City “can and does” allow 100-foot Nishan Sahib

The now-legal Nishan Sahib at Khalsa Darbar Gurdwara on Prince Edward St.

The now-legal Nishan Sahib at Khalsa Darbar Gurdwara on Prince Edward St.

The City of Vancouver’s demand that the BC Khalsa Darbar Society remove a 100-foot Nishan Sahib from its Vancouver gurdwara because it exceeds the neighbourhood’s 35-foot height restriction has been overturned by the City’s Board of Variance.

But it took the use of a peculiar and near-secret weapon in the city’s policy arsenal to turn the trick. City officials appeared before the Board of Variance Feb. 18 to say that the city’s director of planning “can and does” support an apparent violation of city bylaw in this case. The Khalsa Darbar gurdwara is in the 7700-block of Prince Edward St.

The board’s decision averted a potentially serious crisis in the city’s relations with the Sikh community, because none of the gurdwaras in the city has an explicit permit for its Nishan Sahib.

A negative decision could have spilled over to the gurdwaras on Ross St. and Skeena St., despite the fact that the city’s director of planning has the discretion to allow exemptions to the height bylaws.

All that was known for sure is that once a Nishan Sahib goes up, it does not come down except for maintenance or religious observances. Any attempt to remove the Nishan Sahib would have been news — bad news — from here to India and around the world.

But sanity prevailed when the Board of Variance heard appeal submissions by the Khalsa Darbar executive, led by Indermohan Singh Sohi.

In a strange turn of events, a city planning officer was on hand to indicate his support for the Khalsa Darbar presentation, effectively supporting their appeal of his own department’s decision. Citing new submissions by the society and previous “misunderstanding,” he said the city “can and does” support the height violation.

Behind the scenes, Vision Vancouver councillors Raymond Louie, George Chow and I had worked to find a solution. City staff found the exit strategy in their “can and does” submission.

The bizarre saga began when the gurdwara committee installed the religious symbol during the 2004 civic strike as conversion of the former church was completed. With City Hall behind picket lines, no permits were available, but the society believed none was required for this vital religious symbol, as important to a gurdwara as a cross is to a church.

Using the services of a professional engineer, the committee build the Nishan Sahib to the standards in place at other gurdwaras. Even when lowered, it remains within the gurdwara property lines.

Later, when city officials objected to the Nishan Sahib’s height, the gurdwara committee immediately applied for a permit. Neighbours were advised of the application and few, if any, expressed any concern.

But the city planning department refused to approve the application in a decision issued in August 2008.

The Khalsa Darbar Society appealed to the Board of Variance in September and to candidates for city council, particularly those from Vision Vancouver.

Soon after November’s election, Meggs and Chow urged city staff to hear additional submissions from the Khalsa Darbar Society. Sohi and other committee members assembled  photos and documentary material for review by staff and the Board of Variance.

The result was a quick and simple end to a complex bureaucratic tale, more proof, if any is needed, that navigating city rules “can and does” require patience and a sense of humour.