Original Published on Jul 29, 2022 at 06:00

By Ollie Williams

One of the few people pursuing large housing developments in Yellowknife says he’s leaving. “I’m not going to go through this any more,” Milan Mrdjenovich told Cabin Radio.

Mrdjenovich’s attempt to build a 70-unit complex on a road leading from the city’s Niven Drive was the subject of a development appeal board hearing on Thursday. All three of his projects in Yellowknife have faced appeals.

Some residents near the proposed Hagel Drive development say the impact on traffic hasn’t been properly assessed and there won’t be enough parking in the area. 

The appeal board has up to 60 days to reach a decision. Even if the verdict is quicker and arrives within weeks, Mrdjenovich says the damage, from his perspective, is done.

“Each time they appeal me, that delays it a year,” he said, referring to Yellowknife’s short summer construction season. 

“They could have had 70 units next year. Now, they won’t have them until 2024. There’s a housing crisis right now. 

“I don’t even know if I’ll be able to build this next year. Maybe prices will be too high to do anything at all. I’ve already missed my window and we’re going to be shelving this project, whatever the outcome is. They’ve done their job and they’ve stopped the project from happening this season.”

Mrdjenovich’s father, Mike, spent decades building in Yellowknife. He and his son have not always been popular with residents, some of whom feel the family has a history of playing fast and loose with bylaws and the environment. (They have consistently disputed that characterization.)

However, without them, there’s virtually nobody left building multi-family housing at a time when Yellowknife is in desperate need of homes.

“No one is doing anything similar,” said Niels Konge, a construction company owner and Yellowknife city councillor. Konge himself is leaving Yellowknife in the new year, though for unconnected reasons.

“Why build somewhere where it’s hard to even get into the ground?” Konge asked. 

“A month’s delay in Yellowknife in the summer is almost impossible to recover your timelines from.”

Konge said when his company tried to build multi-family housing in Yellowknife, “it wasn’t fun.”

He added: “It shouldn’t be so damned hard to get stuff done.”

‘It only happens here’

Mrdjenovich says the same barriers don’t exist elsewhere. 

“I am going to be leaving after this one. It’s no longer feasible for me to be here,” he told Cabin Radio ahead of Thursday’s hearing. 

“The next one will be in Iqaluit, where they’ve been begging me to come back.

“It’s difficult when you work for a year-plus with the city planners and your engineers and architects. You put a development permit in and then you’ve got an appeal board that wants to have the final say. That delays the project by another year. This has happened to me three times in a row now. This doesn’t happen anywhere else. It only happens here.

“I was warned about how it could be here. I kind-of ignored it and here I am. The development appeal board are the judge, jury and executioner in Yellowknife. It doesn’t matter if you go through the permit process with professionals. This board gets to decide. I don’t know if that’s right or wrong, but that’s the way it is here.”

Filing an appeal in Yellowknife costs $25. It’s then up to the appeal board to decide whether an appeal meets the statutory requirements for a hearing. If a resident is alleging a misapplication of the zoning bylaw – the only point on which many developments can be appealed – the board usually ends up convening a hearing to assess that claim.

Konge said the city follows that process because it is mandated to do so by territorial legislation.

“Anybody can put a $25 appeal in and they’re obliged to listen to it, whether it’s right or wrong,” said Mrdjenovich.

“Even Avens, a community slam dunk, had an appeal,” said Konge, referring to an appeal against the permitting of a 102-unit seniors’ facility last year. That appeal was dismissed in its entirety a month after the hearing.

“Ever since I got here it’s been an uphill battle, and it’s not supposed to be like that. It’s not fun, any more, to do this job,” Mrdjenovich said.

“I’m tired. I can’t be taking these lashings like this any more. I’ve got to go where I’m wanted. This is not a good place for me.”

Traffic concern ‘should have triggered’ study

Around 20 residents attended Thursday evening’s hearing at Yellowknife City Hall.

Mrdjenovich’s lawyer, James Murphy, argued the company’s latest development is fully compliant with Yellowknife’s bylaws and the appeal should be thrown out.

At issue is whether the city should have ordered a fresh traffic study prior to approving the proposed complex, to assess how the Niven Lake area’s roads will handle the extra vehicles associated with the building.

Murphy said nothing in the zoning bylaw requires the city to carry out such a study. Since the only way an appeal can succeed is if the zoning bylaw was misapplied, he argued, that should be the end of that.

André Corbeil, presenting on behalf of Yellowknife Condo Corporation No. 61, told the appeal board he acknowledged that a traffic study was “not a required step.”

But, summing up the condo corporation’s appeal, Corbeil said the possible ramifications for existing residents “should have triggered that option.”

“If the board agrees my concern is legitimate, I ask them to rule that the traffic study be required,” Corbeil said.

Murphy said that argument wasn’t a valid appeal and not only held up vital housing, but disincentivized other developers from starting projects of their own.

“Nobody is building,” Murphy told the appeal board. “You need to entice developers to come along … this area is dead in terms of what should be happening out there.” 

Konge’s assessment? “If the appeal is successful then the system is totally f***ed,” he told Cabin Radio.

A clash of values?

The City of Yellowknife’s position is not only that the development officer followed all the rules, but also that traditional ways of building a city must change.

In Yellowknife’s latest community planning process, city staff repeatedly argued that more people will need to live in closer quarters in future – not only to create more homes in less space, but to mitigate the effects of climate change by ensuring things are more compact, including the distance required to run water and sewer services. That reduces emissions and use of materials, the city asserts.

Charlsey White, the city’s planning director, alluded to this as she summed up the municipality’s position on Thursday evening.

“Changes are happening in Yellowknife, and we’re trying to address some of the challenges before us in the best interests of the community overall … not just for today, but for tomorrow,” White said.

Yet some residents, and the appeal board’s members in some of their questions, made plain that existing notions of how much parking is sufficient for a home – and how much density is too much for a neighbourhood – are not going to go away simply because the city says they should.

Even Murphy, the lawyer for Mrdjenovich, agreed that just because someone cycles to work from the new development, that doesn’t mean they don’t have a car, too. But a bike and no car is precisely the outcome the city has said it wants to foster.

Last year, White expressly said a “complete community” would be one “where you don’t need to drive.”

Until all residents sign up for a Yellowknife with more density and fewer vehicles, or until the appeal rules change, the pace of development may remain the same. (The problem is not unique to Yellowknife, even if Mrdjenovich feels there are more receptive municipalities elsewhere. In Ontario, a housing affordability task force recently recommended making appeals harder as “it is too easy to oppose new housing and too costly to build.”)

“You have to spend a year and a half planning the development with the city,” said Mrdjenovich. “Then you go to council and everybody agrees. Then you have to go to the development appeal board and you have to wait to hear what they say.

“It takes about three years to get a project off the ground here. It’s frustrating.”

The development appeal board’s decision will be final, is binding and cannot be appealed.

Caitrin Pilkington contributed reporting.

This item reprinted from Cabin Radio, Yellowknife, NorthWest Territories