This Month at Council: Dog Parks and Skyscrappers

February was the cruelest month if you’re a fan of leash-free dog park facilities in Guelph. City Council began the month by cancelling a previously approved plan for fenced-in, leash-free dog facilities in area parks, and ended the month by swiftly undoing that move. In between, there was some concern about how high Guelph is building.

Committee of the Whole – February 3

The first big item heard by Committee was on the possibility of initiating a program for Development Fee Exemptions or Waivers. Representatives from Guelph Black Heritage, the Guelph Humane Society, and Canadian Mental Health Association Waterloo-Wellington talked about their challenges in buying and building (or renovating) new facilities, and how it might be easier to grease the squeaky wheels of fundraising without having to pay out the development charges.

The discussion came out of an information report to council in December, and Mayor Cam Guthrie brought it forward saying that he’s been hearing from a number of community organizations that are looking for an assist. Guthrie proposed a motion to direct staff to explore the creation of a program or framework to support the exemption of DCs for non-profit groups. There was some worksmithing about how best to identify groups in need, and there was some concern expressed about how in demand such a program will be (and how it might end up being *too* in demand). Chief Administrative Officer Scott Stewart said that the fiscal reality of the City might mean that council could be saying no more often than yes. The motion was passed 10-2.

The Corporate Services committee potion of the meeting also passed the Financial Condition Assessment and Proposed Long-term Financial Framework, the Debt Management Policy Update, and the Development Charge Interest Policy.

In Public Services, Committee heard from Guelph Independent Living, who are looking for an exception to paying parkland dedication cash-in-lieu fees for converting a rec room into two new units at 238 Willow Road. It represented a one-off request because the Parkland Dedication Bylaw will be repealed when the regulatory framework of Bill 108 goes into effect, and no one’s sure when that will be. A final decision on whether the fees will be waived was postponed until March when an appraisal of the property might be complete.

Finally, it was time for the big item of the meeting: The Leash Free Implementation Plan. The staff recommendation from the report was to no longer proceed with creation of a fenced in dog park on Lee Street, but to proceed with the two other recommended parks, the one at Peter Misersky Park, which is complete, and the one at Bristol Street Park, which his currently a work in progress.

Six delegates took part in the meeting; four of the six spoke out against the current fenced-in dog parks, one woman spoke in favour of the decision to not fence in Lee Street Park, and the final delegate believed that the Bristol Street fenced-in dog park has enhanced her neighbourhood. When the floor returned to council, Councillor James Gordon offered an amendment to remove the fence at Bristol Street Park, and then the fireworks began.

Some on council questioned if there should be a vote to reconsider on the original Leash-Free implementation plan from June 2019 if council was going to start undoing those recommendations. After a lot of back and forth, it was decided that a motion to reconsider wasn’t necessary because they were only debating two select aspects of an entire implementation plan. Another concern was that if the Bristol Street park was cancelled, then a lot of pressure was going to be put on Misersky Park as the only fenced in dog park in the city, which wasn’t likely going to help neighbourhood concerns about its heavy use, noise and traffic. The amendment to end the fenced-in park at Bristol Street passed 8-4.

Councillor Bob Bell then proposed an additional amendment to remove the fenced-in park from Misersky, and direct staff to set up a new fenced facility at Eastview Park. It was Bell’s intention to get something built at Eastview Park “as soon as possible,” but there’s no room in the current capital or operating budget, so the soonest it could happen is 2021. Many councillors expressed dismay about how the process was unfurling, and interrogated staff about why Eastview wasn’t considered in the first place. Guthrie offered an alteration to the language to say, “Eastview Park or another complementary park,” but when asked what “complementary park” means, Guthrie exasperatedly said, “I just want a dog park.”

Eventually, the wording was sorted out and council voted in favour of shuttering the Peter Misersky dog park, yanking out the fences there, and looking for alternative facilities in a “non-residential area.” The park will remain open in the short term, and council will make a final decision at the February 24 regular meeting of council.

Planning Meeting of Council – February 10

It was a packed house as people came to hear the Statutory Public Meeting on 70 Fountain Street, the redevelopment of the Skyline property that will see a ground floor of retail space, three floors of office space, and a 21-storey tower of rental apartments.

Hugh Handy, the planner with GPS Group, and Greg Jones, president of the Skyline subsidiary Sky Devco Inc., laid out the plan for council, and promised that the tower would be net zero ready, and that it’s part of the company’s plan to invest in downtown by eventually doubling the number of employees they’ll have out of their headquarters. Jones told council that the project hits all the development sweet spots: affordable housing, sustainable growth, heritage concerns, and employment.

Then, for the next two hours, council heard from the other delegates. Many had a problem with the height, and the possibility that wind tunnels would be created on the ground. Some had concerns about the project that were somewhat assuaged by the Skyline presentation. Others thought that it was a good proposal that would help increase the number of available apartment units in town, especially from a trusted developer like Skyline, who recovered the Gummer Building site after it was gutted by fire in 2007. Marty Williams of the Downtown Guelph Business Association endorsed the proposal saying that it would be a good fit for the economic and population targets downtown, and its location will have minimum impact being surrounded by institutions like the Guelph Police headquarters and the Armoury.

When the discussion came back to council, staff was asked for further information about area traffic, an impact study based on elevation, and what kind of community benefits the City might be entitled to if they eventually approve the project (but that may be tricky given the current state of Bill 108 implementation). Councillor Bob Bell said it was probably the best development application that council has seen in a while, but Mayor Cam Guthrie said what everyone seemed to be thinking: this will not get approved at 25 storeys. The report was received by council 12-0.

After a break, council heard the two decision reports, the first concerned a plan for six townhouses and one detached building at 300 Water Street. A few residents were still apprehensive about losing what little greenspace that was left in their area, and Councillor Cathy Downer proposed a couple of amendments meant to encourage the creation of a tree inventory by the developer, and to allocate the funds for tree re-planting to go back into the general area. The plan was approved 8-3.

The final item was the decision report for a plan to develop 361 Whitelaw Road. After being refined twice already, the staff approved plan called for four apartment buildings at eight or nine storeys in height, plus two additional six-storey apartment buildings along with stacked, back-to-back townhouses for a total of 678 units, but that was still too big for about half-a-dozen people that came out to delegate against it.

For the councillors, there were still a number of concerns with the project including what kind of traffic calming might be installed along Whitelaw, when the Transportation Plan might be completed, how the parking projections were based on conditions yet to be approved by the zoning bylaw review, and what will happen to the area wildlife once construction on the project begins. Wendy Vollans, who was recently featured in a Guelph Mercury Tribune article about homelessness, testified to the need of the project to help alleviate the city’s housing crisis, but in the end, council couldn’t overcome their concerns and the decision report failed by a vote of 3-8.

Regular Council Meeting – February 24

After passing the majority of the consent agenda, Ward 6 Councillor Dominique O’Rourke asked to pull the report on Development Fee Exemptions or Waivers saying that she reconsidered her support for the motion because it could open the floodgates to all kinds of non-profits looking for exemptions to paying DCs while the City deals with a very uncertain fiscal picture thanks to Bill 108. Despite winning over a few of her fellow councillors, O’Rourke still lost the motion 8 to 5.

Next, it was all about the dog park situation. There were 27 delegates on the speakers list, 257 correspondences included in the package, and a petition that was due to be presented with nearly 5,000 signatures. Mayor Cam Guthrie aimed to get a head of all that though with a ruling from the chair that the motion passed at the February 3 Committee of the Whole meeting was out of order. The reason? Because voting to cancel further construction on the Bristol Street fenced in dog park and tearing down the Peter Misersky dog park would require a motion to reconsider on the original June 2019 motion to approve the parks.

Councillor Bob Bell challenged the mayor’s ruling because committee had that discussion at the time, but it was decided that there didn’t need to be a motion. So why did council need to have a motion to reconsider? City Clerk Stephen O’Brien explained that it was “a continuum of decisions,” cancelling the Lee Street Park project, for which no construction has been done yet, has a negligible effect on the intent of the original motion, but tearing up all three of the approved projects is something else entirely.

Councillor Mark MacKinnon asked about his interpretation of section 5.8 (b) of the Procedural Bylaw that says, “A resolution that was decided by Council cannot be reconsidered if action has been taken in implementing the resolution resulting in legally binding commitments that are in place on the date the motion to reconsider is considered by Council.” MacKinnon said that it was his belief that council couldn’t have a vote to reconsider on this matter since there was a contractor in place to finish construction on the Bristol Street Park. DCAO Colleen Clack confirmed that there was a tender awarded for that project, but because of winter the construction work had been paused.

Council voted 9-4 to uphold Guthrie’s ruling that the Committee motion was out of order.

Councillor Leanne Piper then made a motion to suspend the Procedural Bylaw saying that council could skip over the usual Notice of a Motion to Reconsider since people were already in the gallery and ready to delegate on the cancelation of the projects. She also said that it was well within council’s power to cancel contracts, and that they did it before in the case of the construction of the new city hall. Guthrie argued that suspending the bylaw should be a rare thing, even though it has been used often in council to continue meetings past 11 pm and midnight. Councillor Mike Salisbury noted that this debate was the end result of a rash decision at the committee meeting, while Councillor Cathy Downer said that council was going from knee-jerk reaction to knee-jerk reaction. The motion to suspend the bylaw failed 2-11.

When the original recommendation to stop the construction of the Lee Street Park was put on the floor, Piper made an amendment to pause construction of the Bristol Street Park for 60 days. Guthrie found that motion out of order. Piper then said that she intends to bring forward a Notice of Motion to Reconsider at either the March 9 or March 23 council meeting, but the vote would still need a super-majority of nine votes to be overturned. Clack clarified that the pause taken on construction at the Bristol Street Park was due to winter’s arrival, and staff decided to use the occasion to get more public input. Nothing at Bristol Street’s been stopped because of the committee vote.

After the original staff recommendation was passed 10-3, Councillor Dan Gibson forwarded an additional motion to have staff proceed with looking at the feasibility of building dog parks in non-residential areas as part of the 2021 budget. Gibson’s ward-mate Councillor Bob Bell added that part of those deliberations include looking at whether there should be a minimum distance set between dog parks and residential areas. Downer noted that the original intent with establishing dog parks in residential areas was to make them walkable, and that it seemed like council was now thinking about a “big box model” by building them on the outskirts of town. The motion passed 12-1.

In one last motion, MacKinnon asked staff to prepare a report by the end of Q2 to look at options for locking fences at Peter Misersky Park from dusk to dawn. That motion passed unanimously.

Long story short: The Peter Misersky dog park will remain open, construction will continue on the Bristol Street dog park come spring, and staff will continue with its mitigation efforts in the hopes of achieving peace in our time. To be continued…

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