Marvelling At The Committee Of Adjustment

For City Hall watchers, it’s easy to get caught up in the big show. Our larger than life mayor (no, put down your complaint pens, people, that wasn’t a reference to Mayor Ford’s weight), the ideological schism at council and this kind of stuff. It practically writes itself.

So it’s understandable if indefensible that small but vital matters go largely unnoticed. Like, for example, the regular doings at the Committee of Adjustment meetings. Until this week, I’d never attended one and only did so because a development application in my neck of the woods. You might’ve heard about it? A proposed RioCan retail proposal incorporating the Kromer electronics store on Bathurst between College and Dundas streets.

As these things go, this one was a biggie with much community opposition to the 8 ‘minor’ variances RioCan was requesting. But many of the other 14 items before the committee in the same block where unopposed applicants wanting to build a deck or extend basement foundations. Routine matters to everyone but those involved. Yet, the very building blocks of how our city grows and evolves.

The Committee of Adjustment is made up of civilian members, and Toronto has 4 panels, representing 4 areas of the city, Etobicoke-York, North York, Toronto-East York and Scarborough. Members sit for 4 year terms and bring varying degrees of expertise to the job: a working knowledge of law, planning, architecture, government, economic development, community development, land development or citizen advocacy. In other words, a background in engaged citizenry.

A couple things struck me as I watched the proceedings on Wednesday. One was the civility in the room despite a dynamic that could pit neighbour against neighbour or corporate black heartedness against residential entitlement. There was none of the barking and sniping that occurs at council or other committee meeting. Before taking contested applications to the committee, interested parties were requested to conduct a meeting outside the room to see if their issues could be resolved. How often this works, I don’t know. The RioCan representative pointed out to committee members that none of the opponents to their plan chose to talk with them beforehand. Still, there was the sense the committee desired an amicable resolution before they were forced to arbitrate on applications.

The other interesting observation for me was just how thoroughly prepared all committee members were on every application. Those who presented items and spoke against them were frequently but gently nudged along by the committee chair, Gillian Burton, assured that the committee was well versed with the particular application and were looking for any new information. Questions from the committee were informed and concise. It didn’t strike me as some trial by fire or inquisition. Of course, I was simply observing from the audience not up pleading my case.

As for the RioCan application?

First, let me say that I wasn’t simply observing that one. I have a vested interested since I live not too far from their proposed development and took part in one of the residents’ meetings that talked strategy in opposing it. While not impacted directly by the plan, I was concerned greatly about the traffic impact of it on the surrounding neighbourhoods. What?! More cars!?! Well, that just won’t do…

The opposition was fantastically organized with just 4 people taking 5 minutes each to explain their positions but covering concerns from the Kensington Market Business Improvement and a couple of resident associations’ perspectives as well as one who questioned the very legitimacy of the development in terms of the city’s own Official Plan. Was it really adhering to the Avenues idea of proper planning? All retail including a massive box store that took little of its surroundings into consideration.

That seemed to be the Committee of Adjustment take on the matter as well. Beginning with member John Tassiopoulos’s questioning of why this application had even come before them. These weren’t ‘minor’ variances RioCan requested, he suggested, wondering if it wasn’t more a matter for zoning to deal with. The consensus was that the variances amounted to a cumulative overdevelopment of the site and the committee rejected the application outright. So adamant was the decision that committee members searched for strong enough language in their motion to bolster their judgment in case of an appeal to the OMB.

Oh yes, the OMB.

But before I go down that road, I want to express my amazement at just how transparent the Committee of Adjustment process is. They actually have to discuss their decisions in public. No hearing an application and any opponents to it and then retreating to privately arrive at a verdict. It’s right there in front of everyone in the room. Undoubtedly, each member must have inclinations going in based on the written proposals but they still have to air out their views publicly and, at times I’m sure, in the face of those who may ultimately be plenty displeased by the outcome.

If only it all ended so openly.

Looming largely over any Committee of Adjustment decision, of course, is the Ontario Municipal Board. Where the democratic process ends and money and attrition begins. That’s for another post and written by somebody much more well versed in the matter than I am. I will only say that I am concerned that our budget chief is submitting a notice of motion to council next week to study the benefits of ‘sending the City Solicitor to the Ontario Municipal Board on appeals of Committee of Adjustment decisions.’ Nothing wrong with wanting to ensure a bang for our buck but coming from where it does, I worry about nickel and diming the city’s ability to defend itself and its residents in what oftentimes turns out to be a costly process. If we signal our unwillingness to go to the mat purely for monetary reasons, why wouldn’t every applicant with deep pockets automatically appeal to the OMB?

That’s for another day, however.

For now we simply take pleasure in the fact that sometimes it’s not about successfully fighting City Hall but working with it in trying to develop Toronto in a fair and judicious manner.

happily submitted by Cityslikr

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