Residents comment on by-law

Cellphone masts like this one could be popping up like mushrooms should the latest proposed Municipal Planning By-law amendments pass.

The public’s say will have less punch when fighting issues like cellphone masts, building height, temporary housing for disaster victims and suburban densification if the City pushes through proposed by-law changes, say civic groups and activists.

The Municipal Planning By-law regulates developments and land use in Cape Town.

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.

The City held six information sessions across the City during a public-participation period from Friday March 1 to Monday April 1.

These sessions drew some strong opinions: during the last session in Parow, at the weekend, Milnerton Central Residents’ Association vice-chairman Bouwe van der Eems called the public-participation process surrounding the proposed amendments a “sham” and said it was “rigged” to comply with basic legal requirements so the new by-law could be “rubber-stamped”.

Kristina Davidson, of Wynberg Residents’ and Ratepayers’ Association, said the City’s public participation process was a farce.

“If they were serious about input from the public, they should hold more information meetings and allow more time for comments, especially given the fact that the by-law is written in legalese and is definitely accessible to the layperson,” she said.

The Fish Hoek Valley Ratepayers’ and Residents’ Association (FHVRRA) had taken a full month to compile a comprehensive eight-page response, she said.

Chris Rousseau, of the Constantia Ratepayers’ and Residents’ Association (CRRA), said responding to the City’s deadline of April 1 had not been easy.

“There are 20 categories of proposed amendments, each with many sub-sections and the documentation is very confusing,” said Mr Rousseau.

The CRRA has asked for clarity and rewording on some of the proposals so they can be understood by ordinary ratepayers.

But while these many civic organisations have voiced concern over the proposed amendments, the Hout Bay Ratepayers’ Association (HBRA) appears to have adopted a more positive outlook.

The association’s consultant on land-use matters, architect Stephen Forster, said residents had to trust that the City and its councillors probably had good intentions and were conscientious in their decision-making.

“We have to trust that our councillors know what they’re doing and that these amendments were proposed due to past experiences. Every situation has its positives and negatives, and while contentious, we have to believe the amendments are to better the city.”

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

According to Mr Forster, the Hout Bay community isn’t entirely on board with all of the suggested amendments, and the subject of building third dwellings on residential plots without prior consent from the City could result in trouble.

“Unfortunately, Cape Town is constricted in size and cannot expand any further – the City needs to control densification. We cannot allow everyone to freely expand and build as they please. The only expansion that should be allowed is into agriculture, parks, or nature conservation.”

The FHVRRA’s eight-page response to the amendments, in which Hout Bay residents’ concerns were also taken into account, notes that while the amendment on third dwellings would allow workers to be closer to their employers, it could result in chaos on the city’s roads.

“Due to poor public transport, residents often rely upon their privately-owned motor vehicles. This 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 says.

The City also wants to be able to build temporary emergency housing for disaster victims on land not necessarily zoned for it, for six months, without prior public participation.

Mr Forster said the HBRA could not fault the City for wanting to provide aid to those who needed it, but he cautioned that that amendment shouldn’t become blurred with the one on third dwellings.

“We also trust that the temporary housing will not be built near rivers or conservation areas.

“Residents do, however, require more clarity regarding these amendments – especially those concerning rezoning for third dwellings and areas designated for temporary housing.”

A further proposed amendment is seen by some 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.

While the FHVRRA said it opposed the cell-mast amendment for health reasons, the HBRA countered the notion that cell-masts could be detrimental to the community.

“There is no concrete evidence that cell masts or even using your cellphone could cause health issues. The HBRA choose to look at the positive aspects of this amendment – more connected people. There are areas without any cell reception, so it would seem this amendment would allow people in those areas to get connected.

“We’ve also taken into account the economic opportunities this amendment has in store for ‘community areas’. Schools, for example, could benefit from allowing cell companies to install masts on their properties, resulting in extra income for them,” Mr Forster said.

Wilfred Solomon-Johannes, from the City, said the amendments were intended to 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,” he said, referring to the latest generation of cellular mobile communications.

Wynberg activist Muna Lakhani said changes to the cell-mast laws were being rushed through – without adequate public participation – to allow industry to install 5G everywhere and immediately.

The 5G technology required lots of small, low masts all over the place, despite studies, he said, showing that 5G posed many possible dangers to both people and the planet.

Derek Main, of the National Alliance against Cell Mast (NAAC), said the proposed amendment to relax the rules for the cell industry should be opposed until there was more clarity on possible health risks.

The cell mast amendments made a mockery of public participation, he said.

“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.

* Additional reporting by Karen Kotze, Karen Watkins and Mika Williams.