A developer hopes to get council approval to convert highway accessible employment lands to a new big box complex on a technicality.
By Don McLean
Published May 26, 2009
Hamilton councillors get another chance next month to decide whether or not they've had enough of bad planning.
At issue is another big box development that seeks to rezone industrial employment land fronting on the QEW at Fifty Road in Winona to permit an 183,000 square foot Wal-Mart (the biggest in the area) plus nearly 200,000 square feet of additional retail and 3,025 parking spaces.
There can't really be any doubt that this is not in the public interest, and it's in clear contradiction to provincial rules that forbid conversion of scarce employment lands to major retail uses.
Yet its proponents are counting on a technicality and the planning foolishness of a majority of Hamilton's councillors.
That technicality was trumpeted by the proponent's land use planner, Ed Fothergill, at a public meeting held earlier this month in Stoney Creek.
A citizen challenged the plans by pointing to Places to Grow, the provincial anti-sprawl legislation that says cities can only convert employment lands "through a municipal comprehensive review where it has been demonstrated that there is a need for conversion [and] the lands are not required over the long term for the employment purposes for which they are designated."
Fothergill responded that those provincial rules don't apply because the application for conversion was originally filed in October 2005 before the provincial legislation was passed.
"The growth plan at the time of our application did allow commercial uses in employment lands," he explained. "There was a change in the growth plan, that's correct. That came after our application, and that we're pretty clear about - the law is sort of pretty black and white on which policy applied when you make your application. So I don't think we have a problem with that."
He added, "There can be differences of opinion whether that's a good idea, but practically we don't have any problem conforming to the provincial documents."
In other words - we don't care about whether this is good planning because we're going to do it anyway if we can get away with it on a technicality.
It isn't that the provincial rules came as a surprise. The Places to Grow discussion paper was issued in July 2004 and the draft plan came out in February 2005, followed by the first piece of legislation in June 2005 - all months before the Wal-Mart application. It was only the final approval in June 2006 that came later.
In the wake of these provincial policies, Hamilton staff and their consultants undertook a municipal comprehensive review in 2007 and concluded that the city has a substantial shortage of employment lands.
They argued that this specific site on Fifty Road, with its QEW frontage, must be retained to attract industrial jobs to Hamilton, and pointed out that any loss of existing employment lands would mean more farmland around the airport would have to be used in its place.
Any loss of existing employment lands would mean more farmland around the airport would have to be used in its place
City council had a different idea. At the urging of Winona area councillor Dave Mitchell, they ordered staff to make this area available for conversion.
They provided the same favour to three other councillors backing other big box developments in their respective wards - Lloyd Ferguson on Wilson Street in Ancaster; Chad Collins on Centennial at the QEW in his east Hamilton ward; and Tom Jackson with a Stone Church Road proposal.
Several other councillors, including Mayor Eisenberger, opposed all or some of these moves.
The Fifty Road one is the first to come before a public meeting for an actual conversion decision.
Residents at the Stoney Creek meeting pointed to lots of flaws in the Wal-Mart plans. Fifty Road is the gateway to Hamilton (and to Niagara in the other direction). "Why are we wasting our gateway?" one resident asked.
Fifty Road itself is only two lanes with no sidewalks or bike facilities, and it has a level crossing with the busy CNR mainline. Grade separations and other required upgrades, Fothergill acknowledged, will have to be paid for by the taxpayers, not the company he's representing.
The 3,025 car parking lot was compared to the 3,000 cars a day that visit Winona for the annual Peach Festival in August and create so much congestion that it is far faster to walk in the community than drive that weekend.
While much of this end of the city was recently brought inside the urban boundary, the planning for retail is far from complete, and it is supposed to generate a high density walkable commercial area in a much more central location along Highway 8.
That would be pre-empted by the big box complex - perhaps making it uneconomic in the fact of the established big box competition.
Provincial officials aren't likely to be surprised by any of these problems. Avoiding them is part of what has driven the McGuinty government's planning reforms. Many Hamilton councillors either misunderstand or oppose (or both) these changes.
Exactly how many we'll see at the planning committee meeting on June 2 and the subsequent full council vote on June 10.