The battle for the future of Newmarket’s Glenway neighbourhood started in earnest today and I am here to chronicle the tale as it unfolds.

Marianneville Developments wants to shoehorn a staggering 730 new residential units of assorted shapes and sizes onto the former fairways and greens of the Glenway golf course which closed for business in October 2011.

The developers bought the open space in 2010 for a trifling $10 million. Their plans involve building on 61% of the open space they purchased with the remainder being set aside for a nine hole “executive” golf course.

This morning, I am in the Council Chamber at Mulock Drive observing the polite formalities of the Ontario Municipal Board (OMB) pre-hearing that will set the timetable and agree the modalities for the hearing proper which is pencilled in for eight long weeks starting on 3 March 2014.

The Mayor is here, sitting at the back, keeping an eye on things and I see Chris Emanuel, Jane Twinney, Tom Hempen and the elusive Joe Sponga.

We are here because the Town of Newmarket hasn’t yet come to a view on whether building on the old golf course is a good thing or not. We learn this slothfulness prompts the developer to appeal to the OMB.

The planning lawyer, Ira Kagan, who last appeared in Newmarket for the Slessors, is again acting for the developers.

And he follows precisely the same script.

He tells OMB adjudicator, Jason Chee-Hing, that Marianneville will make a “without prejudice” settlement offer (just like Slessor Square) which, he says, will be submitted “within a week or so”.

He intones: “It is my hope that the Town planning staff will be able to report on the offer in a public report.”

Kagan is a sly old fox!

This tactic worked with Slessor Square, where pusillanimous councillors retreated at the first whiff of grapeshot, so why not try the same formulation again?

He has it all mapped out. The Town staff could have their recommendations ready by October and, he says, we could reconvene in November to find out what the Glenway Preservation Association thinks.

The anticipated second pre-hearing could then be turned into a settlement hearing. Straight out of the Slessor Square play book.

Now calendars are consulted. Diaries are checked.

The Town’s Lawyer, Esther Armchuck-Ball, shakes her head and tells us the planners will not be able to report until late October.

Why on earth so long? They are not deciphering the Dead Sea Scrolls.

Where on earth is the sense of urgency?

When she suggests a decision on the date for the full OMB hearing could be postponed until December she is given short shrift by Kagan and the Chair who both say no, smiling.

Jay Feehley, the lawyer acting for the Glenway Preservation Association, questions whether an eight week full hearing is required. He says it is unnecessarily long but his protestations too are steamrollered.

Now the Adjudicator has to decide who gets Party status (which brings full rights to cross examine witnesses) and who has to settle for being a Participant.

Participants say their piece and then sit at the back of the class, mute thereafter.

Now Feehley announces that the Glenway Preservation Association seeks Party status (no surprises there) but also wants to appeal against the Town’s failure to reach a decision on the Marianneville proposals.

Kagan leaps to his feet, announcing theatrically that such a manoeuvre would not be legal! He has checked the Act! Only the Minister can do something or other.

I am waiting for Feehley to respond with a quick one, two to Kagan’s chin. But Feehley stays seated. He is not inclined to trade punches. 

(I thought the brothers-in-law were supposed to share such information beforehand.)

Now a rather intense Jeff Brown steps forward. He represents the Glenway Community Group and seeks Party status.

Bizarrely, he accuses the Glenway Preservation Association of being run by Liberals, with a capital “L”. What relevance has this to anything?

The difference between the GPA and his group is that he seeks compensation should the development be given the green light.

He says he wanted a planning advisory committee set up in 2010 when Mariannville bought the golf course but his pleas fell on deaf ears. The proposed development has progressed without proper oversight.

He says it is unreasonable not to compensate people who will lose money as a result of any development. And, to rub salt into the wounds, he and others are faced with a tax burden to defend Glenway against the developer.

He wants to appeal to the Courts against any adverse OMB decision.

Brown is given participant, not Party, status. The Adjudicator tells him that compensation is not a proper planning consideration.

Now Jane Ross from the York Region district school board asks for participant status. She wants an elementary school considered “as part of the site”.

Someone from Mosaic Homes, with a development next door to Glenway, also gets the OK to appear. 

The whole process is enormously drawn out with, it seems, half of Ontario going to the OMB with appeals against developments of one sort or another.

The OMB is creaking under the strain.

And so is our entire discredited planning system.

We now wait nervously for the planners’ recommendations on the settlement offer, no doubt chiseled on tablets of stone. 

But it doesn’t have to be like this.

Our elected officials should demand to know the planners’ thinking even before they put pen to paper.

And, if necessary, our councillors should grill the planners at length, and in public, on their reasoning and conclusions.

I know I would.        

I marvel at Bob Forrest’s chutzpah.

He wants to construct a huge condo on Main Street South that will permanently disfigure the face of Newmarket’s historic downtown but doesn’t own all the land he needs to pull it off.

On 21 June, his colleague, Chris Bobyk, gave a presentation to councillors outlining the latest “iteration”.

The developer is planning to shave off one storey but intends to enlarge the footprint of the condo to ensure the number of units remains the same.

However, extending the building westwards towards the public library means the development will encroach on Town land. The Forrest development, as currently envisaged, can only proceed if the Town sells land to the developer or comes to some other kind of arrangement.

This rather important fact was omitted from Bobyk’s presentation.

We have long known the developer wanted to excavate under Town owned Market Square for the underground car park but the latest land grab comes as a surprise.

Forrest is already in negotiations with Michael Bryan who owns properties on Main Street that are needed if the monster Clock Tower development is to go ahead.

My spies tell me that Bryan has been offered $1.7m – but only on condition that the developer gets all the necessary approvals from the Town.

No planning application has, as yet, been formally submitted to the Town.  Forrest is getting his ducks lined up in a row first.

Meanwhile, I see that the Town has received a grant of $18,542 from the Province’s Creative Communities Fund “to develop a downtown arts, cultural, heritage and economic development action plan”.

We are not short of plans.

Just a reluctance to implement fully the ones we already have.

The Committee of the Whole meets on 26 August to consider a staff report on the Town’s Heritage Conservation District policy and whether a By Law is needed to give it teeth. 

A Heritage By Law could be a reality within months.

A by law which would put into effect all the provisions of Newmarket's downtown Heritage Conservation District policy is going to the Committee of the Whole on Monday 26 August.

The Conservation District policy was endorsed by the Council in 2011 but was not fully implemented because the money hadn't been earmarked.

People are fed up with the endless - and pointless - foot dragging on this issue.

Either the Town's heritage is worth saving or it is not. 

Take the vote. Pass the by law. And protect the Town's priceless heritage.

I wrote to Tony Van Bynen, the Mayor of Newmarket, on 30 April 2013 urging him to take immediate steps to bring forward a By Law to create a Heritage Conservation District on Main Street South.

Developers, I said, are knocking at the door.

The Mayor asked the Director of Planning and Building Services, Rick Nethery, to reply on his behalf and he tells me that funding would be sought in the 2014 Budget. The Director says:

“While I don’t expect a specific report on the Heritage Conservation District by law, I do expect that its resources will be part of the budget request.”

Mr Nethery tells me in a later exchange that

 “…the by-law adopting a Heritage Conservation District is required to fully implement the District Plan and have it be in full force and effect. While we utilize the (Heritage Conservation District) Plan to assist in evaluating proposals, the passing of an adopting by-law gives the Plan its Official status.”

On Monday 17 June, Newmarket’s Committee of the Whole sat through a formal presentation on the proposed Clock Tower development given by Chris Bobyk (see earlier blog post).

Councillors now know what is in the developer’s mind even though no formal application has been lodged.

The Clock Tower building at 180 Main Street South is designated under the Ontario Heritage Act, but the Town’s planners tell us the historic commercial buildings at 184, 188 and 194 Main Street South have not been formally adopted by the Council“and as such have no legal standing under the Ontario Heritage Act”.

Clearly this leaves a gaping hole in the Town’s defences if the Council decides to resist the Clock Tower redevelopment.

The drafting of an implementing by law is the work of moments.

For reasons now obvious to all, it should be done without further delay.

A special meeting of Newmarket’s Committee of the Whole met yesterday (Monday 17 June)  to hear Chris Bobyk from the Forrest Group explain why the Town's historic Main Street needs a shiny new condo building, sitting immediately behind and dwarfing the iconic Clock Tower.

With a straight face, Bobyk assures councillors his goal is “to preserve the historic character of Main Street”. His boss, the close cropped self styled “entrepreneur”, Bob Forrest, is equally impassive but inside he is laughing.

We are told the developers are listening to what people want and they have modified the Clock Tower plans accordingly.

One storey is to be removed but, to compensate, the footprint of the new condo is to be extended out towards Newmarket’s Public Library.

There will be 145 apartments and six commercial retail units – exactly the same as the earlier proposal.

The developers have set back parts of the new condo to improve sightlines. They have replaced brick with glass here and there. They have employed heritage consultants to advise them and we are told their views have informed the redesign.

It is all complete cobblers. This is how they get their approvals. They put forward something completely outrageous and then make it slightly less so.

The planners recommend councillors "receive" their report on the Clock Tower. This means they don’t want any discussion. But the councillors are allowed to quiz the developers - but only to clarify points.

My heart sinks.

I expect to see a line of councillors, faces as blank and expressionless as Easter Island statues, saying nothing.

Here is their opportunity. They can ask a zillion questions of the developer. And, for good measure, they can grill the Town’s own professional planning staff whose report on the Clock Tower is inadequate.

The Clock Tower is in his patch but Ward 5 councillor Joe Sponga is absent. His empty chair speaks volumes.

Tom Vegh and Dave Kerwin say nothing.

John Taylor mentions the reduction in height and notes the number of apartments stays the same.

He asks Bobyk how far away the proposed development is from the GO station. Bobyk stutters and shakes his head. He has got the note somewhere but it is not to hand.

Now Taylor asks about parking issues. Who doesn’t?

Jane Twinney wants to know if the 80 parking stalls allocated to the Town (at a cost to the Town of $30,000 each) are underground? Yes, says Bobyk, adding triumphantly that there will be elevators too!

Twinney coos: “I do really like this development! Much better than the previous one.”

Now it is the turn of Chris Emanuel who starts with parking issues before asking a series of process questions about the statutory public meeting and so on. He likes the process stuff.

Now he asks Bobyk how the proposed development fits into the Town’s Cultural Master Plan, as claimed by the developer.

Bobyk appears flustered. He tells us “potters or artists” could take out a lease on the commercial spaces in the complex. Oh dear! Is that the best he can do?

We move on…

In the planners’ covering report to the Committee there is not a single reference to the decision of the Town’s Heritage Advisory Committee in April to reject the Clock Tower development.

Now Ward 4’s Tom Hempen wants to know if the developer will be meeting the Committee again and if its view will be reported in due course to the Council.

Bobyk says the Advisory committee had concerns about the building’s height, mass and scale (which doesn’t leave a lot). He plans to meet the Chair, Athol Hart, after this meeting and before the formal planning application is submitted to the Town.

Right on cue comes Maddie Di Muccio with a staccato series of questions that cleverly puts the developer on the spot.

She wants to know if the proposed development fits in with existing policy. What about the obvious conflicts with the Town’s Heritage Conservation District Plan, endorsed by the Council in 2011?

She asks how the proposal squares with the Conservation Districts height cap – two to three storeys max.

Maddie is on good form, asking the probing questions too often ignored by others.

She wants to know what people at the meeting on 4 April, where the proposed redevelopment was first unveiled, thought about it all.

I hear Bobyk say there were about 200 people there and the views split 50:50.

A complete invention! No vote was taken and the mood was politely sceptical.

Now Maddie innocently asks why staff time and resources are going into a proposed development where there is, as yet, no formal application.

Alas, this is how the system works. Private meetings are held between Town planning staff and developers before proposals are floated in public. Developers want to test the water.

Proposals can be changed and tweaked in endless “iterations” before the planners are confident enough to sign the project off.  The councillors then rubber-stamp the planners’ decision.

(In this case, the planners’ report says the Owner has met with staff, giving the clear impression that Bob Forrest owns the entire site. He doesn’t. He owns the Clock Tower residence. He is negotiating to buy out the other landowner.)

The Town’s Chief Planner, Rick Nethery, tells Maddie the developer’s formal application will be evaluated against the policies set out in the Conservation District Plan.

I am left wondering what the developer will do about sightlines, vistas and panoramas that are highlighted in all the official literature on Heritage Conservation Districts.

The Province of Ontario says this in its heritage toolkit:

“The significance of a heritage conservation district often extends beyond its built heritage, structures, streets, landscape and other physical and spatial elements to include important vistas and views between and towards buildings and spaces within the district.”

The Forrest Group’s proposals would obliterate views of the Clock Tower from Lorne looking down Park Avenue.

The view down Main Street South from the brow of the hill would be destroyed.

The historic downtown skyline as seen from Prospect would be changed forever.

Now it is the turn of members of the public who found out about the meeting by luck and good fortune.

First up is Bob Buchan, President of the Newmarket Historical Society. He is speaking in a personal capacity. He doesn’t want councillors to rush into a decision and urges caution.

Chris Morris echoes these concerns. He wonders if six storeys on Main Street could set a precedent and that the now empty King George School on Park Avenue could become the next bone of contention with developers.

Many speakers fear a precedent would be set with ripple developments down Main Street destroying the historic Town Centre. This is something the planners do not address.

Now it is Ron Caister’s turn.

Ron is from the Town’s Heritage Advisory Committee and a man of few words. The little he says has great resonance. He tells Bobyk bluntly the development is way too big and would dominate the downtown.

I hear murmurs of approval around me.

Jackie Player steps forward to say her piece, amplifying the points made in her letter supporting the proposed development. She sweetly tells us she loves the old downtown but she loves the development too! She is convinced both can happily live together.

Now a blistering contribution from Dave Hunter who owns the furniture and upholstery business on Main Street “Lemon and Lime”.

In a gripping display of suppressed outrage he turns on Chris Bobyk who told us earlier that feedback on the proposed development from business owners on Main Street had been positive.

Not so.

Dave reels off a list of business owners on Main who would reject that categorisation.

He tears into Bobyk, accusing him of misleading the Committee.

The pot is now coming to a fast boil.

The Mayor wants to cool things down.

Now Ann Martin, a property owner on Main Street, has her say.

She is not against condos but it would be nice on Davis Drive. Not on Main Street.

It is a sentiment shared by many.

Now the Mayor winds up, thanking everyone for their views, promising there will be plenty of opportunities to make our voices heard.

He always says that.

And we buy the line when we should know better.