If residents don't know enough about the City's planning process, it's because Council isn't interested in changing these processes to make them more accessible to everyone.
By Cameron Kroetsch
Published November 27, 2017
I'm following up to the article I wrote recently about our neighbourhood's experience with the Minor Variance and Site Plan Approval processes.
My previous article focused on the "Minor Variance" process and talked briefly about the Committee of Adjustment. This article is all about delegations to City committees and I'll be using a recent experience to provide context where its useful.
I want to be clear from the outset: I'm not writing this because I'm a "NIMBY" who is opposed to development in his "backyard". I'm writing this because I'm concerned about the policies and processes that the City currently uses to make decisions about how and when developments move forward. I'm concerned that the voices of developers are taken more seriously than those of residents.
Our delegations were in the same context as our appearance before the Committee of Adjustment, namely with respect to the redevelopment of the Days Inn at 210 Main Street East.
After the Committee of Adjustment meeting, a community meeting with residents, and a meeting at City Hall with the developer, our councillor, and City staff, we decided to take ourselves down to the Planning Committee and to make some specific requests in the form of 2 separate delegations.
For those of you who have never given a delegation to a City committee it can sound a bit mystifying so I'd like to unpack it briefly. The delegation process is open to any resident of the City of Hamilton who wishes to speak to a committee of Council. In its simplest form, a delegation is the same thing as a presentation with the following conditions:
You must request to speak in advance of a particular committee meeting. Your request is then evaluated by a City clerk (to make sure no information is missing) and then voted on by the committee itself before you can be added to the meeting agenda ("walk-ons" are occasionally permitted but relatively rare).
If your delegation is approved, you get five minutes to speak to the committee, on a date that may or may not be of your choosing.
After your five minutes are up, committee members (councillors) are permitted to ask you questions (of delegates and staff) for an undefined amount of time.
In general, this could be a useful way for residents to be able to address specific issues on an agenda or to express a certain opinion or viewpoint about a municipal issue.
My neighbour and I were both delegates to the Planning Committee (PC) on October 17.
I was delegating about resident-focused changes to the City's official Site Plan Approval process and my neighbour was delegating about additional conditions related to the redevelopment at 210 Main Street East.
If you're interested you can watch the video of our delegations. My delegation starts at 18:38 and my neighbour's starts at 29:15.
Thanks, again, to Joey Coleman at The Public Record for providing a clear and accessible video, something the City is still not able to do for its own meetings.
I was speaking to the PC about the Site Plan Approval process and asking that 4 general recommendations be implemented to allow residents better overall access to the process. They were that:
Residents be informed early on in the process and be asked to provide input.
No waivers be provided to allow developers to "skip steps".
All comments and documents that are filed in the Planning Department be posted to the City's website so that residents can access them.
Major design changes must go back to the Design Review Panel.
My delegation wasn't the first time that Council had been presented with these kinds of requests about the planning process.
Through a staff report to the PC, which eventually made it to Council, the following recommendation was made by City staff:
"That the City be permitted to request three additional types of materials with the submission of a complete application to ensure a comprehensive review; Community Consultation, advice from the Design Review Panel, and a Right of Way Impact Assessment; and, ..."
In essence, if this recommendation from City staff had been approved in 2016 by Council in its entirety, the Design Review Panel would have become a formal part of the process. As I understand it, there would have been a more comprehensive and inclusive community engagement component.
Alas, no one mentioned this at all during the meeting or asked any follow up questions to staff about it (even though it has happened during this term of Council and should have been something everyone was aware of).
After our delegations were officially "received," we were told that we could retake our seats. Councillors then asked questions to staff that related to our delegations. This is a common and normal part of the proceedings for a delegation in this City - delegates aren't permitted to participate in the discussion.
Without reproducing a transcript of the questions and answer session, I'll summarize it by saying this: it was clear from the back and forth between staff and the councillor that there wasn't an interest in coming up with a solution to the problems I had raised.
Staff were focused on what was required in the Planning Act and the councillor was concerned with comparing our practices to what happened in other municipalities - "keeping up with the Joneses" if you will (the councillor's words, not mine).
What I got from the back and forth, as with many others I've witnessed, is that the City is not very interested in what residents think about a particular issue. As was clear in the councillor's questions to staff it appeared that there was more interest in keeping up with neighbouring cities and not about looking inward at what we can do to support communities.
Rather than taking our suggestions seriously, putting them on the agenda and moving them forward, the City was more concerned to make it clear to residents that they're getting as good of a deal here as they'd get anywhere else and that they shouldn't expect more than the status quo in Burlington or Mississauga.
We don't want to be the Ambitious City that Leads, we want to be the Hamilton that follows the status quo - despite the promotional material to the contrary.
And as the staff's answers demonstrate, that means only really rising to the bare minimum standards that the law requires.
There's nothing stopping us, in many cases, from going beyond what's required as the "minimum" in law. The City has the legal right to provide services to residents that fall outside the law, extend the law, or are clearly contemplated in the law even if they are not set up as requirements.
When we pretend otherwise, we do everyone a disservice.
Just so I'm being clear, I'm not blaming or condemning staff for their answers to a series of impossible questions. I understand the position that staff are in when they're being called on in this manner at a meeting. Staff aren't in a position to contradict councillors or to speak out to defend residents.
I'll be honest and say that I didn't think that my delegation would be unanimously accepted and the motion I requested recommended to Council.
It's been my experience that groups like our Council require an extreme amount of motivation to get councillors to take our concerns "seriously".
The residents in our community clearly didn't warrant a request for a staff report (reasonably common) or even the suggestion that this subject appear on a future agenda for further discussion.
In contrast, when the developer appeared before the Emergency & Community Services Committee (a "walk-on" delegation, if I recall correctly) with a presentation showing future rent at market rates approximately 20 percent higher than the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation uses to deem something "affordable", staff was "directed" to prepare a report (which is forthcoming) to look into the different "affordable housing" programs that this project might benefit from and then to report back to the developer about them.
This was done before the project had secured funding and before it was deemed viable by being given conditional approval by the Planning Department. In essence, the developer was granted the resources of the City's staff because this fell under the City's "affordable housing" mandate (and because he had support from his councillor).
I don't think any one of us wants Hamilton to become a place for developers to experiment, on a whim, at the expense of our ability to work and live here. Most of the people I've spoken to, for and against development, all share the concern that residents don't have a voice in this process.
By the time input from residents is permitted, the majority of the "application" has been "approved" by the City and no one is willing to go back and fix things.
I've been condescended to several times by people telling me about residents not "knowing enough" about the planning process to be able to provide meaningful feedback early on.
Nonsense, I say. The people who live in neighbourhoods generally have a pretty good sense of what may or may not work and what will or will not have a significant impact on their daily lives. Sure, some of it might mean limiting the developer's profits or putting in a community benefits agreement - but that's how collaboration and shared access to space should work in this City.
And if residents don't know enough, it's because Council isn't interested in changing these processes to make them more accessible to everyone.
We need a Planning Committee (and a Council) that is focused on taking staff's recommendations more seriously and engaging with the City's residents. Because, while this might be happening now in Ward 2 and seem like a distant problem to some, if development continues as planned, every ward will be affected by the precedents the City sets here and now.
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