Community Newspaper Columns

Who’s in charge of planning anyway?

March 2014

A funny thing happened at a recent Council meeting. A developer’s rezoning application — supported at the previous Planning Committee meeting by all but one dissenting councillor — became a target for councillors who seemed to want to demonstrate that they won’t simply rubber-stamp any development proposal that comes before them. That this agenda item garnered a surprising eight votes against it (but still 16 in favour) should not be a surprise. But it was.

How did the state of planning/development in Ottawa reach this point? A reasonable person might expect a pretty standard level of scrutiny for any application for rezoning or for additional “variances” (height, reduced setbacks from lot lines, removal of significant trees, addition or removal of on-site parking and more). First by City staff, then the councillor’s office, a local community association and maybe at a public meeting. Finally, if required, it might be reviewed by Planning Committee and Council or, in certain circumstances, the Committee of Adjustment.

The same reasonable person might expect City staff, ultimately supported by Planning Committee/Council, to inform developers that their requests will only be granted in exceptional circumstances. This should be true whether it’s a large company seeking rezoning or a resident who wants a variance to build an addition.

One might expect changes to only be approved if a strong case can be made that neighbourhood character will be maintained (e.g. height, on-site parking, front porches), that compensatory measures will be taken (e.g. planting of replacement trees of a similar type), and that the project is compatible with the Official Plan and/or a Community Design Plan.

To some degree, this is happening. And yet it appears to most reasonable people that the norm is to approve almost anything developers ask for. In the rare instance where an application is rejected, the ultimate indignity is to then see the Ontario Municipal Board side with the developer.

How does this happen, and what can we do about it? It’s easy to list examples of projects getting full “official” support, over the vocal objections of a majority of residents. It’s harder to explain why, and harder still to redress the balance. Councillor Diane Holmes, in a recent, scathing community paper column, put much of the blame on a system that has compromised the judgment and integrity of the Planning and Growth Management Department.

I see no clear evidence of unprofessional conduct, but it appears to most observers that a sort of Stockholm Syndrome has crept into the planning and development process. That may be an exaggeration, but if City planning review staff know that Planning Committee is likely to approve all but the most glaringly inappropriate proposals, and that Council will likely rubber-stamp the decision of Planning Committee, and that the OMB will ultimately side with a developer on appeal, is it any wonder that even the most professional person might be disinclined to give too much weight to neighbourhood character or apply too strict an interpretation of the Official Plan?

The solution? First, staff and Council must complete the work they have been doing this term to more definitively and precisely identify the attributes of neighbourhood character that should be protected/promoted. Second, we must approve this work when it comes before Council this spring. Third, Council must give staff a good reason to be firm and consistent in the application of those tools we have created (or have always had), by conscientiously supporting the citizens who elected us.

Developers admit they will find a way to make a profit under any set of rules, but that uncertainty is the biggest waste of everyone’s time and money.

I will keep working towards improving the certainty that community interests will be given top priority.

Safer crossings
Good news for anyone who has ever risked their life to walk, sprint, cycle or drag children safely across Queen Elizabeth or Colonel By Dr.: The NCC and the City of Ottawa will collaborate to ensure that a new, signalized crossing is constructed at Fifth Ave. and QED this summer. The NCC further promises to add a crossing at Clegg and Colonel By as soon as funds are available. Though we’d also like to see the Canal footbridge built sooner than later, this is a good start.

Elgin/QED/Pretoria
Changes to the triangular intersection at Elgin, Isabella, Pretoria and Queen Elizabeth Dr. are meant to make it safer for pedestrians, cyclists and drivers. I’ve been hearing that while initial changes have made east-west travel safer, they’ve resulted in more and faster vehicle traffic turning onto Pretoria from Queen Elizabeth, thus making it less safe for anyone crossing on foot. In consultation with the local community association and residents, City staff will soon be proposing modifications aimed at reducing traffic speed and improving visibility.

Councillor David Chernushenko