City Planning was in Crisis before the Crisis Struck

opinionred 100x100By Jim Young

April 16, 2020


I have lived on Silwell Court, which backs on to the controversial 2100 Brant Street Development, for 28 years. I know the neighbourhood and the people involved, they were my neighbours. I also know John Calvert; a quiet, capable former Mississauga city planner. He and I share notes on planning issues and I am always the wiser for his thoughts.

Like John, I worked for change at the last municipal election, hopeful that those changes would bring greater local resident input on city plans. Also, like John, while happy with much of our new council’s work on Transit, Climate Change and the recent Covid-19 crisis response, I am equally disappointed in their approach to land planning issues. His Op-ed piece on 2100 Brant Street and the Gazette picture juxtaposing the proposed 233 units with the 236 surrounding homes says all that needs to be said about over-intensification, poor planning and design.

National-Homes-766- 233

The blue area denotes the Havendale community with 236 homes. The orange area is the proposed National Homes development where 233 homes would be built.

But greater than any objection to that development is my fear that the process to approve it indicates how future planning applications will be handled and resolved by the city. A process that not only limits the public input electors demanded in the 2018 council rout, but leaves us wondering whether it is an unfortunate confluence of conflicting provincial / municipal planning ideologies or intentional city planning policy; forsaking local input for expediency.

First it is only fair to point out that, even with the best of intentions, municipal planners are severely limited by The Ontario Planning Act. Developer amendments to zoning bylaws and official plans, are assessed, not necessarily on the local impact or wishes but more on how they comply with provincial planning legislation and guidelines. Also, the time for city planners to assess those amendments is severely limited by the Planning Act. Even the much debated Official Plan, still in the works after so many years, must comply with The Act and subsequent provincial guidelines on density, transit and mobility.

The land use planning, amendment and appeals process was already complex and changes by two successive provincial governments and an ongoing Official Plan review by the city have made the whole process so complex as to be un-navigable by planners and unintelligible to us mere citizens.

The old process was: The city’s Official Plan regulates what may be built. Developers who wanted to deviate from that submitted amendment applications to the city are approved or disapproved. Prior to submitting the application, developers held a statutory public meeting to inform residents of the proposed changes. Cities had 120 days to respond to applications. Developers could appeal unfavourable planning decisions to the OMB (Ontario Municipal Board). Failure by the city to respond in time was also grounds for an appeal by the developer.

The first change, in early 2018, saw the OMB replaced by LPAT (Local Planning Appeals Tribunal), a supposedly more municipal and resident friendly body. It allowed 180 to 210 days for cities to respond to amendment applications and made it, theoretically, easier for local residents to contest developer proposals. Before any of this could be tested, the Provincial election that year changed the government.

Ground break - Oct Suz Hammel, +

Burlington MPP Jane McKenna at the ground breaking of The Gallery, the 23 storey tower going up opposite city hall. The provincial government delivered regulatory changes that kept developers smiling.

With that change, a more development friendly government cut amendment application response times to 90 or 110 days and changed much of the amending criteria in favour of development. In a city which still had no official plan in place and a large number of pending applications, this was an impossibly tight deadline to meet. Throwing further confusion into this was the Review of the Official Plan, demanded by the electorate and concentrating on the downtown.

In a bid to allow planners time to develop the new official plan free from ongoing amendment applications the city froze the planning process using an Interim Control Bylaw. (ICBL)

We can argue whether this was undertaken properly, if the (ICBL) was successful? If the Downtown Transit Hub should have been addressed first? If the revised downtown plan is any better? But those are arguments for another column.

The outcome has been that on top of all the in-process amendments, frozen by the ICBL, developers lodged a further thirty one appeals to LPAT opposing the new plan and the ICBL. Add to this a city and a province beset by a Covid 19 lockdown and the whole process has simply seized up. Applications are frozen again, LPAT appeals are suspended and there seems to be confusion about whether the application deadline clock is still ticking or not. An email from Heather MacDonald, Executive Director, Community Planning Regulation and Mobility suggests to me the clock is frozen too, an article in the Gazette, April 14 suggests the issue is being debated at the province but there is no decision as yet.

The debate now becomes: Is the city a victim of powerful and shifting provincial planning whims? Or is the city happy to hide behind a land planning regime it cannot win against and capitulates to quietly while still disingenuously proclaiming its defence of resident interests?

I am beginning to believe the latter. Reading John Calvert’s plea to our mayor, one might reasonably conclude that the city’s new approach to planning amendments is: Receive the application. Sit on it until the response time runs out. Let the developer appeal to LPAT, then negotiate a settlement agreement with the developer with almost no input from local residents.

I worry that, with the city’s planning in an unresolvable mess and aware that municipalities are virtually powerless anyway, our elected council has found a way to live with a pro developer provincial planning regime while shrugging off responsibility for the outcomes.

I further worry that in a “Covid Shutdown” political environment, what little resident or municipal input exists in the planning process will be further eroded by meetings in camera, with no traditional citizen delegation.

Related news articles:

Calvert letter to the Mayor on trust

The pain Calvert carries

Marianne Meed Ward on trust.

Jim Young 2Jim Young is an Aldershot resident who delegates at city council on transit and local development.  He is consistent in his mission to ensure local government is transparent and accountable to the people who elected them.

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10 comments to City Planning was in Crisis before the Crisis Struck

  • Alfred


    Let me understand where we are today? The nimbies finally realize the change has to come at the Provincial Level. After we tryed to explain this to them hundreds of times. Now are these changes for just the Downtown core or City wide? Are these changes to be Province wide as well? It appears nimbies want to illiminate LPAT. (Impartial judges). Because they followed the Provincial guidelines and did not return decisions they liked. We would then move to a mob mentality for development? Dominated by a bunch of know nothings in terms of development carrying torches and pitchforks. So we got rid of 5 seasoned councilors (5 out of 6 years Burlington was voted Best mid-sized City to live in under their watch. Vote was rigged to let Oakville win once. We then replaced them with nubies with no experience. Some who promised they could stop development. We all know who they were. The reality is they were misinformed as to what they could legally achieve. Or they lied to the misinformed to get elected. So now we have chaos at City Hall. Corona virus and our lives in the hands of nubie leaders. We are also trying to change the Development process in Ontario that was supported by both the Liberals and Conservatives. Changing the Downtown? Maybe. Anything else? Good luck. It would appear the Developers were right all along. If not, we would not be trying to change the rules of the game and pulling the carpet from under their feet.

  • Craig Gardner

    If i am reading correctly it sounds like even if residents don’t trust the officials they elected locally and have a say it is more of a rant or getting off their chest than purposeful dialogue as it seems the local governments wishes unless they match the provinces will not happen. If this is true the best recourse is to work to change things at the provincial level and make sure council is aware what locals want in a trade off with developers. Or maybe I am missing the point and someone thinks if they protest loud enough or long enough or often enoug or with enough backing to city council that will change the outcome at the provinxial(LPAT) level??

    • Jim Young

      I agree Craig. The change has to come at the provincial level. They hold the legislative powere on land use planning. You are correct that most of what we citizens do at the municipal level is hollering into the wind. Before Covid 19 became the only issue in local politics there were moves afoot by Halton Municipalities, Burlington and others to disband LPAT and return to the idea of “as of right” land use planning model. Where municipal plans carry more weight than provincial “guidelines”.
      It will be interesting to see if post covid, municipalities take this up again or get swamped in economic recovery fast tracking of development by the province.

  • Stephen White

    It will be interesting to see the implications of the COVID-19 pandemic. With an estimated 30-50% of retail establishments expected to fold, 3.3 million Canadians applying for some form of assistance, an unemployment rate at 7.9% (and expected to go much higher), a federal debt of $184 billion and climbing, and citizens submarined with debts and loan repayments, it hardly portends an optimistic and bright future for real estate developers. Speculators are going to get burned badly, and home/condo prices will likely take a huge hit. All those half-finished, empty condo towers will serve as a stark legacy to corporate greed, arrogance and profiteering.

    • Jim Young

      Your housing market forecasts are not only scary but may well be correct. It may wel be a housing rout in the making. The only thing that may save it is that people will still need places to live so some demand will persist. It would be perfect poetic justice if speculative buyers got burned. Federal and Provincial Governments should avoid help to those speculators when the inevitable bail out comes along. Wouldn’t it be totally ironic if all the empty condos in a low demand market became the solution to housing affordability as speculators drop prices or increase rental supply just to minimise their losses? That would be justice indeed.

    • Joe Gaetan

      Agree. If demand tanks. Our downtown will take a serious hit. The upside, commercial rental rates will also drop.

  • Steve

    Hmmm lets see, ultra-high densities (intensification) that are good for mass transit (supposedly), but a disaster for pandemics, and quality of life. I vote for the good ole sleepy bedroom town scenario, again.

  • Don Fletcher

    Well put, Jim. The downtown developers of hi-rise condominiums have operated in an environment of high demand so far, but the COVID-19 pandemic may change all that, at least in the near term. That 600 sq.ft. unit that is now serving as an around-the-clock home/ office/ nursary may not seem all that desirable for many in the future. Money to buy, or even speculate on these units, may not be so abundant, for the unemployed/ underemployed or for those retirees whose RRSP/ RRIFs have taken a serious hit. The free market might just take care of future over-development downtown, without much more “help” from our governments?

  • Terry Rose

    Thank you, Jim, for your well-reasoned analysis. Under LPAT rules, only “Parties” (typically the Developer and the City) can make verbal delegations. If, as Jim suggests, the City is going to roll over, then the burden falls on citizens groups to aggressively defend the OP and ZBL. For a citizens group to be accepted as a “Party” – absent a pro-bono attorney – it would need to raise at least $100k. Even then there a risk that costs could be awarded against you.
    Another thing: don’t be surprised to see this (Ontario) government roll out emergency legislation to fast track the backlog of LPAT cases – in the name of rapid economic recovery.

    • Jim Young

      Terry. Your points on “parties” at LPAT are spot on .. In fact parties are advised by LPAT to incorporate and have director insurance. Even LPAT “participant” status is restricted to those living within 120 metres of the development and participants cannot call witnesses or expert testimony. Participants may only provide written objections or statements.
      On the subject of post covid economic recovery I fear a complete free for all in development permits, OP and ZBL amendments with all restrictions removed and appeal mechanisms revoked. (Temporarily of course) and all in the name of “economic recovery necessity” and who will be able to argue against that? Scary thoughts.