Public participation ‘rigged’

The public will have less say on red-button issues, such as cellphone masts, building height, temporary housing for disaster victims and suburban densification, if the City of Cape Town pushes through proposed by-law changes, says the far south civic group leading the charge against them.

There has been a robust response to the City’s public hearings on proposed amendments to the Municipal Planning By-law, which regulates developments and land use in Cape Town.

The eight-page submission by Fish Hoek Valley Ratepayers’ and Residents’ Association has become a rallying point for several civic associations across the peninsula, says chairperson Brian
Youngblood.

“So far, Kommetjie, Noordhoek, Camps Bay, Hout Bay, Observatory, Lansdowne, Mowbray and Bo-Kaap have said they will use portions of our submission,” he said.

It was drafted with the help of two architects, one further qualified in urban design.

Mayoral committee member for spatial planning and environment Marian Nieuwoudt said property owners should heed the proposed amendments as they could impact property rights, future developments and land uses.

Six information sessions were held across the city during a public participation period from Friday March 1 to Monday April 1. And they have drawn some strong opinions: at the last session in Parow, at the weekend, Milnerton Central Residents’ Association vice-chairman Bouwe van der Eems, called the public participation process a “sham” and said it was “rigged” to comply with basic legal requirements so the new by-law could be “rubberstamped”.

Some of the notable amendments make it easier for the City to offer emergency housing on land not zoned for it and for homeowners to build third dwellings without prior permission from the City. There’s also a proposal to change how the City calculates property height.

The City’s proposal to produce a ground-level map that will cover all sites and land in Cape Town to measure height in buildings – a very contentious topic in areas with steep slopes – drew flak from the FHVRRA, which argues it is not so much height but mostly parity in the massing, scale and typology of the buildings that determines how well they work together.

The FHVRRA accused the City of being grossly unfair in trying to absolve itself of the problem by issuing little notice to land owners about a new way to calculate their property height and giving them a deadline to comment before their rights fell away.

The City also wants to build temporary housing for flood or disaster victims on land that might not be zoned for it without prior public participation.

That proposal might be well intentioned, said the FHVRRA, but it was dangerous to give a district manager such drastic, unchecked powers.

“We need to work from the assumption that any position of power is vulnerable to being captured and used for corrupt or party political purposes,” it said in its submission.

“What would there be left to stop a captured official from declaring the Rondebosch Common or even Kirstenbosch Gardens areas for emergency housing, for purely party political reasons. What then would be the appeal process and how long would that take?” the association said.

Another hotly contested amendment would allow homeowners to build a third dwelling without prior permission from the City, although the usual building approvals would still apply.

The FHVRRA said it was wrong for the City to allow that without considering the full impact on urban design and building typology.

Without proper public transport the City’s densification strategy to bring workers closer to their employers would create more problems than it was intended to solve, Mr Young-blood said.

“This actually increases local and citywide traffic congestion. Arguable emphasis should rather be placed on improving public transport and businesses should be encouraged to move further away from the City centre and closer to where people actually live,” the FHVRRA submission said.

Another proposed amendment is seen as an attempt by the City to limit the public’s say on cell mast applications.

The amended by-law will allow properties zoned “community use”, such as churches, schools, clinics and hospitals; “utilities”; “transport 1” and “transport 2”; “public open space”, as well as “agriculture” to install minor free-standing cell masts (of less than 12m in height) or minor rooftop masts (of less than 1.5m in height) as of right, that is without prior land-use approval from the City or adjacent land owners.

Furthermore, a minor rooftop cell mast of less than 1.5m in height is allowed as a consent use for properties zoned as “single residential 1” and “single residential 2” as well as for properties zoned as “general residential 1 to 6”.

This means the owner of the property must still apply to the City for permission to install this structure.

The FHVRRA says it opposes the cell mast amendment for health reasons.

“At the very least, all applications should undergo a public participation process,” Mr Youngblood said.

The City’s Wilfred Solomon-Johannes said the amendments would cut red tape.

“Residents can apply online, a building control officer will be allocated to the case as well as a case officer to oversee the application. We can’t stop technology. We need to be aligned with the advent of 5G.”

But Derek Main, of the National Alliance Against Cell Masts (NAAC), said the cell mast amendment made a mockery of public participation. More clarity was needed on health risks before rules were eased.

“This will take away residents’ rights to comment on or oppose unwanted development. Residents will not have their say in matters that directly and negatively affect them. Surely this is unconstitutional? Cell masts should never be allowed near particularly vulnerable people like children and the elderly. Schools and creches should be off limits,” he said.

Ms Nieuwoudt said the proposed amendments would likely go before council in May or June.