21.2 C
Niagara Falls
Saturday, July 13, 2024
Arch-i-text: All those letters to the editor mean something
The content of The Lake Report's letters to the editor inform writer Brian Marshall about what truly matters to the residents of Niagara-on-the-Lake. FILE PHOTO

Just as I still adhere to visceral creative process of designing by hand on paper, I may be somewhat of a Neanderthal when it comes to reading.

For me, there is something about holding and reading a printed book, periodical, magazine or newspaper that creates a connection in my mind with the author of each piece of writing that is impossible to achieve in an electronic version. 

So it is that, every Thursday morning — generally, as I finish brewing my second carafe of coffee — when the flag is raised on our post box to indicate The Lake Report has been delivered, I hike out to the end of the driveway and fetch the paper.

Then, I settle down in my old wing chair, mug of coffee readily at-hand, and read the weekly edition cover-to-cover.

Now, by way of full disclosure, I rarely read the current “news” stories first, but rather open the paper to the opinion section to search out the letters to the editor and begin with those.

And, only after reading these letters, do I proceed to the rest of the newspaper’s contents.  

I do this simply because the content of these letters inform me about what truly matters to the residents of Niagara-on-the-Lake.

The writers’ comments about issues that have motivated them to devote their personal time and effort to express their opinions in this publication provide me with a deeper understanding of our community in all its facets.

To be clear, I may not agree with the individual opinions expressed and, in some instances might fundamentally disagree, but each letter written provides an invaluable window into the various positions of this town’s constituents.

That said, this week I’d like to visit a few of these recent letters and, with all due respect to the writers, provide some colour commentary.

Let’s begin with the “Letter of the Week” penned by Lydia Madonia in the June 27 edition of this paper (“Let’s focus on realistic solutions, not just opposition”) wherein she pleaded for “residents to come together and agree on a realistic, mutually beneficial and livable plan” for development.

I wholeheartedly agree with her.

This column has, each and every year since 2018, pointed out that Niagara-on-the-Lake lacks urban design guidelines to inform and define development initiatives.

These guidelines are, in every instance where instituted in towns and cities across North America, based on a commonly held vision — developed by the community — of what acceptable and contextually appropriate development looks like in each town. 

In no way does this limit development within a town or city; rather, the guidelines define what is acceptable where and the criteria that must be used to ensure each development “fits” within the context of the existing neighbourhoods, streetscapes and architecture.

In fact, many of our current town councillors endorsed contextual development in their 2022 platforms but, to my knowledge, no overture has been made by council to initiate this undertaking.

As Madonia so aptly points out, “… development of vacant land will happen whether we like it or not. We need to be part of a planning committee with ideas and acceptable compromises.”

Interestingly, that is, in part, the function of the urban design committee as specified in its purpose and mandate: “…provides urban design advice and recommendations to council and town staff … with respect to planning applications and any other urban-design-related matters that council and staff may request the committee’s advice on.”

“The committee also provides design advice on the potential physical and aesthetic impact of proposed buildings, structures, landscapes, parks and infrastructure projects to the community’s public realm, including an evaluation of its relationship to the site and its surrounding character.”

However, not only do some members of council and staff routinely ignore this committee’s recommendations, they have gone so far as to sideline and/or dismiss two of the most knowledgeable design professionals on the committee when those individuals had the temerity to question staff recommendations that conflicted with official plan provisions and best practices from urban planning and architectural perspectives.

Furthermore, no one in this community — who I have communicated with — is against development.

The citizens of NOTL are uniformly educated, intelligent, informed and realistic. They recognize and accept development will occur in every area of our town.

However, nearly without exception, residents want that development to be compatible with the existing character and cultural heritage landscapes of Niagara-on-the-Lake’s neighbourhoods.

Derek Collins, in his letter published in The Lake Report’s July 4 edition (“Development, sure. But it must fit in”), wrote: “This is not being anti-development, as some would like to claim, but it does call for development that is sensitive to the heritage and historical values of NOTL.”

In other words, they want the community to manage future development and not allow developers to manage the future of our community.

In another letter published in the July 4 edition (“Town must pick and choose its legal battles”), on the topic of the potential costs of litigation should the council refuse a development application, Ron Fritz writes: “I am not advocating a capitulation in every case.”

“Litigation is a costly exercise and responsible councillors should make decisions supporting litigation only in cases where there is a reasonable probability of success,” he adds.

Here again, I find myself agreeing with the position.

In fact, in the Feb. 15 Arch-i-text column (“Arch-i-text: A concrete look at local governance”) speaking to the wise use of budgeted funds for legal expenses vis-à-vis contesting development applications, I stated, “I am not suggesting that town council should abandon the defence of heritage, the official plan, bylaws, the cultural landscape, et al. In fact, my stance is they should do so rigorously.”

“However, given the foregoing, town council is obliged to pick its battles wisely — preferably battles that can set precedents which may be used for future decision-making around development applications — without the need for expensive legal wrangling.”

Unfortunately, capitulation by this council appears to be the “order of the day” in the face of a planning staff that uniformly recommends that development applications be approved.

Apparently, the lesson presented by Fort Erie’s successful defence of its official plan and community character before the Ontario Land Tribunal earlier this year, based on its planning staff report, has been completely ignored by NOTL’s lord mayor who, as the town’s “CEO” — albeit “part-time” — is responsible for setting strategic direction and priorities for staff. 

Moreover, the recent application for the Parliament Oak property, given that it is one of a very few properties zoned institutional in town, is located in a single-family residential area and is an application for rezoning to commercial rather than residential, would be one of those cases wherein, as Fritz put it, has “a reasonable probability of success.”

Further, successful litigation in this case would establish a clear precedent for future development applications.

Money well spent.

Which brings me to a letter received in the last few days.

This letter, penned by Richard Connelly — who has five decades of experience as an engineer specializing in planning and engineering land development projects across North America — raises a highly concerning issue: has council considered the downline costs of the developments they are willy-nilly supporting?

Speaking to the issue of servicing infrastructure for the significant land-use changes, he points out that “the local infrastructure at Parliament Oak is old and close to the end of its design life” and that, in his experience, “land use change required studies to ensure that the sites were capable of supporting the development prior to the municipality approving the change in land use.”

These studies to include “sewage flows, demand on water supply, demand on fire protection, the need for on-site storm water management, utility capacities, roadway access capacities and structure (extending to Niagara Stone Road).”

In the absence of these studies — which should have been required by staff prior to deeming the application complete — he warns that the lord mayor and council are “exposing taxpayers to potential and significant cost for upgrading old and inadequate infrastructure that currently exists.”

Sounds like a case of “penny-wise and pound-foolish” to me.

Brian Marshall is a NOTL realtor, author and expert consultant on architectural design, restoration and heritage.

Subscribe to our mailing list