By now, we all know the outcome of the council debate on the PenEquity application to build a shopping centre at the intersection of Highway 401 and Dingman Drive, a development that will entail the destruction of a 10 acre woodland and wetland. We know that Councillor Joni Baechler, aided by Councillor Nancy Branscombe, did her level best to defer the decision until more information was forthcoming; we also wonder why Councillors Matt Brown and Paul Hubert collaborated to ensure that Baechler's proposal would meet with failure.
That's what happened. The real question is “Why?”
At the outset of the meeting, the PenEquity debate was scheduled to take place at 6:00 p.m. The item was of considerable interest to the public and there was no point in making a gallery full of concerned citizens wait indefinitely while council wrangled over a number of mundane matters. Still, it was well past six before the debate got underway.
As chair of the Planning and Environment Committee, Councillor Bud Polhill rose to introduce the motion to approve the developer's request for an Official Plan amendment and a zoning change for the 76 acres property which London had acquired in the 1993 annexation.
It was a good proposal, Polhill asserted. Sure, Matt Brown had some amendments to put forward, he didn't have a problem with that, but the updated report from the developer's consultant, the reputable Dr. Epp, had concluded that the trees on the property were mostly elm and ash; it wasn't a significant woodland.
Baechler was first on the speakers' list. She had been ready, had her hand up before any others could signal their intention to speak, not even Councillor Matt Brown who appeared to have a wad of papers ready for circulation.
Baechler asked for a deferral, a motion quickly seconded by Branscombe. She was taking issue with the notion that the woodland was not significant or sustainable. Epps, the consultant for Aecom, had noted that the woodland was significant; it had scored high on five out of eight criteria when only one would do! As for its sustainability, look at the aerial photographs that the city's mapping had been providing since the early 1950's. It was there then and still here now. And it contained a wetland, well before the 401 was built, so it wasn't just construction runoff.
But even apart from the sustainability of the woodland, this application was premature, plain and simple. Council had a duty to follow the Official Plan, the Planning Act and the Provincial Policy, to consult with the appropriate agencies and to hire an ecologist to do the necessary Environmental Impact Study. It was required by the Official Plan that had been unanimously endorsed by council and had been upheld by the Ontario Municipal Board when it was appealed by developers and landowners. It was council's contract with the public. To amend it at the request of the developer without following the appropriate processes was breaking trust with the public and setting a dangerous precedent for other applicants.
It's puzzling for me why planning staff had brought this application forward before the work had been completed and the necessary reviews done. During the time I was on council, much staff time and effort had been spent on developing a process to ensure that applications were complete and the appropriate departments and agencies consulted before a recommendation was presented to the public and council. Why had this not happened this time? Had there been political interference in this case?
In the words of Baechler, if the relevant studies and reports had not been completed, “I'm not sure what you're basing your decisions on,” she told her colleagues to a round of enthusiastic applause from the public gallery.
Matt Brown was on his feet next. He wouldn't be supporting the referral. As he had indicated at planning committee the previous week, he thought a lot had changed since the original proposal had come forward in June. Then it had been wedge politics; he didn't like that. He had a better idea which he would present in the form of amendments once Baechler's request for a deferral had been defeated.
Hubert followed quickly. A lot of ink and spin had been spent on this issue, he noted, as he continued to contribute to the latter. But the bottom line was, he wouldn't support a deferral because he was pinning his hopes on Brown's as yet unarticulated amendments. He must have had a sneak preview not afforded to some other members of council but who were also expected to vote on the matter of deferral.
There was no doubt by then that any chance for deferring a decision until all the work had been done and the results communicated to council had been lost. Both Matt Brown and Paul Hubert had asked for additional information a month earlier in an 8-7 vote. Now they were willing to abandon that quest along with their commitment to follow their own council policies and processes.
Again, I have to wonder why. Why could they not wait until an Environmental Impact Study had been done? Until the Ministry of Natural Resources and the Upper Thames River Conservation Authority had provided their final reviews? Are political ambitions at play? I couldn't help but remember that a year or so ago Matt Brown had also supported taking away staff's authority with respect to the development on Reservoir Hill, thereby essentially giving the green light to the developer to go ahead with the massive condo building currently under construction. Later, he reversed himself, but by then the damage had been done; any opportunity for council to limit the size of the footprint had been lost.
There has also been much speculation that both Brown and Hubert are contemplating mayoralty races. Those are costly exercises requiring significant human and financial resources. Most successful mayoral candidates have relied heavily on donations from the business sector, especially the development industry. It wouldn't do to alienate them. And the London Development Institute, the Chamber of Commerce and the Building Trades Unions had all come out in favour of PenEquity.
Councillor Stephen Orser's contribution was true to form. Anything that would result in an Ontario Works caseload reduction and a replacement of trees lost to emerald ash borer was fine by him. A bird in the hand is what he wanted, not two in the bush. He would be happy with steel and cement in place of a few dying trees.
“Shoot the referral down,” Orser exhorted his colleagues to a smattering of applause from the members of a self-styled London Multicultural Club, one of whose board members was none other than Deeq Abdi, who had recently distinguished himself by alleging that Harold Usher was “not black enough”. This in defence of Councillor Sandy White's use of a racial epithet at council following a dispute with Usher. Abdi had been removed from the organization he had claimed to be representing at the time, but here he was with a newly formed group with almost the same name.
Then there was Bill Armstrong. Although he claimed to have great empathy for those trying to protect the woodland and wetland—previously he had claimed to be a tree-hugger—really, the wetland was just runoff from the 401. (Clearly he wasn't aware that the 401 hadn't existed in the London area in the early 50's when the wetland already was obvious on the aerial photos presented by Baechler.) Besides, there were all those jobs, great for kids and spouses; although they didn't pay much, they help to hang onto homes that would otherwise be lost.
I wasn't surprised by Armstrong. Seated as he is between Polhill and Joe Swan, he has fallen prey to their blandishments. Besides, since the departure of Denise Brown from the Fontana 8, his vote has become far more powerful than he ever imagined. He gets respect. He wasn't comfortable with the process, he confessed, but hey, it's a $200 million development. He just hoped he wouldn't have to do it again.
Nor did Swan offer any surprises. He had gotten a lot of calls about why they were allowing retail there but the site was already zoned for retail, he noted. With a couple of holding provisions to make sure the developer didn't jump the gun before the MNR and UTRCA gave their approval, what more could they ask for? After all, everyone of them want prosperity for London.
Branscombe was, as usual, direct and to the point. Yes, it had been zoned for retail but not for entertainment. “That's what we're voting on,” she exclaimed.
What she saw was not an exciting, unique gateway but a mall like every other mall. They would be cutting down a woodland while proclaiming themselves to be the Forest City. By giving it an entertainment zone, they would be sucking the life out of the downtown. Why sink money into the downtown if they were going to do this?
She'd rather see a bird in a tree, than in a hand. The woodland is a system; you can't just plop a few trees here and there to compensate. Precious few remain.
But her biggest concern was the process. Council had unanimously supported the Official Plan which lays out where you can and can't develop. She wanted development but this was putting the cart before the horse. The public would have no right to appeal. “They should be very angry with us,” she concluded.
She was supported by Harold Usher. The land is in his ward, he reminded his colleagues, and he had received over 200 emails about this, only two of them in support. People wanted information. Council should hold off on any decision until it had all the information.
Then there was the mayor. Fontana didn't mince his words either. People should have their heads read if they opposed this. Every city wanted a development like this! And by approving it now and letting the UTRCA or MNR say no later, there was no risk to council. They could have their cake and eat it too, as he had told the committee a week earlier.
Those pictures from the 50's and 60's—there was no dutch elm disease, no ash borer, in those days.
But now, here it was nearly Labour Day and there were all those 40,000 to 50,000 people in London affected by unemployment. They wanted jobs. “It's hard to find investment for the community,” he complained.
Denise Brown, formerly a staunch supporter of the mayor, was unswayed by his appeal. She had supported getting more information the previous month and she was sticking with it. “Let the professionals do their work,” she urged. “They are right here in this room. Let the staff do their job. Give them enough time.”
But Sandy White came up with the most cryptic question of the evening. “If there is no significance and the developer decides he has had it and puts a fence around it, what do we have left?” she asked.
Planning director John Fleming struggled for an answer. “I guess a woodland with a fence around it,” he finally managed.
White concluded her remarks with an outburst against the mayor whose facial expression she apparently objected to. “I'm not a child,” she sulked.
Judy Bryant kept her remarks brief. Without protection for the woodland, there'd be no birds in the trees or in the hand; there'd be no economic development. She didn't see why they couldn't incorporate the woodland into the development. It could be spectacular.
The last councillor to weigh in was Paul VanMeerbergen. His contribution was predictable. Think of all the money! The taxes! The development charges that could keep down taxes! The naming opportunities along the 401, the NAFTA highway.
Baechler was shocked by these remarks, steeped as they were in hyperbole and rhetoric. She tried to correct the record. To think that seasoned councillors like VanMeerbergen would suggest that development charges go into taxpayers' revenue rather than to cover the costs of development. That anyone (in this case the mayor) would suggest that there was no dutch elm disease in the past, that the city would go into environmentally sensitive areas and cut down woodlands because some trees were dying.
“We only do that (cut down trees) on the boulevards,” she pointed out, “because they can pose a hazard to public safety.”
What they had before them was a re-zoning application. She was committed to upholding the processes of the city and the province.
“The woodland is ours to protect,” she concluded. “Nothing protects it in what we have before us today.”
She knew she had lost the battle. Her deferral was rejected 10 to 5. It was time for dinner. That too couldn't wait.