This Week at Council: Official Plan Decision Debate Takes Over Planning Meeting

This month’s planning meeting was probably always going to be a controversial affair, but,  as it turned out, making a decision about a 23-storey tower at the corner of Wyndham and Wellington is something council didn’t have to worry about… for now. Instead, council had to find a new source of friction and boy was it delivered thanks to a staff report about the Ontario government’s decision on the latest Official Amendment.

Planning Meeting of City Council – May 9

In another universe, the May planning meeting might have been over in 20 minutes, but this is this universe. After quickly dispatching the approval of the heritage designation of the Alice Street Clubhouse and Building Bylaw Updates, as well as giving staff direction over negotiations with Guelph Professional Firefighters Association Local 467 and OPSEU Local 231, council spent nearly three hours on a staff information report.

The report in question was the Ontario government’s decision on Official Plan Amendment 80, which council passed last summer. There were 18 changes in all, but the most controversial were the allowance of 23-storey builds downtown, a reduction in employment lands in the Guelph Innovation District, and the re-designation of 41-45 George Street to high density after council pointedly made it low density. Also, the verdict of the Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing is final.

Council asked points of clarification about the immediate impact of those changes, as well as questions about provincial promises to “make cities whole” regarding the fiscal impacts. Staff have one-year to incorporate the changes to the OPA, but there presently waiting to see if the new Comprehensive Zoning Bylaw is appealed so it might be a tick before they can get down to work on that.

This is where the fun begins.

After council voted unanimously to receive the report, Councillor Leanne Caron brought forward a multi-part motion to follow-up on some of the issues raised. Mayor Cam Guthrie decided to separate out the motions and in order to deal with each clause one at a time. Some of these points were easier to dispatch than others.

The first motion asked staff to outline the financial and human resources impacts from OPA 80 and Bill 23. This got unanimous support with the exception of Guthrie who felt that the clause was redundant since staff were already doing that work.

The second motion was pulled because it directed staff to keep the Grand River Conservation Authority involved in planning applications according to the pre-Bill 23 rules, but GRCA staff informed the City that they didn’t like that idea. Caron had kept it in as a matter of transparency.

The next clause came with the first bout of controversy. It asked for staff to bring forward resources to expedite the Cultural Heritage Action Plan (CHAP) during the budget process this fall, especially on lands affected by OPA 80. It also asked staff to include potential financial incentives for conservation and restoration of designated properties. Caron called it her “More Heritage Faster Bill”, but Councillor Dominique O’Rourke expressed concern about some projects leap-frogging over others and potentially trying to stop changes made to the OPA through the backdoor.

Melissa Aldunate, Manager of Policy Planning and Urban Design, said that it was her and staff’s impression that the goal of the motion was to get the downtown and Ward West Heritage District study projects done quickly, and then find new financial opportunities for heritage protection beyond what’s already been approved by council. Some on council questioned if the motion will stymie growth by enshrining heritage in excess, while others made the point that many big Canadian cities are able to build up and protect heritage at the same time, which is a sentiment that Krista Walkey, GM of Planning, agreed with. The clause was approved 8-5.

The next clause, which was clause 1d, and it asked for public consultation for new view corridors of the Basilica of Our Lady when the Official Plan comes up for review again in five years. There was some more back and forth about the impact on development and how changes to both the Downtown Secondary Plan and the G.I.D. Secondary Plan might limit those options for new corridors, but this clause was approved 9-4.

The next clause, 1e, was to have staff come back to council with a plan for a new downtown park in the multiyear budget this fall. Councillor Dan Gibson asked for a simple word change, from “That a plan for a future Downtown Park be reflected…” to “That a plan for a future Downtown Park be referred…” but he still voted against the whole motion along with four other councillors. It passed 8-5.

Then council turned to a motion to direct the mayor to send a letter to Minister of Municipal Affairs and Housing Steve Clark expressing council’s concerns about the OPA decision, and that’s when things got really interesting. Guthrie said that the meeting had been an exercise in not being co-operative, and that sending the letter was going to create issues for the City’s intergovernmental affairs office, and it was going to poke the Ontario government in the eye.

Guthrie then doubled down saying that he doesn’t serve as mayor to put up hurdles to getting stuff done, and that the events of Tuesday perpetuate the narrative that Guelph is a difficult place to do business. He then asked rhetorically why developers and third parties have gone around city council to take their concerns to the provincial government and suggested that maybe city government is the problem.

Rebuttal? You bet. Some councillors noted that the OPA, including the version that was passed by council last year, didn’t do anything that the Province didn’t ask for; it met all the goals that they laid out. Others made a pro-democracy argument that it shouldn’t be considered a bad thing for one level of government to express concern about the decisions made by another. Other councillors made the point that the discussion wasn’t about stopping development but was about maintaining a quality of life in Guelph, or that legislation like Bill 23 doesn’t actually build the affordable housing the city needs.

In any event, Mayor Guthrie was the only no-vote in directing him to send a letter Minister Clark on behalf of council.

Click here to see the complete recap of the meeting.

The next meeting of city council is a workshop meeting on communications on Wednesday May 17 at 6 pm. You can see the Politico preview here.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s