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Vancouver Park Board crews cut down an elm tree on 6th Avenue in Vancouver in November, 2018.

Adrienne Tanner

After years of complaints from builders, businesses and homeowners about Vancouver’s complicated and time-consuming permits process, the city is proposing the first of many planned sweeping reforms.

The first round of changes recommends temporarily relaxing the city’s tree-protection bylaw and putting a pause on new standards for zero-emissions residential buildings.

Released Wednesday, the staff report also recommends not enforcing design guidelines in some zones, saying that the measures are needed because the city has so many new policies layered on to old ones that it’s reaching a breaking point.

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“This regulatory complexity, combined with technology gaps, COVID impacts and resource consequences as a result of decreasing revenues, led to an unsustainable imbalance between application demand and staff capacity to process that demand,” said the report from the city’s recently appointed city manager, Paul Mochrie.

“Over time, the permitting and licensing process has increasingly been used as the tool by which to achieve Council objectives. This practice has been a major contributor to the current operational difficulties being faced by staff,” the report continued.

If Vancouver doesn’t simplify its processes, the report noted, the city runs the risk of driving even more people to build and do renovations without permits.

Mayor Kennedy Stewart, who has been pushing for improvements to the permitting system for years, said he fully supports the changes.

However, Green Party Councillor Adriane Carr said she is concerned about some of the recommendations, especially the temporary suspension of requiring new zero-emission standards.

“Buildings account for 60 per cent of [greenhouse-gas emissions]. That one, I’m having real difficulty with,” she said. “The climate emergency isn’t on hold.”

Ms. Carr said she was somewhat less concerned about the changes to the tree-protection bylaw, adding that local residents are more concerned about bigger trees that are cut down.

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Mr. Mochrie’s report, based on recommendations from the outgoing head of the permitting department, Jessie Adcock, recommends that the tree-protection bylaw be changed to apply only to trees with trunks bigger than 30 centimetres, rather than the current 20 – a move that would affect about 200 trees a year.

The report also recommends limiting the requirement for an arborist report with every development, something that can cost more than $1,500. The city became much more rigorous about tree protection several years ago after a study came out showing it was losing tree canopy.

The new proposals by the city, which follow years of committee meetings with builders about the permitting issues, received a positive reception by some stakeholders – though some still had reservations.

“Of course it’s all welcome,” said Jon Stovell, president of Reliance Properties Ltd. and recent chair of the Urban Development Institute, a development-industry association. “But they’re not really being bold enough. They’re nibbling around the edges.”

He said the city’s complex zoning system is the main problem in holding up development of more housing.

“There are many hundreds of restrictions throughout [the system]. It takes 2½ years to get a permit for a four-storey wood-frame building.”

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Most of the new exemptions will apply to single-detached or duplex zoning, but Mr. Stovell said the slowdown on applying new building-code requirements for zero emissions will also help larger residential projects.

“Any cessation of further changes is helpful,” he said.

The mayor said he has heard that it has been difficult for builders to even find the products needed to meet the new-building standards – such as the requirement that all new houses three storeys and below be built with electric heating.

“The supply chains are still developing,” Mr. Stewart said.

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