Community groups seek planning reform

By Bob Brocklebank

A December joint announcement by over 30 local associations calls for reforms in Ottawa’s land-use planning process and for clarification in the City of Ottawa’s relationship with the development industry. Initiative for the joint announcement came from the Hintonburg Community Association and similar groups across Ottawa were invited to join in. Simultaneously with the joint release, the Glebe Community Association (GCA) issued its own statement supporting three of the four points raised in the joint statement.

The four points in the joint statement deal with use of private planning experts in the City’s processing of development applications; content of initial consultations with developers; contributions by the development industry to candidates in municipal elections; and updating of zoning.

Private planners processing applications

Earlier in the year, the City revealed that the volume of land-use applications it had received for processing exceeded staff resources. Accordingly, the City had temporarily secured the services of personnel from the largest local private planning company to consider development applications.

It was unclear how the City’s role as regulator was to be separated from the company’s role as expert adviser to applicants. The temporary planners were to be excluded from any project in which they had earlier involvement, but it was unclear whether proposals in which their company had a role would be excluded. No specific incidence of conflict has been identified; community concerns may have been stimulated by the apparent lack of interest in such a possibility demonstrated by city staff.

Pre-consultation meetings

Established practice is that a developer has a private “pre-consultation” meeting with the Planning Department about a possible development. These meetings are specifically excluded from the City’s lobbyist registry, because the meeting could take place prior to the completion of the purchase of the property – prior to buying the land, a buyer would wish to understand the zoning or other constraints on land use applicable to the property.

For the community, the issue is the content of the discussion that takes place. If the proposed development will require any alteration from the current zoning, the community groups consider that discussion of change should take place in the established public process. They request that the City adopt procedures that would prevent any indication by city officials of support (or of opposition) to changes to the regulatory regime applicable to the project.

Campaign contributions

On contributions to candidates at election time, the joint statement calls for the City to work toward banning contributions from the development industry and gifts to councillors. The GCA took a somewhat different position, calling for a ban on campaign contributions by all corporations and unions in municipal elections, a practice which, they noted, applies in Toronto. The GCA position goes beyond the development industry to apply to suppliers of goods and services to the City.

“… lack of alignment between zoning and the Official Plan
has been repeatedly used to justify spot rezoning.”

Updating zoning

The fourth and most challenging reform sought is that the zoning bylaw of the City be brought into conformity with its Official Plan. Although the amalgamated City of Ottawa has been around since 2001 and is now engaged in the third revision of its Official Plan, the zoning of most of the city is simply what was inherited from the former municipalities.

Many of the community associations involved in the joint statement had been involved in consultations leading to the 2006 Comprehensive Zoning Bylaw. The 2006 process was deliberately constrained in its scope – the idea was not to change things but to bring all the existing provisions into a common form, in order to allow everyone in the amalgamated city to speak a common language when discussing zoning. But in Council debate and in hearings before the Ontario Municipal Board, the lack of alignment between zoning and the Official Plan has been repeatedly used to justify spot rezoning and other one-off changes.

Councillor Peter Hume, Chair of the Planning Committee, commented that, other than the campaign contribution issue, all these matters are well in hand. It remains to be seen whether community groups will accept his assurances or if they will continue to press for change.

Glebe resident Bob Brocklebank represents the Glebe Community Association at the Federation of Citizens’ Associations.

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