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.