Opposition to lot-splitting/overbuilding: April 4, 2018 Long Branch Neighbourhood Association meeting featured Q & A with Toronto City staff regarding Character Guidelines

Update: In contradiction to what city staffers claimed at a April 4, 2018 meeting (see below), prior permission from media relations at the city is not required, in order for a blogger to record what city officials say at a public meeting

A June 5, 2018 Etobicoke Guardian article is entitled: “What will Long Branch look like after OMB has gone? Culture of decision-making at the OMB has changed dramatically over the past 25 years, says Jaan Pill.”

An excerpt from the above-noted article reads:

As part of my research, I attended an April 4, 2018 meeting organized by the Long Branch Neighbourhood Association, at which city staffers spoke about how the Character Guidelines may, or may not, affect future land-use planning decisions in Long Branch.

At that meeting, I was most interested to learn that, according to two city staffers, I was not permitted to record what city officials said at the meeting, nor was I permitted to post any direct quotations of what staff said at the meeting, based on my notes, without first getting permission from media relations at the City of Toronto.

After the meeting, I contacted media relations and asked if the above-noted prohibition was, in fact, City of Toronto policy. Among other things, I asked: “Does a person need to get permission from the city before remarks by city staff at a public meeting can be recorded?”

The answer was: “No. Information provided by city staff to the public at a public meeting is a matter of public record. As a courtesy, you may want to advise staff that you are present as a blogger or member of the media but that is not a requirement.”

The bottom line is: If a person is in doubt about a statement, by any person regarding any topic, it’s a great idea to seek verification of it.

[End of update]

*

On April 4, 2018, I attended a meeting of the Long Branch Neighbourhood Association.

The key topic of the meeting, which took place at the Royal Canadian Legion Branch 101 near the Long Branch GO station, was the Long Branch Neighbourhood Character Guidelines.

West beach at Marie Curtis Park, April 4, 2018. Jaan Pill photo. Click on image to enlarge it; click again to enlarge it further.

West beach at Marie Curtis Park, which is located south of the Long Branch GO station on the Lake Ontario shoreline, April 4, 2018. Jaan Pill photo. Click on image to enlarge it; click again to enlarge it further.

For a separate series of posts, I have been posting transcripts from a YouTube video of the Nov. 14, 2017 Etobicoke York Community Council meeting, at which the Guidelines were unanimously adopted.

A good reference, regarding the key topic of the April 4, 2018 meeting, is a document entitled:

Long Branch Neighbourhood Character Guidelines – Final Report

As well, the full-length Character Guidelines document can be accessed here. Please note the link in the previous sentence will take some time to load.

No direct quotations from Toronto City staff

In my report on the April 4, 2018 LBNA meeting, which follows below, I have avoided direct quotations of what was said, by the three City staff at the meeting, as that would be contrary to the City’s media protocol.

Instead, my version (below) of the Q & A, involving City staff, is based on paraphrases of what was actually said.

When I report on public meetings, I often record them, to ensure that my quotations are accurate, as is standard journalistic practice. (Sometimes, I also record a large amount of material but refrain from posting any texts based upon it, for any of a number of good, strategic reasons, related to the judgement and responsibilities of a blogger.)

With regard to the April 4, 2018 Q & A, I was not permitted to make a recording, in either audio or video format.

The protocol, as a City staff person explained to me, is that a person must first get permission from the City, before remarks by City staff at a public meeting can be recorded.

I was also informed, by a City staff person, that I was not permitted to post any direct quotations of what staff said, based on my notes, without first getting permission from the City of Toronto.

I did not record the Q & A, and no direct quotations are included in the text that follows. As well, the names of the City staff at the meeting are not included in this post, given that I am not in a position to directly quote them.

Toronto’s media policy is determined, as I understand (I do not know the details), at a senior level of the City’s administrative structure. City staff do not originate such a policy; instead, their task, as I understand, is to ensure the policy is diligently implemented, as was done in this case, with regard to the Q & A at hand.

As well, it warrants underlining that the Planning Department played a much appreciated lead role, as noted in a transcript of remarks by Councillor Mark Grimes at a Nov. 14, 2017 meeting of the Etobicoke York Community Council, in development of the Character Guidelines.

Whatever protocols are in place, regarding a meeting that I’m writing about, I follow. Most of the time, I am free to record at will; the current circumstance is an exception, as I have noted at a recent post.

With regard to the April 4, 2018 meeting, it was great to have the opportunity, in this case, to cover a meeting entirely using pen and paper. We can, as many people have noted over the years, think of pen and paper, audio and video recording equipment, and the internet, as being extensions of the mind.

When a person puts digital recording equipment aside, as I did on April 4, 2018, the mind (with one less extension to deal with) tends to function in a way that may not happen when the digital equipment has been switched on.

By way of example, when my recorder is turned off, I may at times be more acutely attuned to the atmosphere – the feeling in the air – in a roomful of people at a meeting, than I would be if I know I am recording the event.

The version of the Q & A, that you are reading at this post, is is a re-enactment, using paraphrases in place of direct quotations, of what was said at the April 4, 2018 meeting

The Answers that follow are paraphrases of what City staff said in response to Questions from residents. The Questions that follow are also paraphrases.

What is posted is a re-enactment of what transpired. Words have been disguised and speakers have been granted anonymity, in order to protect the innocent which in this case includes me.

The text, that is to say, of the Q & A expresses – in my own words, not the words of the speakers – the gist of what each person said, as recorded in my notes. Nothing in the text is meant to mirror, word for word, what anybody actually said. Any inadvertent close correspondence, between a paraphrase and what was actually said, would be a totally unintended coincidence.

You are, that is, reading the equivalent of a docudrama as contrasted to a documentary.

Some of the Questions in the following Q & A are compilations based on Questions from several residents. Some Answers, in turn, are compilations based on Answers from more than one staff person.

Words in square brackets – [that is, like this] – represent my own annotations

The Q & A textual docudrama follows:

Q: Why was Long Branch chosen as the neighbourhood, out of all the neighbourhoods in Toronto, as the site for the first-ever Character Guidelines Pilot Project?

A: A Lot-Split Study had been completed by the City. At some point, the thought occurred: Why not set up a Pilot Project in Long Branch, to study lot-splitting as it pertains to a specific neighbourhood? There’s also a Pilot Project underway in Willowdale, where many lot-splits have also occurred, which will take a few more months to complete.

Once that is completed, the plan is to proceed with development of a City-wide Character Guidelines template, which can be applied even in the most arcane of neighbourhoods, including Mimico [which may or may not include Humber Bay Shores, depending on where you believe the eastern boundary of Mimico is located].

Q: What are the Guidelines about? What do they seek to accomplish?

A: The Long Branch Character Guidelines are about the physical character of Long Branch. They seek to prompt decision makers to look closely, first of all, at the details of a given project, for which an application has been submitted to the Committee of Adjustment.

The Guidelines seek, as well, to guide decision makers to look at adjacent properties, the block on which the subject property is located, and the surrounding neighbourhood.

Whether or not such guidance is followed is up to the decision makers. There is, in fact, no requirement that Committee of Adjustment decision makers are guided by anything, aside from their standard operating procedure, which is to rely solely on their subjective judgement, when assessing a given application.

What is predominate?

Q: Consider the situation where one or two houses have been recently built, that residents view as totally out of keeping with the physical character of their neighbourhood. Will the Guidelines then assume that such new buildings are actually representative of the local neighbourhood?

A: What you have to consider, in this case as in others, is: What is predominate? Some new builds [that is, structures], that have approved in the past, fit in well with the physical character of the neighbourhood, and some do not. It can be added that, on occasion, people learn from their mistakes.

Q: So, what is the character of Long Branch?

A: The details are listed on pp. 27-28 of the Long Branch Character Guidelines. However, the character is not solely encompassed by what is outlined, at the above-noted pages. When they look at a specific application, Planning staff will ask, “What is the specific thing, that matters in the application that is before us?”

[Please note: Any words in quotation marks, as in the previous sentence, are a paraphrase and not a direct quotation. In my re-enactment of the Q & A, I have consistently avoided word-for-word quotations of speakers.]

Q: Can you clarify what the Guidelines have to say, with regard to height, massing, and setbacks.

A: If the predominant character on the street is a peaked roof, then Planning staff would encourage maintenance of a peaked roof, in the application under consideration.

Application of Guidelines will depend upon the subjective judgement of the Committee of Adjustment

Q: How will the Guidelines be applied? When will they be applied?

A: Any new application made after Jan. 31, 2018 [which is when Toronto Council unanimously adopted the Long Branch Neighbourhood Character Guidelines] will be reviewed in accordance to the Guidelines.

Whether or not the Guidelines will be applied will depend on the subjective judgement of the Etobicoke York Committee of Adjustment.

How, and whether, the Toronto Local Appeal Body applies the Guidelines is beyond the capacity of City staff to predict.

Q: Is there a Character Guidelines checklist, for applicants for building permits to fill out?

A: Not yet. But we ask,  [and this is a paraphrase, not a direct quotation], “Give us a rationale, for your application, and explain to us, how the application meets the Character Guidelines.”

Adherence to the Character Guidelines a request, not a requirement

Q: Is adherence to the Guidelines a requirement, on the part of applicants for building permits?

A: Adherence to the Guidelines is a request. It is not a requirement.

Q: What is the exact process, that the Planning Department will be following, with regard to application of the Guidelines?

A: [My notes omitted the answer. I may have been distracted. However, some of the other answers, in this Q & A, serve as responses to this question.]

Q: Will applicants be required to submit diagrams, of the proposed house or houses, as the house or houses will appear when construction is completed? Will applicants be required to show what the proposed builds [that is, buildings] will look like in relation to adjacent and nearby houses on the street in question?

A: We would like to see 3D images. But such images are not a requirement.

Q: Can the Guidelines be applied retroactively, to decisions made six months ago?

Q: No.

Q: If the OMB has approved an application, can that be undone, retroactively?

A: No. What’s done is done. The construction is likely underway or completed by now.

Q: Will the Committee of Adjustment take the Guidelines into account when making future decisions on applications?

A: The Committee has received copies of the Guidelines. The members will look at the document, in the same way they look at anything else. From that point, they make [what the speaker describes as] the best-informed decision.

[The following Question is a compilation of a series of separate Questions, submitted by residents.]

How will the Toronto Local Appeal Body deal with the Guidelines?

Q: How will the Committee of Adjustment know that the Guidelines apply to a given application? How will the Toronto Appeal Body deal with the Guidelines? Will evidence from Planners, related to the Guidelines, be incorporated into the decisions? How much actual influence will the Guidelines have, on the Committee of Adjustment and the Toronto Local Appeal Body? Are minor concessions to the Guidelines all that the decision makers are looking for?

A: If the Guidelines are not addressed, in a given application, the Planning staff will ask for them. At the next stage after that, the application will be reviewed, and a report will be forwarded to the Committee of Adjustment.

If the Committee of Adjustment refuses the application, and it is appealed, then the Toronto Local Appeal Body will receive the same Planning report, as was submitted to the Committee of Adjustment. As well, the same staff, who wrote the Planning report, will serve as expert witnesses at the TLAB.

Will lot severances stop?

Q: Will lot severances stop? How soon will there be fewer lot-splits?

A: We can’t refuse to take applications.

Q: What of undersized, legal non-conforming lots, that date back from an early era in the development of Long Branch?

A: Any lot, of whatever size, is subject to the Guidelines. And, whether it’s a teardown, or an addition, it’s all treated the same.

Q: How will the Guidelines stop soldier houses?

A: Whether it’s called a two-storey or a three-storey, with reference to what is called a soldier house, does not matter. The only thing that matters is the overall height.

Q: How will Planners work with the Guidelines, when an application comes in?

A: A Senior Planner, two Assistant Planners, and a Planner will review the applicant’s rationale, if it exists, which explains how the application adheres to the Guidelines. There is a learning curve involved, with regard to the above-noted review process.

No assigned number, or weight, will be assigned to the Character Guidelines

Q: How will members of the Committee of Adjustment be trained in the Character Guidelines?

A: Each member has a copy of the Guidelines. However, there is no formal training of the members, with regard to the Guidelines.

There is, as well, no defined number, or weight, that will be assigned to the Guidelines, when the Committee makes a decision, regarding an application.

Q: How will Toronto Local Appeal Body members be trained?

A: TLAB can tell you, how TLAB members will be trained.

Q: What does the City look for, when it recommends that a Community Consultation takes place?

A: The idea is to get together, at the same table, in a safe environment. [That is, an environment where participants feel at ease, and maintain a sense of personal safety, including with regard to the tone and nature of verbal interactions.]

From there, a possible outcome may be that a way is found to make the proposal better, from the viewpoint of concerned residents. Or the application may be withdrawn.

On April 23, 2018, there will be a meeting regarding 11 James St.

City Planning staff in future will not request Community Meetings. Residents at a Committee of Adjustment hearing can, however, request that the Committee defer a decision, so that a Community Consultation can be held.

Scheduling of COA meetings

Q: What if residents, because of their work schedule, are unable to attend a Committee of Adjustment meeting in order to convey the message that an application is not following the Guidelines? What can they do? And what can be done, to ensure that letters from residents to the Committee are given more weight?

A: You can submit a written comment. If you are unable to attend a scheduled meeting, if you want to be sure the Committee members will actually read your submission, it must be submitted at least a week before the meeting.

In that way, it gets included in the package that is sent out a week before the meeting, to Committee members. In that way, they have time to actually read the submission.

Q: How can the Committee arrange its hearings, so that it is more convenient for residents, who have day jobs, to attend?

A: We were previously the only District not starting in the morning. The start time is now 10:00 am. Only brand-new Minor Variances are addressed in the morning. Consent or Deferred applications are not heard in the morning.

Q: How can we get similar Guidelines for Mimico?

A: Once the Willowdale Guidelines are completed, the City will then finalize a City-wide template. Then neighbourhoods elsewhere in the City will get information on how they can get their own Guidelines.

Questions from the floor followed the above-noted, previously submitted written Questions

Q: What is the appeal process? Say there’s a lot-split, where a 50-ft lot becomes two 25-ft lots. It’s refused by the Committee of Adjustment, and the developer goes to the Toronto Local Appeal Body.

A: The Councillor will, in that case, direct City staff to defend the Committee of Adjustment refusal at the Toronto Local Appeal Board.

Q: How many approvals has TLAB overturned?

A: It’s happened often. For example: 38 Thirty Sixth St. was refused by both COA and TLAB. There was a recent case, as well, where a lot-split was approved, but the proposed builds, on the severed lots, were turned down.

Q: The Guidelines lack legal reinforcement. What can be done, to ensure compliance with them? What incentives are in place, to ensure the Guidelines are followed?

A: The zoning regulation is what City staff reviews. Our focus is not with regard to the Committee of Adjustment but the Toronto Local Appeal Body. We recommend that you sit in at a Toronto Local Appeal Body hearing, to get familiar with how it does its work. From the outset, City staff are already thinking about the TLAB hearing.

Our case, with regard to a given application, has to be strong. If a severance is allowed, the aim is to seek a build on each lot, that is less impactful, and less out of character, than the design that was originally submitted.

It may be the case that a severance will get approved. That may be difficult for residents to accept. Some of the resulting builds do fit in. In the case of builds that really stick out in a bad way, it may be good to keep in mind that the originally submitted designs were even more pronounced, in terms of objectionable characteristics.

Q: I’ve heard it said, that the term “Minor Variance” will be reviewed.

A: The term is undefined. Minor Variance does not come with a definition, from the vantage point of the Committee of Adjustment. The chair of the Committee has remarked that it is not possible to place a number on Minor. That is, Minor is more of a subjective term.

Q: In an example the City uses, with regard to Minor, the dimension is with reference to height. A 5 percent variance, in this example, is defined as Minor. We’ve seen the Committee of Adjustment stating that a variance of 250 percent is Minor.

There was a Superior Court decision, based on a legal appeal of an OMB decision. According to that decision, numbers do in fact matter. Does the Superior Court decision matter to the Committee of Adjustment?

A: [My notes are unclear regarding what the first part of the answer was. I start the paraphrase below at a subsequent, later stage of the answer.]

The Committee of Adjustment looks at the project as a whole. It takes into account the cumulative effect, of all of the proposed Variances. It can be the case, that numbers can be misleading. It becomes a form of creativity, applied to mathematics.

Q: The Variances, in the example at hand, exceed the bylaw by 200 percent, or 250 percent. How can, in standard English language usage, a Variance of 250 percent, beyond what the bylaw calls for, be considered Minor?

A: It is not clear what the example, that you refer to, is from.

Q: [The questioner, in response, gives a specific example.] The example, that is referred to, is more than 200 percent. That is mathematics. That is not mathematics that is applied in a creative way.

A: [No comment is offered, regarding the previous Question regarding mathematics, with reference to a specific example.] If, in the minds of the Committee of Adjustment, an application fails on just one, single test, the Committee is obligated to refuse it. The Committee decides. It’s up to the Committee, what the decision is.

Q: There have been two Divisional Court decisions. The Committee of Adjustment should be giving a reason for its decisions.

The Committee of Adjustment is, in fact, usurping the functions of bylaw officials to define what is Minor. As a source of expert opinion at hearings, what is your view, as a City staff person, when you see a footprint that vastly exceeds what the bylaw intensity permits?

A: A difference of opinion may be in place, between me as a Planner and you as a resident, regarding the topics at hand. As well, if you have a concern, you can speak to the Director of the Committee of Adjustment. And, what applies at the City of Toronto applies across the Province of Ontario. Everybody deals with the same state of affairs.

Q: Why is it that the Committee of Adjustment tends to just rubber-stamp pretty well every proposal that entails a lot-split, and resulting overbuilding, on two narrow lots? This kind of thing does not happen in Mississauga. In days gone by, Mayor Hazel McCallion would never allow such things to happen, at the City of Mississauga.

A: You and I have a difference of opinion, regarding what happens in Mississauga, as contrasted to Toronto.

Q: Will the Guidelines apply to the newer applications, that are coming before the Committee of Adjustment?

A: Applications made after Jan. 30, 2018 will be addressed in such a way, that reference is made to the Guidelines.

Q: You spoke earlier of some 12 criteria.

A: The reference was to Section 5124 of the Planning Act.

Please note, by way of repeating a point made at the beginning of this post: What you are reading is a paraphrase, not a transcript, of the Q & A. Nothing in this Q & A is a word-for-word transcript of what was said.

Q: How many times can a builder apply for the same severance?

A: We usually offer the advice that endlessly re-applying may not be the best idea. That said, we cannot refuse an application.

As well, there are cases where a refusal has been based on the build-plan. So the applicant may try again, by submitting a revised plan for the building, that would be built on each of the severed lots.

Q: Who chooses the members of the Committee of Adjustment?

A: Council makes the appointments.

Q: That means who we vote for, by way of choosing our Councillor, is important.

A: The Councillor you choose accounts for one vote at Council. There are 44 other Councillors. Each of them also has a single vote.

Q: Long Branch has a lot of tree canopies. Has the presence of a mature tree ever stopped an application?

A: Urban Forestry does make comments. If they don’t agree with the application, the matter goes to Council [which Council, whether Community Council or City Council, is unclear from my notes].

Sometimes it may happen that an application is deferred, because of the presence of a mature tree. City staff can ask the applicant what it would take, to save the tree, As well, Toronto Forestry staff have, on occasion, attended TLAB hearings.

[End of Q & A, based on paraphrase of what was said]

2 replies
  1. Sheila Morris
    Sheila Morris says:

    Thank-you for taking the time to write this. We recently went to a public hearing (May 17th), in front of the committee of adjustment for minor variances. Having no clear definition for what a minor variance entails, is the first farce of the system.

    We were opposing an application with 8 so called minor variances, with numbers exceeding the bylaws by up to 247%. The public assumes it has a fair shot at opposing a development that breaks so many bylaws by such great mathematical numbers.

    What is the point of having these hearings, when the decisions are completely subjective, and the process itself is completely without integrity? (cutting off speakers before their time is up, not allowing others to speak, because the hearing was over-time, etc).

    We are also pretty sure the written letters of objection from all the immediately adjacent neighbours were not even taken into consideration. Your posts/blogs, which I have been reading through today, reflect all that I have been feeling over the past week, as I have been researching the process and the system to the best of my ability within time constraints.

    Something needs to be done, but I’m not sure what, or how, or by whom. So frustrating dealing with a shady system and corrupt players, who are possibly being greased by developers with deep pockets.

    Reply
  2. Jaan Pill
    Jaan Pill says:

    Good to read your message, Sheila. It’s vital, for residents in Long Branch, to know of challenges faced in other parts of Toronto.

    There is tremendous value, I believe, in the gathering of evidence-based perspectives on how the history of land-use planning has been evolving. One of the key things I have learned is that not all municipalities are the same.

    I like to keep that in mind; I like to have a picture in my mind of how things appear, when land-use planning works well, for all levels of society. Such a thing – a land-use decisio-making system that works well – is in fact possible.

    By way of example, from what I have seen from attending meetings, and following land-use decision-making processes for many years, is that in Mississauga the match between rhetoric and reality – as it relates to citizen input – is more closely matched, in general, than is the case in Toronto.

    In Toronto, there are rays of hope here and there, with regard to ensuring that the interests of residents are taken into account, when planning decisions are made.

    In my experience as a writer and blogger, there is so much to learn, simply by talking with people – networking with them – and gathering evidence, and reflections, from a wide range of sources.

    This is a huge and fascinating fact-gathering process, that all of us are involved with.

    Given that my work is strongly evidence-based, I do not keep track of how many people visit my website. I have the sense that evidence is not necessarily what drives people to visit websites.

    What I do keep track of, by way of getting a sense of whether what I have to say as a blogger, has relevance, is comments from site visitors – whether online comments, or through other means, whereby people get in touch with me.

    Thus I want to conclude my own comment by saying that I very much appreciate the thoughts that you have shared. Such comments make a huge difference for me.

    Reply

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