He stood his ground, gave as good as he got and got us a little closer to real civic engagement.

By Pepper Parr

BURLINGTON, ON May 25th, 2011 – It came down to a one hour delegation with phrases like:

“Give the money back to the developer.”

“Money from developers is tainted.”

The fix was in.”

It’s hush money.”

“City staff` want money for their favorite projects”.

from a citizen who stood his ground and gave better than he got from a Council that paid lip service to the Shape Burlington report said needed to be changed in terms of engaging the citizens about changes made to the way the city is going to grow.

Council heard a delegation that went much longer than anyone expected and one in which every council member had something to say and, except for Craven, they were all inclining towards a: Yeah, the community should be more involved and there was one of those inevitable staff directions that leads to… Our Mayor wasn’t happy – he wanted the meeting to move along and was behaving as if he had an upset stomach and wanted to go home.

[box type=”shadow”]

Related Stories

[/box]

 

Mark Henderson a retired teacher who lives on Burlington Avenue, a block away from the 14 storey project the Molinaro Group wants to build at Brock and Elgin where the official plan permits 7 storeys, was given his five minutes to make his point and got cut off rather abruptly by the Mayor.

This project had gone through two public meetings that were long and noisy and at which, if you believe the residents, none of their concerns were shown in the application the planners approved and sent along to a city council committee. There, the project was once again raked over the coals by unhappy residents, with Ward 2 Council member Marianne Meed Ward putting forward four amendments on which she insisted on a recorded vote and lost 6-1 every time.

Meed Ward was back at when the matter came before a Council meeting, but this time she had a single delegation that did all the talking. Every member of Council engaged Mark Henderson, and each time he came back with cogent arguments about the process the city had taken with this particular project that left Burlington city council looking very pro- developer, a Council that gives developers anything they ask for.

Henderson was appearing before Council as the spokesperson for the Ward 2 residents committee that didn’t like the idea of a developer giving the city a significant sum of money ($500,000) in community benefits for permission to put up a 14 storey structure when the Official Plan allowed only 7 storeys. The Ward 2 residents thought that stunk and they felt the city should not accept the money and stick with the 7 storeys. This Council wanted the 14 storeys and used the excuse that it was what the Planners had recommended. However, there was no mention in the Planners report of the significant community dissatisfaction and Council didn’t ask why there was no mention. They certainly knew about it.

Henderson didn’t get a chance to finish his delegation before his five minutes was up and the Mayor, who is usually a little on the tolerant side with delegations wasn’t in a tolerable mood with Henderson although he did congratulate him at the close of the Council grilling and said he had earned himself a beer to which Henderson responded: “Are you buying?”

A stones throw north and a bit to the west of the Burlington Art Centre, there is what is close to a concrete jungle. This kind of concentration has become a ghetto in many North American cities where delinquency and poverty grow.

A stones throw north and a bit to the west of the Burlington Art Centre, there is what is close to a concrete jungle. This kind of concentration has become a ghetto in many North American cities where delinquency and poverty grow.

The March 3, 2011 community meeting, held at the Burlington Arts Centre, was noisy and it was clear the resident didn’t like what was being put in front of them but none of that dissatisfaction made its way into the report the planners sent along to the Council Committee that approved the report. The community had already met once with the planners and made their views known that time as well.

The process is was now before Council which was going to put its stamp on all the papers and the builder could start digging holes. There were two delegations: the Ward 2 residents and the planner for the Molinaro Group. Each had five minutes to make their points. Mark Henderson, who was speaking for the Ward 2 residents got his five minutes after which Council members kept him at the podium for an additional 45 minutes.

The Ward 2 residents had two concerns. The way the Official Plan was basically ‘thrown under the bus’ and the way the $500,000 given by the developer was allocated. The $500,000 was the result of a section 37 agreement (Planner speak for a getting money in exchange for giving the developer increased density.)

Besides not liking the way the money came to be Henderson, speaking on behalf of the residents, didn’t like the way city hall planning staff were deciding how it was to be spent.

The beef for the Ward 2 residents was the way the decision to use the provision in the Act got decided. They wanted to be inside the tent as it were, shining their light into what they thought might be dark corners. Meed Ward felt the community should be involved in determining what happens in a community and she wanted to be involved much further up the food chain. She maintained that way back in December of 2010 she asked the Planning department to bring her in on these conversations and says she was told things weren’t done that way and, because she was a freshly minted municipal councilor at the time, she didn’t know what else to do and took the word of the planning staff. Thus Meed Ward was a little surprised when she heard Ward 1 councillor Craven say that he had been invited to take part in a Section 37 conversation when there was a project in his ward. Meed Ward will be having a conversation with the planner about that.

However, this being an issue that involved Meed Ward it wasn’t going to be that simple – it wasn’t Meed Ward that was making it difficult – she just insisted in getting down to the details. And that’s when Council learned more than they may have wanted to know about how parts of the Planning Act actually work.

The developer was quite prepared to give up the $500,000 and he didn’t give a hoot how it was spent – all he wanted was his building permit and he made it clear he wanted it approved at the Council meeting – and this Council doesn’t have the cahonies to tell a developer to cool their heels while the city works through its issues.

Not only is it a very uninteresting building it exceeds the height limits set in the official plan and has a postage stamp of a park and no schools in the immediate area.  Still said to comply with good planning principles.

Not only is it a very uninteresting building it exceeds the height limits set in the official plan and has a postage stamp of a park and no schools in the immediate area. Still said to comply with good planning principles.

The citizens however were concerned with how the $500,000 was spent and they wanted to give that process a review, with involvement from the community. Henderson’s argument was that if the city is giving a developer additional density in return for a financial benefit then the residents should be involved in deciding just what those benefits should be. There was never an issue with how much money was going to be given to the city – the issue for the residents was what that money got spent on.

Meed Ward had thought she could get agreement to approve the project and figure out how the $500,000 would be applied – and that’s where the Planning Act got in the way. Council could not “uncouple the two. If the project was to be approved and the developer given the additional density council had to approve BOTH the additional density and the benefits. That would have meant holding up the approval and without the approval no building permit. And this Cou

The Molinaro Group already has a very productive relationship with the city. They found their cash flow wasn’t quite what they needed to b able to pay the $655,000 in development charges on the Maple Avenue project in2010 and, rather than approach their bankers, the developer approached the city and proposed a schedule of payments that stretched the paying of the $655,000 over three years.

On March 2, 2010 City Council did the following:

APPROVAL OF A RESIDENTIAL DEVELOPMENT CHARGES DEFERRAL AGREEMENT FOR 551 MAPLE AVENUE

Approve a residential development charges deferral agreement for 551 Maple Ave [535-41/06] at the prime lending rate plus 1% of the city’s bank with the payment plan specified in Appendix B of Finance Department report F-14-10, dated February 5, 2010; and

Authorize staff to prepare a legal agreement for the development charges deferral agreement for the development at 551 Maple Ave [535-41/06]. (F-14-10)

The developer was putting up a large building on Maple Avenue, a part of town where there are already a number of high rise buildings. That project is still under construction.

Here is where it gets a little messy. The Molinaro Group meanwhile did an additional land assembly within a couple of blocks of the one it got the deferral on the development charges. It was on this second assembly that they made an application to build a 14 storey building on land that the Official Plan said should permit just 7 storeys.

More housing being crammed into an area that has the potential to become a bit of a low income ghetto.

More housing being crammed into an area that has the potential to become a bit of a low income ghetto.

The developer, being an adroit business person knew that the city had to comply with the provinces Places to Grow policy and intensify and he felt he had a development that would meet a number of the city’s needs which he set out in a document that justified the application being made.

The developer hires an architect, and a planner who put together a project that has a big buildings that exceeds the plans. Burlington is seen as a community that doesn’t give developers that tough a time – they approve just about everything. There are situations where they ask for significant changes but for the most part Burlington will give you what you ask for.

The planners and several members of Council argued that the high rise buildings in the Maple Avenue sector would provide affordable housing for people who would spend money in the downtown core. According the Meed Ward, people living in affordable housing don’t spend money downtown. The merchants, she says tell her that their customers are the people who work in offices downtown. The people who are going to live in these new high rises are not seen by the downtown core as people who will be getting out for lunches and shop.

The people who live in a very established neighbourhood to the east, see very significant changes taking place. They don’t understand how the Official Plan can be flouted so easily.

That’s what the issue really was all about. “If we have an Official plan then why don’t we follow it?” they wanted to know. The Official Plan is supposed to represent the vision of the city – so how come planning staff get to over-ride that vision and why does Council just rubber stamp everything that comes from the planning department ?

The Planning department took the view that density was needed and the project had merit and they were prepared to pass it along to council committee with their approval.

Sharman’s view is that “It might be reasonable to assume that most of the decisions “go the developers way”. It seems that way because by the time the decision gets to council a huge amount of work has been done by very senior and highly qualified staff to make sure that such proposals meet legal requirements and serve the stated needs (per official plans etc) of the community in general. They have also held public information sessions. Often times the developer has made significant changes to their plans in order to satisfy broader community expectations.”

“It is incorrect”, Sharman maintains “to believe that the zoning bylaw is final and binding on the city. Variances to zoning bylaws are expected and intended. The system is designed so that staff and council have an opportunity to review such modifications.”

What Staff did not do was look at the concentration of poverty already in the area. The illustration set out below shows moderate to high poverty along Maple Avenue with high poverty clustered around the 403,407 and QEW interchange.

There are no schools in the immediate area, a postage stamp of a park and no plans for a school or more park space in the immediate area. The planners say that one of the best parks in the city, Spencer Smith Park, is just two blocks south of the proposed development and that is true – but you have to cross Lakeshore Road, one of the busiest and more dangerous intersections in the city. Only good thing is that the hospital is about 100 yards away should you be struck by a car.

The developer provided this 3 dimensional view of how his building relates to others in the immediate area and they point at that theirs is lower than the others.  True, but what the view does not show is that their building is at the edge of the high rise area and that there is no stepping down to the two storey single detached homes immediately to the east.

The developer provided this 3 dimensional view of how his building relates to others in the immediate area and they point at that theirs is lower than the others. True, but what the view does not show is that their building is at the edge of the high rise area and that there is no stepping down to the two storey single detached homes immediately to the east.

Where did the meeting get us? This Council may have begun to realize that there were things about the Planning Act they didn’t really understand. One would have thought that Craven with his 10 years on Council, Taylor with his 20 + and Dennison with 16+, would have had all this stuff down cold. But that group doesn’t bring the zeal for citizen involvement to the table that Meed Ward brings.

What we are beginning to see is a shift in thinking of both Taylor and Dennison. They were both surprised that they couldn’t make changes to the way the $500,000 in community benefits were to be spent. Dennison was prepared to make changes on the spot. Taylor made a point of saying he wanted this whole community benefits issue looked at carefully. If Meed Ward can learn how to cultivate these two guys a little more effectively, we may see a Burlington where the residents are listened to a little more closely and understood by the planners. However, there is a building sense among several of the Council members that Meed Ward is being obstructive and difficult and not ‘playing the game’ the way it is usually played. She would respond with a ‘you got that right’ for she wants to be obstructive and difficult because it is the only way she knows how to bring about the change she feels is needed. She’s right on the need for change but wrong on the tools she’s using

Meed Ward represents a part of the community that wants more say – and as Mark Henderson said: “Theses are not a bunch of crazy people meeting in a basement somewhere. These were solid respectable people who felt that if there was an Official Plan it should be respected – and in this instance they didn’t feel the plan was being respected and they wanted to know why. What the residents didn’t know was that the majority of Council felt the 7 storey limit in the plan was a mistake. Several used the argument that the provinces Places to Grow policy meant that parts of an Official Plan had to be changed but Meed Ward pointed out that Places to Grow was known in 2003 and that the Official Plan was revised in 2007 – so that argument wasn’t going to hold much water with her.

Click to view report

Blair Lancaster, Councillor for Ward 6, seems concerned mostly with who is in charge. Her view is that Council was elected to develop policies needed to run the city and ensure that senior staff were carrying out that policy. She has great difficulty understanding what Meed Ward is up to

Sharman talks of free market forces and while both were part of the Shape Burlington Committee, they didn’t bring all that much of the spirit John Boich and Walter Mulkewich were trying to foster. Sharman however does understand the need for affordable housing. In a communication with a citizen Sharman said: ” There is a little push back on intensification from some people in Burlington. Mostly it is a misunderstood topic in Burlington. Burlington is not going to experience the kind of growth that Oakville is/will be. We expect to grow by about 20,000 in the next 20 years. So an average of 1,000 people a year. Intensification in Burlington will happen in specific and a relatively few number of zones. Burlington is now the slowest growing community in the GTA and is expected to stay that way.

Sharman takes the view that there will be intensification – but not all that much.  What’s in the water he drinks?

Sharman takes the view that there will be intensification – but not all that much. What’s in the water he drinks?

The big challenge for the city is that house prices will rise accordingly and will leave no where for those entering the housing market, or those wanting to reduce their financial commitment to housing to live in Burlington. We need affordable housing. The only way that will happen is for smaller homes that use less land. My son and his wife and 2 young children, for example, bought a home in Whitby for 60% of the comparable Burlington price. That upsets me because they now live over an hour’s drive away or over 2 hours by public transportation.

It was pretty clear that Councillors Taylor and Dennison didn’t like the process. Dennison was quite prepared to make changes to the way the $500,000 was to be spent at the meeting but the rules didn’t allow for that. Rather than insist that the approval be put on hold while the matter of how the community benefit money got spent – this Council approved it and, unless someone suggests there was a failure of due process on the part of Council and asks the Ontario Municipal Bard to review this, nothing is going to happen. This is a done deal.

However, this Council has heard the community rumblings and Taylor and Dennison don’t want to do business this way. They Mayor just seemed to want to get on with it. He felt the 14 storeys was a good thing and that the Official Plan limit of 7 storey was wrong and even though the Official Plan represents the will of the people, the vision of the community – didn’t matter. It was going to be a 14 storey building.

Why the rush to approve the change to the Official Plan that was needed to approve the project? The developer is still completing a different project on Maple Avenue and there doesn’t appear to be a huge demand for new residential space.

It was equally clear is that this Council doesn’t fully understand the rules they have to deal with – their Planning staff do, but what the professionals know doesn’t seem to work its way onto the desks of the Council members.

Meed Ward fought this development every step of the way and while she did not win this battle she is on the way to winning the war.

Meed Ward fought this development every step of the way and while she did not win this battle she is on the way to winning the war.

Meed Ward didn’t win this battle but she is on her way to winning the war. Ward 5 Councillor Sharman said he would be preparing a Staff Direction on how community benefits are arrived at. It will be interesting to see if any of the Spirit of Shape Burlington has clung to Sharman now that he sits at the Council table.

It will be sometime before a developer tries to play the Section 37 game the same way again. The more senior members of this Council will begin looking more closely at just when the community gets involved in a development. Shape Burlington told the city that the public wanted more involvement and more information and that point was made brutally clear during the hour long delegation during which Mark Henderson held their feet to the flames.

Mayor Goldring went live on Cogeco Cable a few days after the Council meeting to talk to the citizens about how they can, and he wishes they would, get involved in the development of the city’s Strategic Plan. He wants ideas, their thoughts and ideally a dialogue. It would have been nice to see some real dialogue at the Council meeting where the city gave a developer double the height – 14 storeys instead of the seven, set out in the Official Plan.

Many citizens feel the Official Plan is a bit of a joke that gets amended whenever a developer walks in with a request for more density which is usually translated into height.

[retweet]

 

Return to the Front page
Print Friendly

1 comment to He stood his ground, gave as good as he got and got us a little closer to real civic engagement.