Development pressures dominate Revelstoke city council agenda

Looking forward to the October municipal election, former Revelstoke Review editor Alex Cooper summarizes the current council’s term, and the debates to come

Revelstoke City Hall. Photo: Revelstoke Mountaineer file photo

This article first appeared in print in the September 2018 issue of Revelstoke Mountaineer Magazine. Some things, such as the DCC bylaw update, have changed since the article’s original publication date. 

If there’s one issue that has defined the outgoing Revelstoke City Council, it’s development. They’ve wrestled with several major development proposals and have been forced in dealing with the consequences of new development. They were elected in 2014 on a pro-development slate, but the reality has been trickier than they imagined.

The current group of councillors largely comes from a group put forward by the Revelstoke Chamber of Commerce back in 2014. Upset at the previous council’s supposed unfriendliness to business, the new council came in with a promise to change that. Mayor Mark McKee and Councillors Connie Brothers, Scott Duke, Trevor English and Gary Sulz could all be said to come from that slate. They promised to keep spending low, reduce the tax burden on businesses and encourage new development in a city that was stagnating.

They immediately got their wish, with numerous developments big and small coming forward. There was Mackenzie Village, the highway shopping mall, the treehouse hotel, and a surge of single-family home construction. The flipside of all this was that council had to contend with the consequences of all this – notably a city staff that couldn’t keep up with the demands it faced, aging infrastructure, and budget pressures that forced them to step back from promises of keeping spending low and minimizing tax increases. Housing prices and rents have soared. It seems fitting council’s final major decision at the time of writing is the new Development Cost Charges Bylaw that will set a path forward on how the city will pay for its infrastructure going forward.

The new council came in promising to be open for business and the town’s developers took them at their word. First up was Mackenzie Village — a planned, 1,200-unit medium-density development in Arrow Heights by David and Shelley Evans. It was approved based on the jobs and housing it would create, but not without concerns about how it would impact the neighbourhood and the city’s infrastructure. A shopping centre proposed for the Trans-Canada Highway was rejected after downtown businesses successfully argued it would hurt Revelstoke’s small-town character. Many said the land should be used for hotels, and not long after the mall was rejected, a Ramada Inn was built on the site, and a Marriott is expected to follow.

Council also had to decide the fate of the Evans’s “treehouse hotel,” a proposal for a multiple hotel development near the base of Revelstoke Mountain Resort. The plans saw the city squeezed between the resort, which called the development “parasitic” and the Evanses. Council approved it despite RMR’s arguments it would hamper its ability to grow.

There was also the surge of vacation rental applications that the city had to plough through, each accompanied by public hearings that pit neighbours against each other and often got ugly. Illegal rentals are still widespread and a new bylaw hasn’t been brought forward — the issue seems to have faded into the background.

The last two years have been much quieter on the development front, with the major project applications drying up but home construction continuing rapidly despite issues receiving building permits. A near complete turnover in the city’s planning department at the start of 2017 led to delays that got even worse this year when the city lost its only building inspector.

All this development has put increased pressure on the city. Previous focus on restraint meant the city wasn’t ready for the boom. For its first two years, council kept tax increases small; however, the city’s needs has meant large increases in 2017 and 2018 in order to catch up.

The city finally dealt with the Trans-Canada Highway intersection, building a roundabout that has improved traffic flow from Victoria Road to the highway. The list of future projects is lengthy, totalling some $70 million, half of which is for a new sewage treatment plant. Lots of the pipes underground are aging and in need of repair, and many roads need to be resurfaced as well.

The sewage plant has been plaguing Southside residents for years and it’s still a ways off from replacement. While the city has spent more than a million dollars on short-term solutions in recent years, it is looking at a $35-million upgrade at some point in the future. It’s a known issue, but the city has yet to start its detailed planning for the replacement, and I suspect it’s still five years away from being built. It’s one area the city has been slow to react.

I’ve only touched on a few of the issues and initiatives this council dealt with. They had to deal with the almost complete turnover of senior city staff, launched a 15-year financial plan, took over the Big Eddy Water System, and expanded the city boundaries. Housing prices have soared, but only 12 affordable housing units have been built since RMR opened, though funding has been received for another 21 for a project to be located near the BC Ambulance Service station.

Council’s last big issue is the new Development Cost Charges bylaw. If approved, it will substantially up the fees payable to the city for developments. The development community is already in an uproar over the proposed hikes, but reducing the fees means existing property owners will pay more for infrastructure that’s needed because of all the new development. The debate has found council balancing the interests of the development community, which wants to keep DCCs as low as possible, and residents, who will have to pick up whatever infrastructure costs developers don’t cover.