Why we need to uphold our Official Plan

Why we need to uphold our Official Plan

  |   Burlington's Waterfront   |   No comment

There’s a growing consensus among residents that the City needs to uphold our Official Plan (OP) and Zoning Bylaw in approving development projects. All of the major developments approved recently in Ward 2 required changes that were double, triple or more than what is permitted in the OP/Zoning Bylaw; or allowed different building types – back-to-back towns, for example – in an area zoned for single family or semi-detached homes.

Residents have been dismissed as antidevelopment or uninformed NIMBYs (Not in My Backyard) for wanting development to respect the existing OP, but residents I hear from are not opposed to development. They do believe we can do better to ensure the best city for the future.

As one resident put it: “I think it is time for Council to stand back, take a deep breath, and consider how the Burlington of the future will look. Do we want dense concrete in the downtown core, or would we prefer green space, a more open aspect and a park-like waterfront? What do you want your legacy to be?”

The City is currently reviewing our OP and zoning. Now is the time to make changes, rather than on a project-by-project basis. If the existing plan is good, we need to uphold it. It’s risky not to.

The Official Plan and corresponding Zoning Bylaw express Council’s and the community’s vision for the future – what gets built where, and what it looks like. The OP/Zoning Bylaw are approved by regional and provincial governments, and are reviewed every five years to provide opportunity for updates. Minor changes in between can be accommodated through a variance application to the Committee of Adjustment. But as noted, recent approvals were not minor.

Dramatic changes to the OP erode the community’s vision for their city and replace it with the vision of specific developers on a site-by-site basis. These approvals become precedent-setting as future developers seek similar concessions. Over time, the character of communities can change dramatically.  Residents have no assurance of what the future of the city will look like. The Official Plan becomes the “official suggestion”.

We’re told these changes must be justified as good planning in order to be approved.  But if it’s good planning, then why isn’t it in the OP and Zoning Bylaw in the first place? Most likely because that’s not the community’s vision of the “legacy” we want to leave. There’s little value in keeping the OP artificially low if the goal all along is to allow increases. Several residents’ groups, notably in Roseland (Ward 4) and St. Luke’s Precinct in downtown Burlington, have come together to protect existing zoning in their neighbourhoods, which governs such items as built form (single family or towns,for example), lot width and lot coverage.

Though they, too, have been dismissed as anti-development, they are in good company. Recently Dan Burden, executive director of the Walkable and Liveable Communities Institute, spoke to an Inspire Burlington audience to share his view that zoning should not be changed. Allowing changes also erodes our ability to defend the plan at the Ontario Municipal Board (OMB). Council has in the past justified approving increases to the OP/Zoning Bylaw in the belief that developers would simply appeal, and win, at the OMB, costing time and legal fees. However, Oakville has successfully shown that municipalities can win at the OMB (email me for the specific case) if staff and Council are consistent in upholding the OP and approving only applications that conform.

OP changes are further complicated by the use of Section 37 in the Planning Act, which allows, even encourages, increases to height and density beyond what is permitted in exchange for “community benefits” that may include cash. Defenders of Section 37 suggest the benefits can soften the impact of extra height and density, for example, allowing the expansion of a local park.  Others suggest the benefits allow residents to share in the increased value of the land due to what is referred to as upzoning.

The latter is problematic. Toronto architect and urban designer Ken Greenberg told an Inspire audience recently that the value is eroded over time. As approvals are granted, the “uplift” gets built into the purchase price of future lots on the assumption of approval.  The increased land value also has a downside. As the price of land increases, it becomes economically challenging, if not impossible, to build lower-density projects.

Further, as we’ve seen recently with the medical/condo/parking garage on Caroline Street, developers may seek a reduction in the community benefits once the project is approved.  Ultimately, it is up to Council to direct staff to uphold our OP and Zoning Bylaw, and only vote for projects that conform.

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