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Niagara Falls
Monday, February 26, 2024
Council rejects King Street proposal
From left, Sullivan Mahoney lawyer Tom Richardson, NPG planner Aaron Butler and NPG founding partner John Henricks. Richardson and Butler represented Josh Bice of Bice Builders at the meeting Jan. 24. EVAN LOREE

Council has chosen to fight, not settle. 

Niagara-on-the-Lake’s elected officials have voted to combat a developer’s project application at an upcoming legal hearing, despite town staff recommending they settle. 

“I think that this motion is telling a group of people what they want to hear, but I’m afraid that massive disappointment will hit them when the (Ontario Land Tribunal) hearing is concluded,” Lord Mayor Gary Zalepa said during a special council meeting.

Coun. Sandra O’Connor made the case that the town should reject staff recommendations that the town approve a three-storey, 17-unit condo proposal submitted by Bice Builders in July 2023.

“I do not feel that it follows our official plan,” O’Connor said. “I do not feel that it is compatible with the neighbourhood,” she said.

When the vote was called, Couns. Tim Balasiuk, Gary Burroughs, Wendy Cheropita and Maria Mavridis all agreed with O’Connor to reject the condo proposal.

Coun. Adriana Vizzari and the lord mayor supported the project and the staff recommendation. Couns. Nick Ruller and Erwin Wiens were absent.

“I just wasn’t happy with the process and how this all took place,” said Balasiuk, though he worries about taking the project to the tribunal.

Residents have been concerned about the process behind the project since news first broke of it last July.

The land was consolidated from three lots into one by the committee of adjustment in October 2022, on the condition that future development on the lot not exceed 15 per cent coverage of the land.

Applicant Josh Bice, who owns Bice Builders, did not unveil the condominium plans at the time. 

Those plans were brought to staff in a pre-consultation meeting in December 2022, and then made public last July.

The developer also chose to appeal the project to the tribunal once council failed to make a decision on it within provincially prescribed deadlines. 

The town was waiting on a resubmitted application from Bice when the deadline passed. 

Asked to respond to concerns about the process, NPG planner Aaron Butler and Sullivan Mahoney lawyer Tom Richardson declined to comment.

To date, Bice has not spoken publicly about the project and has not responded to interview requests from The Lake Report.

Richardson told council on Jan. 24 the condition under which the consolidation occurred would not prevent the present application from moving forward.

Zalepa voted against the majority of his peers, saying staff had made a “very strong case” for why the application was consistent with provincial requirements.

He argued it’s better to keep working toward a compromise with Bice.

Vizzari agreed staff made a strong case for why the project is consistent with planning legislation and said she is concerned about spending public money on tribunal hearings.

Mavridis voted to fight the project at the tribunal, but in a follow-up interview said she also is worried about the cost of litigation.

She said the town is budgeting about $500,000 for legal fees this year and most of it was spent in the first few weeks of January fighting projects at the tribunal.

Richardson noted there is a “crying need” for more homes in Ontario, but several councillors said Niagara-on-the-Lake is on track to hit the housing targets assigned by the upper levels of government.

“It does not rest on any of us to say, ‘We’ve done our bit,’ ” Richardson said in response.

The region mandates that 13.5 per cent of the town’s units should be apartments, but only 5 to 6 per cent of the town’s units were for apartments, Richardson said.

“There is, in short, an issue of housing mix or choice, which our client is attempting to address,” he said.

Zalepa said he had spoken to many people who were struggling to find a home in NOTL because the dominant form is out of their price range.

Cheropita also agreed there was a need for more apartments but, in relation to the Bice project, said, “This is really the wrong area for it.” 

She and Burroughs both said King Street was not designated as an appropriate target for intensification.

“We don’t have an issue with meeting any provincial targets that are assigned to us. Why does it have to be there?” Burroughs asked of Butler during the planner’s presentation.

Butler said the developer is primarily interested in providing people with additional housing choices. He did not say why it needs to be on King Street. 

Though the urban design committee asked the developer and his team to decrease the height of the project to two floors, Butler said his team felt the current design — with its higher unit count — was “more in the public interest” given how few housing choices people have in NOTL.

He was interrupted by residents laughing at his use of “public interest.”

The seven residents who spoke at the meeting raised concerns similar to those aired at a public meeting in September, including building size and impact on storm infrastructure.

A few residents objected to the new orientation of the building, which repositions the entrance to face away from King Street, contrary to town policy.

The staff report said the repositioning is “appropriate” given the shape of the land.

In response, resident Erika Alexander said this is “nonsense” given the previous layout pointed the entrance toward King Street.

Resident Endre Mecs said the shape of the land had been configured by the developer through a series of purchases and lot consolidations.

Before that, Mecs said the land was made up of rectangular-shaped lots.

John Henricks, a founding partner of Niagara Planning Group who is now retired, was at the meeting with Butler and Richardson.

He said there is an ongoing narrative in NOTL that paints planners as hired advocates for developers.

“Our job is not to be advocates for a specific client,” Henricks said.

“That’s unfair, given that our professional responsibility is to the broader public interest,” he added.

 

 

 

 

While that might not be consistent with the view of residents who attended the meeting, the greater public interest is to build more housing, he said.

“We have a problem in this country and it needs to get addressed,” he said. “And we’re not going to address it if we keep saying no to something that was sensitively designed.”

The tribunal hearing for the project will begin Feb. 28.

With town staff in favour of the project, an outside planner will have to defend council’s position at the hearing.

evanloree@niagaranow.com

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