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Tuesday, April 10, 2012

The squeaky wheel

The first committee to report at the council meeting tonight will be the Planning and Environment Committee (PEC). The original meeting had lasted more than eight hours as there had been a number of contentious items before the committee.

One of those items was the amendment to the official plan and a zoning change to allow a developer to have the option of adding auto sales and service to a neighbourhood shopping are at the corner of Southdale Road East and White Oaks Road over the objections of planning staff. I discussed this at length in All mixed up.

One of the outcomes of that debate and the subsequent recommendation by the committee is a letter of objection addressed to the council. It seems that some Londoners were not favourably impressed by the cavalier way in which the committee addressed the matter, finding ways to circumvent the Planning Act regarding community consultation on the assumption that “the average person can’t understand what we’re talking about.”

It’s a simple letter which points out that what the committee passed at its meeting was not consistent with the notification that was sent out to the households in that area. The residents would have thought they were getting a place to pick up some groceries or have a bite to eat, not a place to test drive a car. There’s a bit of a difference there, almost a bait and switch.

The letter of objection is an important tool in the planning process, since it is a prerequisite to appealing a council decision to the Ontario Municipal Board (OMB). It’s an avenue routinely used by developers to oppose a council decision and, as such, is not held in high regard by the community. But occasionally, the public itself will call to account a council that has failed to protect the interest of the community. At the very least, a review by the OMB will provide additional scrutiny of how a committee or council may be playing fast and loose with the Planning Act of Ontario, since a council is not law until itself. It will also have difficulty in rationalizing an action which runs counter to the recommendations of its own professional planning staff.

Going before the OMB is not an easy matter, as anyone who has done so can attest. At the same meeting where the foregoing recommendation had been made, the committee also received a delegation as a follow-up to an OMB decision of a decade ago.

This was the Ayreswood project for Reservoir Hill. Although the council of the day, including several members who are still there, had voted unanimously against the proposal for a couple of highrise apartment buildings in the woods on a hillside overlooking Springbank Park, the OMB sided with the developer, although it was specified at the time that two buildings were too much, it was too large a footprint. The developer would have to make it one, instead.

Instead, the developer switched his plan to a luxury highrise condo with a very large footprint. Despite objections from the community and its own past position, the current council voted to give the developer what he wanted. The OMB had left the final say on the site plan to the council.

That was last fall. The site plan was to be reviewed by staff to ensure that all the technical concerns had been addressed and then submitted to a public meeting. But so far, things seem to have stalled.

The agent for Ayreswood, Alan Patton, was not happy. He suspected staff was dragging its heels and he didn’t like it. An active behind-the-scenes organizer for politicians such as Chris Bentley and Roger Caranci, he expected to get faster action, especially from Bud Polhill, the chair of the committee. He had sent a letter to the committee requesting delegate status. He wanted to know what was holding up the works.

Several members of the community had been waiting in the public gallery since 4 p.m. to hear this item addressed. One of these was the neighbour directly beside the proposed development. Although she had long since resigned herself to the inevitability of the new building, she wanted to ensure that it was consistent with all of the OMB’s directives which would minimize the impact on her home.

For some reason, however, Item 14 had been delayed to the very end, ten minutes after 11 p.m. The media had left, as had anyone else who could get away. Most of staff remained as did the committee members.  Also present although not a member of the committee was Joni Baechler. She had promised the group that she would stay for a while, maybe until 7 o’clock, to hear what was happening with Reservoir Hill. She hadn’t anticipated still being there at midnight. Their ward councillor, Paul VanMeerbergen was not present.

Patton began his litany of complaints. He had done everything that was needed. He had submitted the required plans for access, servicing, urban design, and drawing for slope stability, etc. He had sent emails, made phone calls, written letters, but nobody got back to him. He wanted his Development Agreement Clauses and he didn’t have them. He had requested information under the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act and received over 500 documents which he had to review. He was not happy and it didn’t sound good.

Where are we with this thing? Fontana wanted to know. “What are we waiting for?”

City engineer John Braam explained that there were a number of outstanding issues. The applicant had yet to submit hydrogeological studies to the satisfaction of municipality. There were serious concerns about the slope stability in that area since they would be building on a site that is essentially gravel. 

The peer review indicated that some outstanding items needed to be resolved.

In particular, the applicant’s engineer had inferred the water table level for the building site from work that had been done on an adjacent site, rather than the actual location. It was not acceptable to the engineer hired by the city for an independent peer review.

And although Patton complained that his communications had not been addressed by staff, that turned out to be less that truthful. Braam presented a copy of a letter sent to the applicant indicating the concerns of the peer review. There had been other letters as well, but none to the liking of the applicant who simply wanted the green light to go ahead with the development. He didn’t see a need for the hold up. His consulting engineer had discovered a well on the adjacent property that indicated the water table for that area. No need to drill additional holes.

This information had not been provided to the city engineering department. And even if it had, Councillor Judy Bryant was not satisfied that it would suffice. “All over city we measure the water the table,” she pointed out. Why should this be any different?

Baechler, who had waited eight hours for this matter to come forward, agreed. She pointed out a similar situation involving Ayreswood on Hamilton Road in which the water table had been inferred and a perched water table had been missed. It was a costly inference when parts of a retaining wall began to collapse and had to be replaced.

But the committee, especially the mayor, were anxious to move the project forward. How soon could staff get the information together, do the analysis, and prepare the development agreement clauses for the public site plan meeting. There would need to be notice given. Could all that be done by April the 24th?

Equally anxious about the timing was Councillor Sandy White. “What is [this delay] costing the applicant?” she wanted to know.

“I couldn’t answer that,” Patton replied.

“Well, couldn’t you speculate?” White suggested.

Councillor Dale Henderson thought that perhaps the committee should take a more hands on approach. He wanted to see daily communication between staff and the applicant and that a log book of such be maintained and submitted to the committee.

The suggestion didn’t get much traction. “We don’t need to babysit,” Polhill observed.

And so it was agreed that a special public participation meeting of the Planning and Environment Committee would be held on April 24 to review the site plan and that staff, despite any misgivings, be directed to prepare the appropriate site plan approval clauses.

The squeaky wheel gets the grease.


Sandbox Sandy Beach said...

Having Joe Fontana, Bud Polhill, Sandy White, Dale Henderson, Steve Orser and Paul Van Meerbergen on city council is a planning-and-development lawyer's dream-come-true - particularly one such as Liberal lawyer Alan Patton.

Further, last February, during a heated exchange with Free Press reporter Norm De Bono at city hall, Sandy White informed everyone within earshot that Alan Paton was her lawyer and for De Bono to contact him if he had a problem.

So it's really no surprise Sandy White is so concerned about the planning-and-development expenses of Alan Patton's client.

What is surprising, however, is how blatant she is about it.

Interested Party said...

It looks like developers Alan Patton and Ali Soufan only want to build if they can ignore staff recommendations and community concerns. Refusing to compromise, they insult the community and think only of their wallets. Destroying neighbourhoods, the property values of existing homes and quality of life for those residents does not bother these greedy bullies one bit.

And people who were elected to serve the interests of the people, like Fontana, Henderson and White, can't run fast enough to push the community out of the way so that they cow-tow to big money.

What a sad display these council Developers' Darlings make of themselves.

If we had a city council that would stand up to the greedy developers and serve the citizens instead (we can dream) and these bully-boys like Soufan and Patton packed up and left (again, we can dream) wouldn't there be other developers interested in building in those areas, but in a less grandiose way while showing respect to the community?

If other builders, even ones from out of town, put up buildings that actually fit the Development Plan, wouldn't this still make work for local construction workers, plumbers, and electricians?

Wouldn't buildings that fit the Development Plan still create lots of jobs?

If that is the case, then why are the Developers' Darlings on council so ready to cave into the bully tactics of the greedy developers? Surely there are developers who do have integrity.

Interested Party said...

Gina, when you were on council, you supported managed growth. You were job friendly, but stood up for ordinary citizens, rather than big money.

When you were defeated by a very narrow margin, the person who ran against you had spent more money on his campaign than any other candidate, isn't that correct?

Certainly the person who won, did spend a lot of money to win his seat on council, and still all that money only gave him a narrow margin.

I wonder where all of that campaign money came from? As Mr. Henderson does not even live in London, one wonders why he had this burning desire to be on council.

Did he spend his own money to win, did he have numerous small donors, or did he have help from the people he now serves?

Can't help bu wonder.

Gina Barber said...

The financial reports for candidates in the 2010 election can be found at http://www.london.ca/d.aspx?s=/Elections/financials_10.htm

Anonymous said...

To Sandbox Sandy Beach
You write: Further, last February, during a heated exchange with Free Press reporter Norm De Bono at city hall, Sandy White informed everyone within earshot that Alan Paton was her lawyer and for De Bono to contact him if he had a problem.

Can you tell me if there is any other person beside Mr. DeBono who can confirm this comment?

Anonymous said...

Please let the city staff know that people think that they are trying to do a good job; giving due diligence to planning matters. Unlike certain members of city council who seem to undermine what they are trying to do - their jobs.
Thank goodness for Joni Baechler but with this voting block it is hard for her to make a difference I am sure.

Sandbox Sandy Beach said...

How many people heard Sandy White proclaim that lawyer Alan Patton was acting on her behalf?

Close to 10 people, including a few members of city council and city hall security.

Anonymous said...

I recall in distant memory being a representative for a housing co-op that was fighting to save a ravine up by The Winery Hill and Commissioner's Road back in the '80's. We managed to win a compromise with the omb by presenting one complaint in the form of a petition signed by fifty. There's a proper format for submitting acceptable petitions to the omb and it's not done on-line.
They do listen to both sides, but sometimes it involves a lot of grassroots, door to door, footwork to be heard.

Anonymous said...

Anonymous Anonymous said...

To Sandbox Sandy Beach
You write: Further, last February, during a heated exchange with Free Press reporter Norm De Bono at city hall, Sandy White informed everyone within earshot that Alan Paton was her lawyer and for De Bono to contact him if he had a problem.

Can you tell me if there is any other person beside Mr. DeBono who can confirm this comment?

I was wondering as well if there were any witnesses to Sandy White's comment. Does this constitute a conflict of interest?
It was only a matter of time ...

Sandbox Sandy Beach said...

It's a conflict of interest if he's still representing her in any way,shape or form. Paid or pro bono.

Anonymous said...

@ Anonymous anonymous

"@JoniBaechler: Interesting start to meeting with Councillor White shouting at LFP's Norm DeBono telling him to calll her lawyer Alan Patton."