John Guenther looks over a city map in his office. He stepped down as the City of Revelstoke's Director of Planning this week.

Revelstoke city planning director John Guenther resigns

Planning director embarked on ambitious plan to modernize city planning rules, but fell short when council nixed unified development bylaw

John Guenther, the City of Revelstoke’s planning director for the past four years, has resigned. The official news came in a May 17 media release, but Guenther had been on leave since at least May 13.

On May 13, Tim Palmer, the city’s Chief Administrative Officer, told the Times Review that Guenther was on leave for personal reasons. On May 16, he said Guenther was “on paid leave” and would be unavailable for city business.

On May 17, the city issued a media release, which included a statement from Guenther: “I would like to thank the community, agencies and other staff for their exhilarating engagement; and city council and the commissions for their leadership, mentoring, and guidance. Many undone planning endeavors remain, but the city will conceive of innovative ways of shaping the future. The people within their neighourhoods and other partners will hammer out the ambitious goals of the official community plan.”

In an interview, Palmer said he wouldn’t disclose any details relating to the end of Guenther’s employment, other than to say he had resigned. Citing employee privacy rules, Palmer wouldn’t say if Guenther had been asked to resign, or if he had received any compensation or a severance package.

Likewise, Mayor David Raven wouldn’t comment on the terms of Guenther’s resignation, other than to wish him luck in the future.

Guenther’s mobile phone was not in service this week, and the Times Review was unable to speak with him directly.

Guenther, who holds a PhD in planning, took over the reigns of the planning department about four years ago, after working in Arizona, Washington State and North Vancouver.

Soon after his arrival, Guenther embarked on an ambitious plan to adopt a ‘unified development bylaw’ (UDB) in Revelstoke in order to update Revelstoke’s zoning rules, which he said were dated, disorganized and ill-suited for a burgeoning resort community.

In addition to re-tooling the planning and zoning bylaws to better fit changes brought on by the development of Revelstoke Mountain Resort, the new planning rules also sought to bring Revelstoke in line with modern planning concepts. These included increasing density to lessen greenhouse gas emissions and reduce infrastructure costs. They also sought to integrate property uses and create walkable community hubs throughout town.

The unified development bylaw would have been one of the first in Canada. It experienced some opposition from pockets of residents, who were concerned about increased density in family neighbourhoods; however, it is arguable that a majority of residents who paid attention to the technical and complex changes agreed with the general direction.

The UDB process began near the start of the great recession in 2009, when mayor Raven once commented the economic troubles would allow the city to catch up to rapid resort development.

In the end, the UDB ultimately failed at the beginning of 2013, when city council pulled the plug, citing its complexity, cost and delays. It wasn’t all for nothing; many aspects of the UDB had been implemented in phases.

Initially enthusiastic about the pioneering UDB, council appeared to grow weary of endless, often extremely complex legal and public processes.

Guenther always appeared to know his stuff well, but struggled to communicate it effectively with council; he answered questions from councillors with machine-gun barrages of technical jargon that evidently didn’t clarify the situation for most in the room, (including this member of the press), leaving an impression the planner was pushing ahead regardless of concerns.

More pushback came from the development community, who grew tired of delay and uncertainty created by the ongoing planning process, which they said were stalling development.

In general, “planning fatigue” became a word bandied about public open houses. Attendance waned at many public planning sessions, which seemed to be endless. Some questioned how much the public input was being considered.

There was no formal announcement in January, 2013 when the UDB was killed. It signalled a high water mark and likely end to Guenther’s term here. Guenther always pushed forward at a breakneck pace, and appeared to be on a career track that suggested he’d move on once Revelstoke’s planning rules had been modernized and sewn up.

In the past weeks, the developers of the proposed Revelstoke Crossing hotel and restaurant development pulled out and announced they were selling the property, citing the political climate in city hall as a major reason.

In a statement, CAO Palmer wished Guenther well: “John’s passionate leadership and innovative approach with the UDB will continue to have lasting impact on the city’s growth. We wish John all the best and are confident that he will continue to thrive with his future endeavours.”

Palmer told the Times Review that Guenther would be working with the city until May 23 to wrap up unfinished business, but wouldn’t be at city hall.

Mike Thomas, the city’s new Director of Engineering, will take over for Guenther in the interim.

In a statement issued by the city, Guenther reflected on his time here: “They say you never know how great your friends are, until you have to say good-bye; and Revelstoke’s people spring from a truly magical and enduring land.”

 

 

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