Guidance for the City's Committee Of Adjustments re: Intensification – How to get to 'Yes In My Back Yard' | Unpublished

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Ottawa, Ontario
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The Federation of Citizens’ Associations of Ottawa (FCA) is a city wide association and forum for community associations and citizens groups in Ottawa. The FCA is comprised of urban, suburban and rural community associations and citizens groups from across the amalgamated City of Ottawa. Members share information about issues facing their communities and take joint action on city-wide issues.

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Guidance for the City's Committee Of Adjustments re: Intensification – How to get to 'Yes In My Back Yard'

February 13, 2023
Row housing

The Federation of Citizens Associations (FCA) represents some 70 community groups & meets monthly. At our meetings community associations complained about the City's Committee of Adjustment and how it dealt with intensification. The FCA held 2 workshops with the City's Committee of Adjustment & community members, and developed recommendations to help guide the Committee of Adjustment's work. These recommendations will be presented to the City's Planning Committee on Feb. 15, 2023.

Intensification, in land use speak, means more intensive land use i.e. more homes per lot. This term has become the buzz-word for urban planning, and occasionally the bug-a-boo of local communities. Intensification is seen as the antidote for urban sprawl, where new homes gobble up land and require expensive infrastructure (roads, sewers, etc) to service. Making more efficient use of existing serviced land is seen as cheaper to provide, and more supportive for community services such as libraries, schools and public transit.

But intensification is also linked to over-crowding, more cars on the street, changing the character of neighbourhoods. When community groups oppose what they think is bad intensification they are called NIMBYs (not-in-my-back-yard).

The City of Ottawa’s new Official Plan, which charts how our city is to grow for the next 10 years, proposes that 60% of future growth occur through intensification, and 40% through new subdivisions. While the City is now reviewing its zoning bylaw that governs development in both new and existing neighbourhoods, there is another mechanism to accommodate intensification, and that is through minor variances – small adjustments to existing zoning provisions (side yards, setbacks, height, etc.) to accommodate more housing.

The City of Ottawa delegates applications for minor variances, severances and consents to a Committee of Adjustment, composed of citizens chosen by City Council to adjudicate these applications. With the outcome of the recent municipal election, a new Committee of Adjustment (sub-divided into urban, suburban and rural panels) will be appointed.

Under Ontario’s Planning Act these Committee of Adjustment panels must assess applications to vary existing zoning provisions against 4 tests: is the application consistent with the City’s Official Plan? Is it consistent with the intent of the City’s Zoning Bylaw? Is it good planning? And is it minor? The Committee of Adjustment posts a public notice of an application, makes the documents available to the public, and holds a hearing where interested parties (usually neighbours and/or the local community association) can speak to the proposal. Then, based on the evidence (and armed with the advice from City planning staff) the Committee of Adjustment  grants (or rejects) the applicant’s proposal. Seems simple.

But it isn’t. The process of applying the 4 tests is opaque. City planning staff, which assesses the applications against City policies and the prescribed 4 tests, don’t provide a rationale when they support the applicant’s proposal – the file says “No Objection”. The public has no clue how the 4 tests were assessed, or whether the City’s Residential Infill Guidelines (developed with both community and industry input) were applied. Too often neighbours appear at Committee of Adjustment hearings to voice concerns and are told these are “not relevant to the 4 tests that the Committee of Adjustment uses”. For the public, who are not experts on planning procedures and terminology, it can be very frustrating.

That is why the Federation of Citizens Associations (FCA), which represents 70 community groups across the city, is making recommendations to the new City Council on how to make the Committee of Adjustment process more transparent and understandable. We believe this will help reduce disputes and relieve some of the frustration expressed at our meetings  regarding what is seen as an unintelligible bureaucratic process.

We think it makes sense to have City planning staff spell out the rationale on how (or how not) the application meets the 4 tests. We are not suggesting pages of documentation but something more than the “No Objection” currently used. We think that the public should be able to speak to the City planner assigned to the application (the developer certainly does) to get a better understanding of what is important to the Committee of Adjustment decision process – is height important? (yes) Is noise from tenants important? (no).

And lastly, Committee of Adjustment decisions are appealable to the Ontario Land Tribunal (OLT), but now only by the applicant, as a result of Bill 23. Obviously if the applicant is successful at the Committee there is no appeal. But where the Committee of Adjustment accepted City planning staff advice and rejected an application the applicant can appeal to the OLT, which then convenes a new hearing. However, current City policy does not permit any representative from the City to appear to defend the City’s position at the OLT(!). The FCA strongly believes that where the City’s Committee of Adjustment has accepted City planning staff advice in making a decision, then the City should defend it at the OLT. Not to defend the Committee of Adjustment decision makes a mockery of regulating this form of intensification.

With the emphasis on intensification to provide the bulk of Ottawa’s future growth, getting the Committee of Adjustment process right is important. It will help the public to better understand what is relevant to accommodating this growth, and where it can be bettered. Let your City Councillor know your views.

Alex Cullen is the past-President of the Federation of Citizens Associations and member of the FCA Committee of Adjustment Working Group. Previously, he was a City Councillor and member of the City’s Planning Committee (2000-10).