A controversial plan to build 28 townhouses on protected meadowland at Silken Laumann Drive in Newmarket, sandwiched between a hydro corridor and the GO railway track, looks certain to be approved by the Ontario Municipal Board on Monday (28 September 2015) after the Town and developer struck a deal.

The Town desperately wants to avoid the cost of going to the OMB for a full Hearing – estimated at $100,000-$150,000 – even though few believe the development represents good planning. The ward councillor, Tom Vegh, voted for the proposed development despite proclaiming it is way too close to the railway.

Silken Laumann is another shining example of a planning system that is truly deformed – where approval in principle is given before all the details are fully worked out. Slessor Square, a barren plot in a prime site in central Newmarket, empty for years, provides the case study par excellence of this approach.

On 14 September councillors agreed that the Silken Laumann development could proceed leaving loose ends to be tied up later in discussions between the Town and developer. Councillors also wanted some significant community benefit from the developer as the price for allowing development on protected meadowland. Their decision is premature at best; cavalier at worst.

Resolve issues now – not later

As recently as 20 August 2015, Burnside, the Town’s consulting engineers who reviewed the developer’s plans, raised questions about culverts under the railway which were not shown in the plans. They said the stormwater management area, next to the railway corridor, was not big enough. They told the Planning Department:

“Our preference is that all the outstanding issues be addressed at this time, although we acknowledge that some issues can be deferred to the detailed engineering design stage with appropriate draft plan conditions.”

Metrolinx sets conditions for the development

Earlier this week Metrolinx gave the Town’s planners conditions it expects to see incorporated into the so-called “Draft Conditions of Approval”. The developer must comply with these conditions if the project is to proceed. These were not available to councillors on 14 September and will be kept from the public until after Monday’s OMB Hearing.

We do not know if the Metrolinx conditions are significant or inconsequential.

These draft conditions will morph into the “terms of settlement” that will be put before the OMB Hearing on Monday 28 September 2015.

Until earlier this week, the sole comment from Metrolinx focused on whether a safety berm was or was not needed. (When the developer decided to add additional height to the site by using fill, Metrolinx agreed that a safety berm was not needed because of the difference in grade between the railway and townhouses.)

Twinning the train track

Councillors had no information on whether the track at Silken Laumannn would be twinned and whether that might involve widening the rail corridor. One of my well connected spies tells me a second track and electrification can be accommodated within the existing corridor and, in any event, there is no guarantee that the track will be twinned.

Fair enough. But councillors had no information before them on 14 September showing what Metrolinx has in mind for the 6km of railway through Newmarket. Senior staff at the meeting were unable to shed any light on its thinking.

However, we do know that Greg Percy, the President of GO transit and the person responsible for the roll-out of Regional Express Rail, told the Metrolinx Board in September 2014:

“We know one new track will be required pretty much along the full length of the (Barrie) corridor because much of it is single track today. We need to double track that corridor and it also includes quite a few road and rail grade separations along the way.”

  The Metrolinx Board heard on 25 June 2015 that an    Environmental Assessment of the Barrie corridor was currently under way and is scheduled for completion in December 2016. It is looking at additional track from Parkdale (Toronto) to Allandale (Barrie) and a layover facility north of Bradford. We do not know where that additional track will necessarily be laid but the accompanying graphic – which went to the same Board meeting - clearly shows the possibility of twin tracking to East Gwillimbury. (Work on twin tracking between Rutherford and York University is currently underway.)

New GO Rail Station – a stone’s throw from the Silken Laumann development – is ignored

Although I raised the issue in my presentation to councillors on 14 September, there was no discussion of the possible impact of the development on the proposed new GO rail station at Mulock Drive or vice versa. The Town’s own consolidated Official Plan (2014) says

“conflicts between railway facilities and adjacent land uses shall be minimized where possible”.

Indeed, a report by the Director of Engineering to councillors on 23 April 2015 recommended that Metrolinx be invited to give a presentation to Council in which the new rail station would feature.

“The Town has a policy in its Official Plan (2006) about a potential new station in the industrial area on Mulock Drive. It would be an opportunity to discuss this concept with Metrolinx in the context of the new Regional Express Rail program.”

Questions about the footprint of the proposed GO rail station on the south side of Mulock Drive were simply left unaddressed by councillors.

The OMB Hearing on the Silken Laumann development will be held at 10am on Monday 28 September 2015 in the Training Room at the Town’s Operations Centre, 1275 Maple Hill Court (off Harry Walker Parkway). It is open to members of the public.

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