More thoughts on economic development, land use, zoning, quality of life…

December 16, 2007 at 10:18 am | In cities, homelessness, land_use, taxes, victoria | Comments Off on More thoughts on economic development, land use, zoning, quality of life…

…courtesy of further reading in Robert L. Bish’s Local Government Organization in the Capital Region (and continuing somewhat from yesterday‘s entry).

Bish is concerned with explaining the need for and importance of economic development in the region, which is a necessity for Victoria since it relies for over half of its property tax revenue on businesses, and which is necessary “if children of citizens already here are going to have challenging job opportunities in the region instead of having to migrate elsewhere.”(p.30)

What I find especially useful is how Bish explains the linkages between land use/ zoning regulations, coupled with other restrictive regulations, which together can conspire to retard economic development. Bish writes that the following factors influence economic development: “quality of local services, especially transportation and public safety, the regulatory structure, especially zoning and land use regulation, taxes and (indirectly for business owners and their employees) schools and the attractiveness of residential neighbourhoods. These are primarily manageable by smaller local governments except for taxes, where provincial and national government policies also play a role.” (p.25)

We could say that many of these relate to “quality of life” issues. But zoning regulations directly impinge on economic development, which certainly influences quality of life. As Bish puts it,

First, many municipalities in the capital region have the practice of zoning most land into its existing use–and to do so some have hundreds of zoning categories. This means that every significant change in a business land or building use requires a rezoning process, which not only adds time and cost to the process but creates considerable uncertainty with the politics of the rezoning. Several municipalities also have very strong policies against any kind of home based business. These policies on zoning and home based businesses may have a benefit of providing community input on every land use change but they are policies that make business creation, change and expansion more costly. These policies, however, do not require a regional government to change. They do not even require that all municipalities have more business friendly land use policies. They are, however, important enough to merit review in the region if economic development is to be promoted. (emphasis added) (p.25)

Not a week goes by that a resident doesn’t rant in a letter to the editor or at a neighbourhood association meeting about the”evils” of “spot rezoning.” Council is accused of bending over backward for developers, being spineless, selling the “community” out, etc. Yet as Bish points out, the need for rezoning is built into the very fabric as it exists. If you don’t rezone (call it spot rezoning or whatever), you will ossify land use — and retard economic development.

Bish continues:

The second area where individual municipalities play an important role is in their setting of variable tax rates. The B.C. municipal practice of setting business tax rates two or more times higher than residential tax rates (in the capital region the average multiple is 2.76) has made property taxes for businesses in B.C. some of the highest in North America, while residents enjoy some of the lowest property tax rates. Of course one should not be terribly surprised at this result as there are many more residential voters than business voters. That does not make the problem go away, however, and when combined with close to the highest marginal income tax rates in North America, high corporate income taxes and a capital tax, the capital region is not a tax friendly environment for businesses employing skilled professionals. Most of these tax disadvantages are beyond municipal control, but that makes it even more important that municipal governments fix those policies they are responsible for in areas of land use and local business regulation. It also makes it important that the capital region advertise its strongest asset: a diverse range of small municipalities providing attractive options for different lifestyles in a beautiful environment. This is the quality that may offset high provincial taxes to attract the high income professionals that businesses require to the region. (emph. added) (p.26)

Again, clearly it’s the council’s job to create favourable conditions for economic development, yet when they do (and are called to the mat for “spot rezoning”), some people complain how they’re “favouring” developers, and they usually pipe up (and puff up) enough to convince others, who follow the piper. It seems that many people don’t understand that we can’t live off lotus leaves — we have the “strongest assets,” but we also need to attract more vibrant businesses that can pay better wages than the hospitality or service industries pay.

Victoria is now in significant trouble because our downtown is overrun by people who are not “just” homeless, but who openly use and deal in drugs, who shoot up, smoke crack, tweak in broad day light, and make a career of begging for “spare change.” Key areas are festooned with groups of a dozen or so, many with (stolen) shopping carts laden with various possessions. The Province closed mental health facilities years ago, kicked people out, and seems willing to provide free needles (and now free pipes to crack smokers), but cannot find the will to fund detox facilities or asylums, nor is the justice system willing to stop the revolving door model we use for criminals (thieves, dealers) here.

In other words, the Province “downloaded” the responsibility for the mentally ill and the addicted to the municipalities, which don’t have the wherewithal to deal with this huge issue. So, in turn, the municipality has effectively “downloaded” this problem to individual citizens — not only in the sense that we are supposed to step up with private donations (and private resignation), but also in the sense that our shared public spaces are in part thoroughly destroyed. The private individual is suffering the costs of this “downloading.”

And it, in turn, is destroying what Bish calls our — downtown Victoria’s — “strongest assets,” one of which our own ability to believe in this place.

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