Last night, a public participation meeting with the Planning and Environment Committee (PEC) was held at City Hall regarding potential development on Reservoir Hill.

How it started pretty much set the tone for the evening. I arrived about 15 minutes to 7:00, only to find that the meeting was happening in committee rooms 1 & 2 although I’d been (incorrectly) under the impression the meeting was happening in the main council chambers. The rooms were already at capacity with 60 people, and with 10 or so people waiting in the hall and over 30 more people waiting downstairs in the lobby, many were displeased. After city staff had completed their presentation, several people in the room spoke up, demanding that the meeting be moved or postponed until everyone interested could be accommodated. Councillor Bryant moved to have the meeting adjourned to another date when adequate space would be available, but couldn’t find a seconder among councillors Polhill, Swan, White or Henderson.

The audience was told that the council chambers were under some kind of construction, but with complaints mounting security and staff left the meeting to see what could be done.

Eventually, the chambers were opened, with no sign of construction other than a kind cleaning lady that finished up her work early as the gallery was flooded and soon filled to capacity. Many grumbles about lack of citizen engagement were heard.

At almost 8:00, the meeting recommenced. The full agenda including the site design, studies performed on the site etc. is available here. Articles/blog posts about the event are available here, here and here.

The meeting began from the top with staff presenting the proposed plan, followed by a statement by Allan Patton, the lawyer representing the applicant Tony Gratt and Ayerswood Development Corp. Mr. Patton pointed out that “The acting executive director, PEEs (planning, environment and engineering services), is satisfied that all outstanding issues have been resolved. The proposed site plan and building conform to the zoning approved by the OMB.” He also made a jab at the audience, saying that the public (including those posting on facebook and writing blogs) erroneously state that the 2000 OMB decision must be adhered to, which he said is simply not the case.

The floor was then opened to the public. A variety of perspectives and issues were addressed, from questions about the OMB process and why Council had reversed course compared to previous councils between 2000 and 2010 (a question repeated by several speakers) to emotional appeals about the local ecology and the loss of park space for Londoners to enjoy. One speaker said they have zero sympathy for the developer, saying that Ayerswood purchased an open space in 1967 knowing it wasn’t likely to be green-lighted for development. One of the last speakers stood up to say that she isn’t pro- or anti-development, only wants to make sure that all homework and due diligence is done. The possibility of a land swap was also proposed by several citizens.

After the public input was closed, Mr. Patton was asked if there were any comments/questions from the gallery he wanted to respond to, he responded he had nothing to add, except that a historical plaque for the 1812 Battle of Reservoir Hill was put on the applicant’s property without his consent or permission.

It was time for the committee to weigh in, ask some of their own questions, get information from staff, and ultimately make a decision.

Councillor Swan commented that he had never supported this development, however, he was resigned to the fact that a building would be eventually built on Reservoir Hill. However, he was receptive to the idea proposed by the public of a land swap. Councillor Henderson also asked if there was a way everyone could leave the chambers happy, including having the developer approved for a smaller building that would still make him some money and not be tied up any further, or if he could get his large apartment on another site via a land swap. Councillor Baechler (who is not on the committee, but was one of several members of council witnessing the meeting) urged the committee not to approve the plan, stating that the city staff were against this decision but that this council didn’t listen to them. She asked the committee to return the application to staff, and stand behind the integrity of the planning process.

Finally, it came to a vote to receive the report for final approval, with an amendment added by Councillor Swan, for city staff to approach the developer and see if a land swap might be possible…before the next Council session, on May 1.

The committee voted 4-1 supporting the site plan recommendation, with Councillor Bryant the only one opposing. Those that supported the site plan were Councillors Polhill, Henderson, White and Swan.

My confusion during and even after the meeting was, what was the truth? According to the applicant’s lawyer Mr. Patton, city staff had signed off that all requirements were met, and therefore there was nothing standing in the way of this project finally, finally going forward. On the other hand, members of the public as well as members of council including Councillor Baechler (who is not on the committee, but was 1 of several councillors witnessing the meeting) pointed out that the 2000 decision had been the threshold several councils before this had used to determine what was appropriate for the site (the full report is available here). They argued that what was appropriate hadn’t changed, council had, and advised the committee to vote against approving the site plan application.

So, what is the truth? Background provided by London blogger Philip McLeod is helpful.

He points out in his article that council stripped staff of their approval authority for this project after they showed reluctance to sanction the project. What seems crucial to this application being valid is if staff believes all of the criteria for the plan had been met. Mr. McLeod writes:

Recently…council ordered staff to wind up the process and get a recommendation before the planning committee and a public participation meeting. Caught between a rock and a hard place – council, after all, is now the approval authority on this project – staff caved and signed off. Their recommendation, if that is the right word for something that seems coerced, went to the committee and the public Tuesday night. The staff report is worded carefully: “Should council decide their conditions have been adequately addressed and they desire to proceed with final approval,” then it will be done.

He also points out:

Since then, there have been a series of tussles between the developer, the city and the OMB – the former seeking approval for larger and larger single apartment projects, the city saying no and the OMB ruling the proposals did not meet the spirit and intent of the initial ruling.

Former councils repeatedly said no to this project, as did the OMB. I can only conclude it is indeed Council that has changed.

My concern is due process, as well as a great deal of confusion, headache and heartache for all involved. As it was repeatedly pointed out last night, the applicant could have saved themselves a great deal of financial pain and stress if they had complied with the OMB rulings, but instead repeatedly came forward with plans with a much larger footprint than what was approved. It was also pointed out last night that green-lighting this type of plan sets a dangerous precedent, as it tells the development community in London that if you press long and loudly enough, you will eventually get your way, at least with the current PEC/council. As Londoners, we should be very concerned about a council that is willing to go over the heads of the trained, skilled and educated staff they have at their disposal.