand this project. There is a law saying train has to sound its horn at every crossing. Is there a law require it to be so loud that the entire town can hear it? Instead of throwing money on all these cessation projects which seem to be going nowhere, can’t train horn simply be modified so it is less aloud like a car horn or even a bell? Canadian train travels slower than a car. And I believe the law meant for it to be heard at that intersection only.

Yes, that would make total sense, but the answer to your first question is a completely absurd “yes”.

Train horns are designed to call attention to a train approaching a lonely rural road on the Canadian Shield at 80km/h, and therefore blow at something exceeding 100db for a regulatory more-than-20-seconds-for-every-crossing. That might make sense on a snowy rural crossing 100 miles east of Thunder Bay, but in the middle of a busy urban area the volume of the horns is clearly absurd. Especially then the crossing already has gates, bells, flashing lights, and the train is rolling along at 20km/h with a gigantic diesel engine chugging away at the front of it.

But the Railway Safety Act has a tendency to err on the side of caution, probably for good historic reasons. So we are stuck with this absurdity.

I would normally say “call your MP”, except that I know your MP has been working on rail interface issues for years, and has been stonewalled by successive governments and the simple intractability of trying to get the rail industry to behave as a good neighbour in urban areas. There is a bunch of long history here, related to the railways that built the Nation thinking and such, which was at one time, when railways were part of the National Enterprise, compelling, but now seem so much hollower now that the rail companies are just another multinational corporation charged with the holy duty of returning shareholder value… but I digress.

The City is, as you may have heard, working on bringing “Whistle Cessation” to our level crossings. This requires a significant amount of safety engineering, most of it patently absurd, to provide redundant safety measures enough that the Act and the railway operators are satisfied that absent-minded pedestrians and drivers won’t physically be able to wander into the path of a train. The City needs to pay for these works, and the rail companies that own the crossings both have to approve them, then decide (after the work is done, natch) if it now constitutes adequate protection to no longer require every person in a 5km radius to be alerted of the trains’ presence.

The works in New West have been painfully slow. There were a few engineering challenges, including the need to order some special equipment that could only be provided by a supplier approved by a railway. The multiple steps of design, pre-approval, engineering drawings, waiting for clearance, approvals to work in the right of way, waiting for the rail company to do the bits only they are authorized to do, getting authorization to do the bits we are authorized to do… it was painful.

However, I am happy to announce that the City has officially notified all of the stakeholders who need to be informed* that the City will officially request that Whistle Cessation be brought into effect for the two Front Street crossings through a resolution at Council scheduled for February 6th, 2017.

There are also three level crossings in Sapperton, and I have no idea when whistle cessation will be brought to those. The engineering requirements as far as sight lines and approach angles for cars under the Skytrain pillars are such that it appears simply impossible to meet any existing regular whistle-free standard. We will try, and new road infrastructure along that corridor will be viewed through a lens of whistle cessation, but barring radical ideas, I’m not making any promises about when that will actually occur.

*The list of Stakeholders who were officially served letters informing them of the City’ intentions for the February 7th meeting included the four rail companies that regularly operate on that line, plus PLM Railcar Management Services (Canada) Ltd.; PROCOR Ltd.; General Electric Railcar Services Corporation; the Canadian Fertilizer Institute; the Canadian Chemical Producers Association; the United Transportation Union; the Transportation Communications International Union Systems Board; UNIFOR; Teamsters Canada Rail Conference; Travailleurs Unis Transport (1843); the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen; the United Steel, Paper and Forestry, Rubber, Manufacturing, Energy, Allied Industrial and Service Workers International Union; GATX Rail Canada; Amalgamated Transit Union, Local 279; International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers; International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers; and the Propane Gas Association of Canada Inc. Dear God I hope we haven’t missed anyone. It’s absurd.

Tree loss & protection

A few years back when I was still complaining about the City’s lack of action on a Tree Bylaw, I pointed out the presence of a great beech trees on my street. This was one of three, gigantic, more than 100 years old, trunks more than a metre across. They provide so many benefits to the neighbourhood and the community: shade, noise abatement, wildlife habitat, storm water detention, cooling the air.

These three had “heritage” protection, so they were unlikely to be capriciously removed, but that limited protection was not afforded to most trees in the City. The vast majority were afforded almost no protection – if the landowner chose to remove them, she was good to go. A Bylaw was needed, and through the lengthy development of an Urban Forest Management Strategy, these newly-monikered “specimen trees” are protected from removal by short-term thinking.

I was shocked last week when a neighbour came over to complain to me that the City had allowed one of the three grand beech trees to be removed. “I thought there was a Bylaw!”

Alas, I wandered over to the property in question, and indeed one of the three is no more. No more than pile of alarmingly large slices of wood, as the arbourists were working on site clean-up. I noticed a Tree Removal Permit attached to the house, so clearly they got permission, but I felt the loss as much as my concerned neighbour. So I called up staff and we have had some discussions about this tree.

*I am trying to be careful here, because the homeowner who owned the tree did not do anything wrong, and I don’t want to cause them embarrassment or any kind of trouble, but a few people have asked me about the loss of this tree, and now there is a story in the Paper, so I felt like I needed to comment about it here. It will be difficult to tell the story without providing clues about the location, and I think people need to know the story of the loss of a community asset like this. So please, be respectful of the homeowner who – I’ll say it again – did nothing wrong here. If you feel the need to act out or speak up or react negatively, do it to me and Council, not them. Thanks.*

The story of this tree is that it was suffering from senescence, which is the technical way of saying it was dying of old age. I don’t want to get into the detailed description given by the arbourist, partly because I’m not an arbourist and may not clearly translate their terminology, and partly because there are probably FOIPPA issues in releasing a report provided to the City without passing it through the privacy protection filter.

The now-gone tree in 2011, looking pretty happy. (ripped from Google Street View, no permission requested)
The now-gone tree in 2011, looking pretty happy. (ripped from Google Street View, no permission requested)

Our efforts to look back are, fortunately, assisted by technology. Google Street View has photos both from 2011 and from 2016 on adjacent streets. The visible decline of the tree is obvious. It looked (again, to my untrained eye) healthy in 2011, but by 2016, the leaves are sparse and diminutive, many branches looking bare. There was quite a bit more evidence of decline in the arborist report, but there is no doubt this tree was not very happy.

The same tree in June, 2016, looking sparse and lob-sided at a time of year when it should be in fill bloom. (also ripped from Google Street View)
The same tree in June, 2016, looking sparse and lob-sided at a time of year when it should be in fill bloom. (also ripped from Google Street View)

The contributing factors to a tree like this entering full-plant senescence are usually multiple. Sometimes there is an attack by a pest, and the drought-like conditions we have experienced for a couple of summers probably hurt the resiliency of the tree. It is possible (I’m just speculating here) that poor pruning practice or damage to the roots for home improvements may have also been a factor, further reducing the ability of the tree to cope with declining productivity.

In the end, the things that made the tree so majestic – its great size and hulking branches – are the things that made it a “hazardous tree” once that decline began. The arbourist did not think this was a temporary setback, and that recovery was unlikely. what was more likely was continued decline until the branches started to collapse, potentially onto a building or person. The homeowner got a permit, had a tree health assessment done, and received permission to cut the tree down.

As this is a “specimen” size tree, and a hazardous one, Schedule A of the Bylaw indicates that the homeowner is required to replace the tree, and the City collects security to assure that replacement takes place. Of course, putting a new dogwood or birch sapling in the place does not really “replace” a 100+ year old giant like what was lost. It will be decades until the replacement starts to provide the mass of benefits that the old tree did. But even this replacement policy did not exist before the Bylaw.

Which bring me to the point – the Tree Protection Bylaw does not mean no trees will ever be removed again. What it means is that the City has applied measures (call it Red Tape if you are so inclined) to act as disincentives to the removal of trees, and to provide compensation to the community for trees lost. When it comes to private property, that is about as far as we can go as a City. It has proven to work in other jurisdictions, though.

The Bylaw is only one part of our Urban Forest Management Strategy, but it is an important part, and this fall Council will be taking a closer look at the Bylaw application to see where it can be strengthened, and where it needs to be relaxed to make it more functional for residents. If you have opinions one way or another, please send Mayor and Council an e-mail or letter.