Rail buffer zones will alter municipal landscapes

Republished from the Brandon Sun print edition October 26, 2013

CN Rail train car
Photo Copyright CN Website.

Brandon’s city council, much like other jurisdictions across this country, is learning some new lessons in light of rail disasters.

New track setback distances will affect development and future proposals before council, with last Monday night being a beta test of sorts for a local four-plex development seeking to house within the regulated 30-metre buffer zone, a zone set up by reps from both the rail industry and the Federation of Canadian Municipalities.

These setback zones do place municipalities like the City of Brandon in a bit of a quagmire as large tracts of residential neighbourhoods, much like those of many communities across this country, grew up around the railroads. Many of those railroads were often the focal point of the community, the iron horse that provided supplies and life to the area.

Think of our city for a moment. Much of what is the north end along Assiniboine Avenue is well within the buffer to the tracks. The same can be said for many other areas of Brandon, such as those in the Victoria ward or South Centre, where residential neighbourhoods are nestled closely to the tracks.

Monday night’s council meeting saw a representative for a new north-end development requesting a variance to move within the confines of the setback zone to facilitate a multi-family dwelling.

After debate, to make a long story short, the developer was denied that element of the variance, which means it may be in tough to develop the land as a multi-family dwelling unit.

This decision now raises a much larger question for the city: What to do with current established residential properties in an area some deem dangerous? Further to that, how will future infill development be affected?

Councillors questioned whether permit applications, property values and, most of all, the safety of residents within the zones will come under scrutiny in the coming years as our city continues to grow.

As much as council and administration are becoming better equipped to deal with new development possibilities that may be within the setback areas, Brandon does not have a plan in place to adequately answer questions with regards to established properties that may seek changes within the setback zones.

The city is not sure where to go next on this issue — a fact members of the planning department admitted to council Monday night.

In this instance, they may not be alone. It is a challenge for administrations across Canada.

Weighing on the mind of so many municipalities is the tremendous loss in Lac-Mégantic, Que., following a train derailment in July that left 47 people dead. The tragedy could become a watershed moment for so many across this country.

If setback zones are infringing on dense urban areas, changes may need to be made with regards to where goods are transported through communities, and potentially changes to the path trains take through centres like Brandon.

It is reassuring that CN officials have met with the city. CN’s senior manager for public and government affairs, Warren Chandler, stated they take into account a lot of voluntary measures “to prevent the type of incident that occurred at Lac-Mégantic.”

However reassuring this statement was for Brandon residents, we all hope rail travel is built on best practices and accident prevention.

The bigger issue lies in increased safety zones, and educating the average Brandon resident on some of the potential hazards travelling through their community every day.

Plenty needs to be done to ensure the safety of our residents and the tragedy of Lac-Mégantic did sound the alarm for the rest of Canada.

In our city’s case, initial measures should be put in place to ensure those living close to the railways are aware of some of the potential dangers. As one councillor mentioned, educating residents about the dangers is prudent.

As much as this stymies some of the north-end developer’s plans, I credit council for taking a stand on the property and following guidelines put forth by the Federation of Canadian Municipalities and the national railways.

The next step needs to be the development of policy and guidelines for city planning and a more concrete rule in place to deal with inquiries on infill properties in the future.

Members of council and the planning department were sideswiped by the new regulations, as were many others across Canada. The challenge now is to set in place a rulebook and guidelines to follow in future discussion and decisions.

As it stands, the current structure does little for the growth potential of a given area, but seems a small price to pay in trade for the safety of its residents.

Shaun Cameron Political Columnist
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Shaun Cameron is a content contributor. A veteran of print, video and television, Shaun is a professional post-secondary employee by day, a filmmaker by night. Check out more of Shaun's work in the menu bar above.

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Shaun Cameron has worked in media for close to two decades. His work has been featured in print, internet, video, radio and television publications. A proud father of two, Shaun lives in Brandon, Manitoba with his wife Karol.

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