Welcome to London Civic Watch

"Ever wonder if City Council is as contentious and chaotic as it is sometimes portrayed? Here you can get a progressive perspective on some of the issues from someone who spent four years in the trenches. Totally unbiased, though! Feel free to comment but keep it respectful, just like they do at council."

Thursday, March 29, 2012

All mixed up

That was the controversial slogan adopted by an earlier council to encourage tolerance of and respect for diversity. Although well-intentioned, it was an unfortunate choice which subjected the council to some derision.

However, it may well-fit the approach to planning of the current Planning and Environment Committee if last Monday’s meeting was anything to go by.

Once again, it was a very lengthy meeting, starting at 4 p.m. and not concluding until well past midnight. By then, less than a handful of diehards were still in the gallery. Certainly, the media had left long before. They still had to meet their own deadlines.

It was a heavy agenda, no doubt; 30 items, nearly half of which involved a public participation meeting as well as several delegations.

Not all public participation meetings result in actual participation by the public, and this was the case with the item that is the subject of this posting.

The matter in question was a request for an Official Plan Amendment and a zoning change for a parcel of land on the southwest corner of Southdale Road East and White Oaks Road. Currently, there is an old small brick church on the corner lot with large single family lots on either side on White Oaks and on Southdale. Directly to the north is Finch Hyundai, an automobile sales business. To the east along Southdale is a vacant lot and kiddie corner, a Lutheran Church. On the east side of White Oaks Road, a lot of new residential units are being built. A whole new subdivision is to be found a little further south on the east side.

It’s a busy area with a lot of traffic heading to White Oaks Mall to the south east.

The applicant was Ali Soufan of York Developments. This was his second appearance before the committee that evening. He had done well on the first, another drive through, so he had reason to be optimistic.

In all, there were six separate lots. The applicant proposed putting them all together to create one large property on which a grocery store could be built. So far, so good. From there, it’s quite a drive to the nearest one and a lot of single family houses are being built. Quite a few young families are moving in.

Currently, the Official Plan designates the area along Southdale as auto-oriented commercial  and the strip along White Oaks as multi-family medium density residential housing. Putting in a grocery store, and maybe some other retail outlets that would serve the adjacent residential neighbourhood, was not a bad idea. It would be consistent with the Planning Act of Ontario, Provincial Policy Statement, and the intent of the city’s Official Plan.

These are the documents that professional planners consult when recommending a change of use for a piece of land. It should fit in with an overall plan; otherwise you end up with a mess in terms of traffic, noise, and declining property values. In fact, failure to be consistent with these provincially authorized tools can get you into a lot of trouble with the Ontario Municipal Board.

Planning staff recommended that the applicant be granted a change of use to a Neighbourhood Shopping Area. It seemed like a good fit.

But the applicant was not happy. This development would be speculative; he didn’t actually have a tenant yet. He didn’t want to “sterilize” the land, that is, to restrict the uses. He wanted the Neighbourhood Shopping designation but he wanted to keep open an option for a car sales lot, too.

That wasn’t on for staff. They knew the relevant policies and what was being proposed, neighbourhood stores and a car lot were at opposite ends of the range of uses; they just wouldn’t work.

Additionally, the applicant wanted other special considerations as well: greater coverage of the lot area by buildings than allowed, reduced setbacks from neighbouring properties, relief from the restrictions on drive through lanes, and reduced landscape buffers and parking requirements. It was quite a wish list.

Mayor Fontana took the lead in responding to the applicant’s request. He couldn’t see why it couldn’t be accommodated. He thought the planning rules were just too restrictive. There should be some flexibility.

“There’s flexibility and then there’s flexibility,” executive director of planning, John Fleming replied. These were very different designations. The range of uses is determined by the Official Plan, which has been approved by the province. The zoning flows from the Official Plan. There was no designation that was “a grab bag of uses.”

But the current designation was auto-related, Fontana argued. Why couldn’t he just keep that and have the commercial too? He was lobbying hard on behalf of the developer.

Soufan pointed out that he didn’t want all the auto related uses, just a car sales and service lot. It didn’t seem like a lot to ask.

Gregg Barrett, manager of land use planning, tried to explain. Only a couple of years ago all the city’s commercial policies had been reviewed and overhauled. There was a difference between nodal groupings and corridors. Nodes were to serve a number of local community needs like restaurants, grocery stores and personal services establishments. Corridors were for destination shopping like cars or furniture. They were trying to mix two different designations.

Fontana didn’t see why they couldn't; “I can’t see why we can’t reconcile it,” he complained.

“Mixing it up however you like is not a way to plan,” Fleming told him but Fontana wasn’t listening.

“If we wanted to go down that path, what would you suggest?” he asked  Fleming.

They would need to go back and provide notice to the community,” Fleming pointed out. The staff would have to evaluate the new application and make a recommendation. A report would have to be written. It would take time.

“What about putting auto on part and neighbourhood shopping on part?” someone suggested, but Soufan didn’t like it. It would further restrict what he could build there..

Committee member Judy Bryant was interested in that approach. Perhaps they could do a north south split. She suggested referring that back to staff.

That encouraged Fontana. “Even Judy is talking about it,” he exclaimed. He thought they could just go ahead, maybe just put on a couple of holding provisions to make sure everything worked.

Fleming pointed out that they would still have to circulate that, a holding provision wouldn’t suffice.

Chair Bud Polhill didn’t see the problem of an automotive use in a commercial designation. He was sure there was one somewhere on a temporary basis.

Things were deteriorating rapidly. Member Dale Henderson suggested that maybe the applicant could build some residential around it. He wanted to re-zone everything in the area and then forget about the staff recommendation. He wanted to use some holding provisions but for what I had no idea.

There followed a brief consideration of their legal obligations to the public. City solicitor Jim Barber pointed out that a change to the Official Plan required notification and could be appealed to the Ontario Municipal Board.

Soufan felt he couldn’t wait to have a new proposal circulated to the public. He had an issue with the vendor to the west and might have lost contractual opportunities.  "Just give us the use and trust us to create a site that works," he urged.

“How quickly can we do it?” Fontana wanted to know.

Given all that had to be done, Fleming suggested a month and a half to two months.

At that, the last member present, Sandy White, piped up. “I’m not getting a sense of the time,” she said. She wanted to inquire of the applicant if he was “in an economic place where we need to be quick?”

Soufan hesitated briefly, then replied “We have till the end of this month.”

That was less than a week hence. Could that be possible? Council wasn’t even meeting till the April 10, and nothing could be decided before that.

Soufan thought Fleming  could  come up with something very specific for a special provision. That should satisfy his prospective client.

Fontana wondered if anyone could challenge their decision to the OMB for inadequate notice. But he reassured himself by noting that “the average person can’t understand what we’re talking about.” No need to worry.

And so without further ado, the applicant was granted the Neighbourhood Shopping Area with a special provision for an auto sales and service establishment. So what if it violated all the planning policies. No member of the public was there to object and even if they had been, they wouldn’t have understood what was happening.

And that’s how planning is done in London, Ontario in 2012.


Lily Tomlin said...

Another depressing "planning" meeting. Why not just do away with the whole planning department? That would save money.

Let Arva Joe and his minions (all beholding to the developpers, of course) just hand out the permissions over a beer.

No matter how cynical you get, you can't keep up.

Solid Gold Casino said...

When the mayor and a standing committee of council wilfully ignore the notice requirements of the Planning Act, it doesn't take a brain surgeon to realize London city hall has hit a new low.

No doubt London's planning staff are shaking their heads as they freshen up their resumes.

Council dullards such as Dale Henderson, Sandy White, Bud Polhill, Steve Orser and the mayor are an embarrassment to London.

Cynthia said...

Holy blipin cow! People tell me everyday how much they dislike Fontana, words they utter I cannot post. Snake in the grass is mild. This is the worst council London has ever had.

Jan said...

And so, we wipe out the investment the residents have in their properties, just like that!!! That's not even to mention quality of life -- I can only imagine what fun it might be to live beside a used car lot cum supermarket! Coming to a neighbourhoood near you.

Why's woman said...

A sigh and a shake of the head,

Knowing just why I'm so full of dread,

Knowing that White's a finely trained puppet,

A high-level plant just timed to come uppet

Questions to strengthen the pressure of timing

That brings on the shiniest coin - pocket lining.

Interested Party said...

Mayor Fontana has insulted every Londoner with his remarks.

What a mess this council is.

Since Developers are the people who really run the city, there is actually no need for council at all.

I am sure that there are greedy developers everywhere, but can others tell me if most cities have caved in to developers as much as this city has?

Do other cities manage to actually maintain some integrity with planning and building, or do developers run the world everywhere?

Anonymous said...

well that's quite a precident, being allowed to purchase, own and use a chunk of property any which way one chooses...and we can't even build a grannyshack in the backyard or let our kids put up tree fort without political interference!

Anonymous said...

I venture to say that Soufan is getting what he paid for ...
The planning committee and most of council are an embarrassment and I wish Londoners would become informed about the voting block that is going on with no long-term thoughts of their actions. Fontana is showing his federal political experience by aligning people with him beforehand to push through his agenda which may or may not be good for London. Fontana tries to be charming - it is getting old. Some of these minions are following him out of political aspirations (riding on his coat-tails) and others have extreme gullibility and perhaps enjoy the flattery of being aligned with him. And others (one in particular) just wants to be pointed in some/any direction, because he cannot comprehend or follow what is going on!
I feel so sorry for the city hall staff. No wonder Fleming is leaving. The staff are professionals who have been through college and university in their particular fields and do not deserve this planning-on-the-fly which must make for a very stressful environment at city hall or they are too overcome with laughter to worry.

Anonymous said...

Instead of "1 step forward, 2 steps back" This council is taking us back to the middle ages. Why do we need a city council or mayor let alone a pay raise with this carry on? The hard working staff must all be looking for other jobs elswhere. Why would they stay in London when council decisions make their work redundant? Very Scary.

Anonymous said...

It should be determined by 50% votes from the citizens in the immediate area and 50% council... within 1 day! Joe is gettin' stuff done, good job! Bureaucracy sucks but it creates wonderful grossly overpaid jobs, lol... e.g. lawyers.

Chairman Mao said...

Unfortunately, Mayor Fontana is all sizzle with little substance.

Talk Talk Talk. Hot air personified.

Moving London in the wrong, backroom direction.