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Development boom prompts city to seek grant to streamline approvals processes

The COVID-19 pandemic temporarily slowed the pace of development in Nelson, but a demand in the housing market to build or purchase real estate has risen over the last five years.

The city is in the throes of another building boom, with more to come.

Three waves of the COVID-19 pandemic temporarily slowed the pace of development in Nelson, but a demand in the housing market to build or purchase real estate has risen over the last five years.

As a result, the city has submitted a grant application under the Local Government Development Approvals Program — administered by the Union of BC Municipalities (UBCM) — for some help to improve development approvals processes.

“With the onset of the pandemic, having it as much online as possible is valuable, and I think there is a lot of value for” involving fewer departments, said city chief financial officer Colin McClure. “We really think we can streamline this (process) based on what we have in the application.”

Since 2016 development construction values have been steadily increasing in Nelson, jumping from $15 million five years ago to over $45.7 million in 2019.

Although 2020 saw a decrease to $28.7 million — a decline that likely reflects the impact of COVID-19 — the number figure is still much higher than has traditionally occurred, noted a city staff report from city planner Kristy McConnel.

“The city is still seeing significant construction, even in the face of rising construction materials costs,” she wrote in the report. “Similarly, issuance of building permits has steadily increased, from 166 permits in 2016 to over 200 in 2020.”

Dwelling units and development permits have both risen, peaking in 2019, dropping back down slightly for 2020. In 2016 there were a total of 30 dwelling units under construction in 2016, but four years later the total rose to 194, with a reduction to 61 units in 2020.

Permits followed a similar trajectory, increased from 52 permits in 2016 to over a 100 in 2019, and then down to 94 in 2020.

The boom has placed increasing demands on staff time, noted the report to council.

“These pressures have been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, and it has become increasingly evident that there are opportunities to increase efficiencies in the development approvals process,” the staff report read.

The proposed updates to the development approvals process will result in more efficient use of staff resources, faster turnaround times on applications and improved transparency.

As well, there would be the establishment of a modernized, fully digitized development approvals process “aligned with current industry best practices.”

There are three main tasks that could increase the efficiency of the City of Nelson’s development approvals processes, as well as improve communication with the community and modernize and digitize the enabling systems.

The tasks include:

  • Updating internal procedures: this task would include developing internal development approvals process guide and updating the Subdivision and Development Servicing Bylaw and Official Community Plan Design Guidelines to reduce redundancy and increase clarity, and to better reflect current best practice in sustainable development;
  • Improve coordination with external partners: this task would include developing public facing guidance documents to improve transparency of process and access to information for the development community; and
  • Digitize the development approvals process: this task proposes to procure and implement a digital application and permitting software to integrate and streamline all key development approvals workflows, improve record keeping, and to allow for fully digital development application submissions.

Source: City of Nelson

In all, the grant is seeking $350,000 in funding, which would cover 100 per cent of the proposed upfront project costs. If approved, the project would require two years to implement.