Lower Mainland developers are welcoming a decision by the City of Vancouver to appeal a recent court ruling that made it unclear exactly how much information cities have to give the public about land deals and rezonings.
"There's a danger in the way the judge worded his decision – it may suggest that everything should be open book," said Brian McCauley, president of the development company Concert Properties and former chair of the region's Urban Development Institute. "And we would be very concerned about that."
Mr. McCauley said developers routinely negotiate land purchases and density in private with city councils – negotiations that would fall apart if every conversation had to be made public.
B.C. Supreme Court Justice Mark McEwan ruled on Jan. 27 that Vancouver's planning department did not provide enough information to the public last year when it held hearings about two proposed buildings that involved the city and a private developer swapping land. The city had also agreed to allow the developer extra height and density in exchange for new social housing units.
The court case was started by a group of residents calling themselves the Community Association of New Yaletown. They objected to the height of the tower for which Brenhill Developments received approval, and to the overall deal between the city and Brenhill, which they said gave the developer too much.
Justice McEwan's decision has caused concern and uncertainty among developers throughout the region, especially because Brenhill was forced to stop construction on a project.
Vancouver city manager Penny Ballem said that is partly why the city has decided to appeal the ruling.
City lawyers put in a notice of intention to appeal last week, but have not filed arguments yet. The city is also going to redo the hearings and permit processes for the two buildings.
Ms. Ballem said two main areas of concern led to the decision to appeal.
One such area is about how much confidential information the city must release about land deals in a public hearing.
The residents and their lawyer had obtained, through a freedom-of-information request, a copy of an informal agreement between Brenhill and the city over how much density the developer would need for its tower to cover the cost of building a new social housing project. Although the public later heard through media reports and at the hearings what all the financial terms were, the residents' group complained that those terms had already been worked out by that point.
But Justice McEwan did not mention that agreement in his ruling.
"He didn't say whether it should be included [in a public hearing] or it shouldn't be," Ms. Ballem said.
The second problem for the city, she said, is that the judge ruled material for the public should be easy to understand and not overly technical.
That direction is also unclear, Ms. Ballem said.
"In fairness to the judge, it's not an area he has spent a lot of time in," she said, noting that the city is obliged to lay out some technical issues whenever it does a rezoning. That can include listing all the policy documents that apply to the decision, along with a lot of information about the specifics of the proposal.
The Yaletown residents have said it is shocking the city would appeal a ruling that requires a better public process.
"If the ruling against the city were overturned, it would have severe and negative consequences on public participation across the entire city," the organization said in a news release.