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Niagara Falls
Friday, July 12, 2024
Arch-i-text: Lord mayor has broken platform promises on development
Columnist Brian Marshall writes that Lord Mayor Gary Zalepa’s voting on the selection of issues related to key developments are not consistent with these statements from his platform in 2022. FILE PHOTO

Well, since being elected in November 2022 — 19 short months ago — our current council and lord mayor have managed to create more angst across the resident population of Niagara-on-the-Lake than any other council in recent decades.

Now, it is true that this council has had to deal with the wild-assed, high-handed and self-serving provincial legislation of Premier Doug Ford’s government — with an agenda clearly set on sacrificing any notion of heritage preservation, maintenance of community character or protection of agricultural and environmentally sensitive lands on the altar of corporate real estate development interests.

Furthermore, going before the Ontario Land Tribunal — a government appointed body of adjudicators who have a 90 per cent plus track record of finding in favour of developers — to argue a municipality’s case is expensive from a budgetary perspective and may create legacy debt, which must be amortized over future years.    

There is no question that this provincial direction (and legislation) has created hurtles for all municipal levels of government across Ontario.

However, the traditional over-riding consideration of municipal councils has been, and should remain: “What direction are our constituents providing us vis-à-vis the decisions that come before council?”

That said, and returning to voter “angst” engendered by decisions rendered under the current council, allow me to selectively point out a few community concerns:

In Glendale, the proposed White Oaks development, with a high point of 25 storeys and secondary buildings at 21, 18, and 17 storeys (the height of all buildings exceeding the provisions of both the existing Official Plan and the new, yet-to-be approved, 2019 Official Plan) was defeated.

However, a member of the community, in his post-decision remarks stated, “This is not the end of the story…” since council did not deny the overture but rather referred it back to staff.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the QEW, another mixed-use development will rise well above its low-density residential neighbours.

In Virgil, this council endorsed a motion by Coun. Erwin Wiens on familial lands for a ministerial zoning order that will rezone the piece of land while overriding local municipal development constrictions (town’s Official Plan and associated bylaws) to allow the construction of a six-storey residential building and multiple housing units.

In another Virgil development, several acres of woodland have been threatened by an overture to clear-cut the trees.

In St. Davids, the Opulence development, with a density 37 per cent higher than the Official Plan’s allowance (8.24 units per acre vs. six units per acre) — something town staff referred to as a “modest increase” — together with both drainage and traffic issues, was given the green light.

And, the region’s plans for a roundabout in the heart of the village appears to be proceeding without any notable opposition by town council.

In Old Town, two new hotels — one at Queen and Mississauga streets principally surrounded on three sides by single-family residential, the other on the Parliament Oak lands, which are completely surrounded by residential streetscapes — have been granted the rezoning requested by the applicants.

This despite the fact that each will irrevocably alter and, almost certainly, negatively impact their respective streetscapes and neighbourhoods for decades to come (for different, but similar, reasons).

Then, at the top of King Street, the Bice development appears to be sailing forward with no legal review of the Ontario Land Tribunal decision vis-à-vis errors in law.

Adding to this angst is this council’s decision to limit the time allowed for presentations by individuals, citizen groups and their third-party representatives during council meetings.

This action taken by council appears to be an attempt to deliberately deny Niagara-on-the-Lake voters the right to fully express the community’s position and inform their elected representatives of salient facts as perceived by town residents, in the recorded minutes of a council meeting.            

From all appearances and the recorded votes relative to these specific decisions — the majority of councillors, including the lord mayor — it seems that our officials are working with an agenda that does not include the general will of these communities as expressed to The Lake Report in letters to the editor and by this columnist, personally.

So, I thought it might be insightful to go back into the past and take a look at some of the platforms and promises that led to their election.

Let’s begin with Lord Mayor Gary Zalepa.

In a September 2022 interview with this columnist, then-candidate Zalepa made the following statements:

“People were always attracted to the quality of life (of Niagara-on-the-Lake) and I think that’s a mix of the neighborhoods and settings that people can find here and across our different villages in the town.”

“And that includes the built forms, the unique property structures and the amount of green space that they find compared to where they’re coming from.”

He continued regarding public sentiment vis-à-vis development: “Mostly what I hear is concern. I hear concern about the risk of perhaps losing what I started off trying to explain as important. I think people feel that and I think that’s real and I don’t think that’s perception. I think that’s a real concern.”

“Because let’s face it,” he continued, “people have chosen Niagara-on-the-Lake for the same reasons my family did at one time as well. And if we don’t address that, if we damage that, we threaten to break the very reason why we’re all here in the first place.”

“I think it’s really important that council then must go out into the different villages in the community and discuss what type of development is needed and what would be acceptable in each of the different communities and really get feedback for people to say look, this kind of form this structure is acceptable here or it’s not acceptable there.”

Finishing these particular comments with, “We’d love people in the community, to impart, you know, add (their) comments… and then I think we, as a council, bring that all back in, we distill it all and then identify what we can move forward on.”

From the Niagara Foundation’s candidate survey speaking to the issue of contextual appropriate development and community involvement in the planning process:

“Council can best be equipped by creating a clear set of guidelines and prescriptions in the town’s planning documents which guide clarity in development.”

“In the absence of clear planning direction the public engagement side tends to involve frustration and stress,” it stated.

“Council needs to establish clarifying policies so that proponents have a better understanding of what the community is expecting in development and at that point the community involvement would inform the process more intelligently.”

I interpret these statements, taken as a whole, to suggest a platform that promises to protect the existing cultural heritage landscapes in all its parts.

In addition, the platform promises engagement in the form of in organized outreach and subsequent discussion with voters to define what is acceptable and unacceptable development to thereafter be guided by that direction and to codify that direction into a “clear set of guidelines and prescriptions” that proponents and citizens alike would use to follow with respect to “acceptable development.”

Interesting that the lord mayor’s voting on the selection of issues cited are not consistent with these statements from his platform in 2022.

We have run out of race track for this week, but stay tuned, for next week we continue to compare how the councillors’ platforms compare to their voting.

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

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