Church groups appeased with city's decision

In front of a standing-room only crowd of local church representatives, puzzled councillors questioned Tuesday the rationale behind a staff recommendation to change the city’s existing land use policy on public assembly lands.

The proposal has raised the ire of religious leaders who feared one early option that might have forced them to fund, build and operate social housing units on any property they planned to develop.

Coun. Greg Halsey-Brandt asked staff about the origins of the proposal, and wondered why churches shouldn’t simply be treated like regular land owners should they wish to redevelop their lands.

“There’s no big unknown out there,” he said, adding that developers wanting to rezone their properties already have a clear sense of what the city usually seeks as a concession.

After hearing from church leaders, the committee voted unanimously to recommend to council that the existing land use policy remain unchanged.

Committee chair Coun. Bill McNulty said the existing policy refers to a requirement that there be a community benefit whenever public assembly lands are rezoned.

But staff had difficulty explaining the definition of community benefit, and each councillor had a different interpretation as well.

The issue will now go forward to council, but McNulty said all indications are that the status-quo option will be selected.

And that means religious groups who own local real estate will be dealt with in the same fashion as other property owners.

Asked if this review was a useful exercise considering the lack of a change, McNulty said reviewing existing policy is always beneficial.

Some councillors expressed confusion at the content of the report. In fact, it so confused Coun. Ken Johnston that he decided to participate in the planning committee meeting which he doesn’t sit on, noting he hasn’t attended one in many years.

Ian Robertson, treasurer for the Anglican Church of Canada, diocese of New Westminster, said there’s no indication that religious groups are planning a mass exodus from Richmond.

He said that in most cases, land currently owned by religious groups was originally zoned residential and purchased decades ago, long before the public assembly designation came into effect.

“We want to be treated as any other landowner,” he said.

The issue first surfaced nearly two years ago, when the Richmond Gospel Society tried to sell a parcel of prime real estate near Garden City and Blundell roads.

It found an interested buyer, but the deal fell apart when it was unclear what the new owner could do with the land.

“Our concern is if all churches did that, we would have no public assembly lands,” city spokesperson Ted Townsend said earlier this year.

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