David Godley of Long Branch (Toronto) highlights two recent meetings with Planning Staff

The following message is from David Godley:

Long Branch Issues Overview August 2015

Two meetings have been held with Planning Staff recently. First with Neil Cresswell, Head of Etobicoke’s Planning Office and second with Denise Rundle who is doing a City-wide review of Committee of Adjustment processes. This is my take on the current situation.

Full-blown crisis

Over the last 3 years or so severance and variance approvals have grown from something of relatively little concern to heading for a full-blown crisis of conservation. It seems that almost every week now we hear about a new proposal for higher density housing on narrow lots.

Three storey development proposals on narrow lots (usually around 25 feet wide) is the antithesis of Long Branch’s character where 50 feet wide lots with plenty of space around the houses are the norm. Approvals are making a mockery of good planning and undermining Toronto’s greatest asset –its neighbourhoods which overall are probably the best in North America.

Planning matter affecting whole city

This type of development is seriously affecting living conditions of nearby neighbours. We are aware of people moving out of Province and even out of country as a result of planning experiences. This is an important planning matter which affects the whole city.

The City’s policies expressed in the Official Plan are being undermined by the OMB now that there is increasingly strong development pressure. The OMB’s overly legalistic formula for reaching decisions and their weak grasp of planning and especially urban design has led them to incorrect conclusions. The OMB’s mode of decision-making is in contrast to the Conservation Review Board.

What are essentially local matters and local decisions are being overturned by the OMB at the rate of 75% in Long Branch.

Principal area of concern

The principal area of concern is of overly narrow lots and two storey developments over garages, although there are many more sub-issues.

We want our neighbourhood to be enhanced by new development rather tha the character being destroyed. We simply want the excellent Official Plan policies to be implemented.

We are fortunate to be in a time when their may be an alternative to the OMB in the form of Local Area Boards or possibly not having appeals. Similar risks abound, though, unless the adjudicators are top drawer.

We are also fortunate that the Official Plan is currently being amended so that the “loopholes” opened up by developer planners and lawyers can be addressed. The review of the Official Plan may not be done again for 10 years so it is important to get the amendments right.

It is evident that the Committee of Adjustment scenario has changed radically in a relatively short time. A decade or so ago there was a 10% guide for minor, and hardship/unusual lot configuration were considered to be reasons to grant approval.

The De Gasperis Divisional Court case reinforced this. It confirmed to the City’s current definition of minor “Small changes or exceptions to existing land use or development restrictions contained in the zoning bylaw are called minor variances.”

Now 100% variance is not considered out of range by the OMB and zoning is being used as a benchmark for greater control rather than its intent. More approvals attract more applications so without some correction the situation will worsen. Many of these applications should be zoning bylaw amendments.

Planning Department and Neighbourhood

There is much common ground between the Planning Department and the Neighbourhood. The inclusion of the notion that citizens should have some latitude to shape their community came through clearly in the meetings.

I have confidence in the reforms to process which are being undertaken by Denise Rundle, Deputy Secretary Treasurer for Scarborough, acting in a City wide capacity. She has already initiated the circulation of elevations, a long time concern.

She alerted us to the Application Information Centre which plots applications from submission. This is a major breakthrough and should allow more discussion of individual issues early in the process. She also felt that for good planning to happen we need to focus on the plans submitted rather than the actual variances which are built around the design by the Building Department.

That means that rights to develop towards the rear of lot are irrelevant. Severance and variance applications which allow development not in accordance with the Official Plan should not be approved.

Where the development is tied to a “substantially similar” condition (which should apply to all new builds) it is self evident the plans that need to conform. Recognition of this would enable 3 storey dwellings to be described as such in the notices instead of the zoning definition of 2 storeys. Having two separate approval systems for dividing a lot is due to the Planning Act being built up over time. A comprehensive development permit system overcomes this duality.

Criteria for assessing severance and variance applications

The whole Committee of Adjustment system is immensely complex and is in continuous flux. However my view about criteria for assessing severance and variance applications can be boiled down to 4 questions:

1) Is the City’s definition of minor variance met?

2) Will the proposal stand out as new development when someone passes along the street?

3) What environmental impacts are there on the immediate neighbours?

4) What do the neighbours think?

Initiatives that are needed

Some basic initiatives are needed including:

1) Official Plan including revision of “prevailing” to the “most frequently occurring”, adding trees as part of landscaping and urban design under Section 4.1.5 and enhancing civic engagement by drawing those affected into the process early in the Planning Process section.

2) Zoning including protection of angled views for houses on the waterfront,  “Faux” basements being part of density calculations, controlling deck heights, protection of having one side of 50 feet wide lot being built followed by a severance application and double the density as at 86 23rd Street and contrasting design of twin houses.

3) Change in Practice in reports and evidence so as not to allow as of right development to override Official Plan policies.

There should be a neighbourhood association in operation soon which can help with a more co-ordinated planning approach as well as orchestrating community events.

David Godley
August 19, 2015


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