A small crowd gathered at Smithers Town Hall recently for a Committee of the Whole meeting about proposed changes to the town’s downtown parking regulations. Council agreed with comments from the dozen business owners attending the meeting that parking isn’t currently a serious issue downtown, but they want to be prepared for future growth.
There are a dozen changes proposed to the current regulations. One that jumps out is the fee for cash-in-lieu parking spots, which may double, from the current $5,500 to $11,000. Mayor Cress Farrow said the costs to the town of actually building a parking lot is roughly equivalent to the higher figure, and the original fee was intended to increase yearly.
“The $5,500 that we have been charging doesn’t come close to covering those costs,” he said.
A major issue is covenanted parking spots – covenants which were purchased on a separate property by businesses without adequate parking on their own property. The town estimates there are roughly 250 covenanted spots throughout the downtown area, and the properties they take up are not able to be developed for any other purpose at the moment. Council hopes to clarify that property owners will be able to release the covenanted parking spaces through the cash-in-lieu option.
Councillor Charlie Northrup said the covenants are a barrier to development on some downtown land.
“We’ve got lots of covenant parking that we’d like to either see developed or free the land up in some form,” he said.
Farrow agreed, and hopes that by offering a grace period, some of the covenants may be bought out through the cash-in-lieu option.
“That’s why those properties are sitting vacant, not being able to be developed, and why some businesses aren’t expanding, because they’re trapped, they bought a piece of property with covenants on it,” he said. The proposed fee increase “generated a lot of interest in buying parking spots ahead of that, and that is a good thing, because it might get rid of some covenants.”
Another change to the regulations would include a requirement that all off-street parking be developed. In other words, if a new building is constructed, buying off-site parking is not an option – parking must be provided on the property.
“If you’re building brand new, you have no choice. You have to comply and you have to provide parking,” said Northrup.
The town is also hoping to clarify what triggers a change in parking requirements for non-conforming buildings. Many non-conforming buildings, which did conform to regulations at the time they were built, are exempt from current parking rules, although a change in purpose of the business, or major additions or renovations, can be cause for current rules to come into effect.
The town may also require all off-street parking and lanes to be paved, which would entail a significant cost for many downtown business owners. Northrup pointed out that council have debated in the past whether the extra money put into paving and landscaping is worth the cost, and decided that the result is part of what makes Smithers the envy of many northern communities.
“The decision was that the form and character does make a difference, and it makes it more vibrant and attractive,” he said.
Councillor Mark Bandstra agreed, pointing out that “there’s always a trade-off when you lower standards.”
Staff will take input from the meeting and return to council with any modifications to the proposed regulation changes.