The Slessor appeal to the OMB kicks off next Friday (30 November) and, this afternoon, Newmarket’s councillors meet to decide their approach.
But first, why is the Slessor development so important?
Answer: It is the first of the really big developments that will shape and dominate the Town’s skyline for a generation. Slessors want to press ahead with their original proposal for twin towers of 26 and 29 storeys, an hotel and conference centre and a truly cavernous underground car park for over 1,300 vehicles.
If the twin towers ever get built they will have another high rise near neighbour. Planning permission for a 20 storey condo at the junction of Davis and George was sneaked through a few years ago when no-one was looking. The decision got no publicity and no questions were asked. Construction has yet to start.
Today’s Committee of the Whole concentrated almost exclusively on the cost of getting involved in Slessor’s OMB appeal.
Cllr Dave Kerwin wanted to know if the pre-hearing would be dealt with exclusively by Town staff. He was fearful that going to the OMB would cost an arm and a leg.
Councillor Maddie Di Muccio who is notoriously pro development, regardless of the consequences for local people, cautions against giving staff a blank cheque.
She tells her colleagues that the staff should not be able to authorise bringing in outside legal and planning experts without the specific prior approval of Council.
At an earlier meeting of the Committee of the Whole in October, Maddie ominously tells her council colleagues that
new developments are going to take residents out of their comfort zone
Sounds like she’s telling local people they will just have to get used to disruption, construction noise, dust and all the rest. And, at the end of the day, be saddled with an eyesore.
Anyway… We learn that a full OMB hearing is unlikely before Spring 2013 and that by early February Planning Staff will be in a position to bring their recommendations forward. A specific Council direction would be required to go to a full hearing of the Slessor appeal.
Now it is Tom Hempen taking the floor. He wants to know where things stand on the key issues of height, density and traffic.
We hear the planners have not agreed with the developers the methodology to be used for assessing density.
It is getting a tad technical but the bottom line is this.
Density, as proposed by the Slessors, is still significantly higher than the high end scenarios set out in the Town’s evolving Secondary Plan.
The senior planner in charge of the Slessor file, Marion Plaunt, tells Tom the Slessors have come up with a FSI of 3.8 and that the Planning Alliance (hired by the Town) is looking at how this fits in with the emerging outlines of the secondary plan.
Tom emphasises again that density is still very high.
Now it is the turn of Regional Councillor John Taylor who echoes Tom’s concerns about density. And traffic too. John says the development would be in one of the most congested areas of our town.
Like Dave Kerwin and Maddie Di Muccio, he is concerned about giving blanket approval to staff to incur costs at the OMB. He wants to know the scope of the appeal, the risks involved, the chances of success – as well as the potential costs.
Seems to me he has hit the nail on the head here.
As the Council prepares for the OMB pre hearing on 30 November, it will have to address the simple, straightforward question of why it failed to amend the zoning by law within the prescribed 120 days, as requested by the Slessors, and, secondly, while the Town failed to come to a decision within 180 days.
The answer is blindingly obvious.
The Slessor application was complex. It raised a thousand issues which the Town and the Region had to address and it was simply not possible to come to a decision within the time period without cutting corners.
Now Rob Prentice, the Commissioner for Community Services, is warning that outside experts need to be lined up well in advance. They can’t be hired late in the day and brought up to speed at the drop of a hat.
Jane Twinney, who rarely says much, pronounces that she is not “comfortable” (a favourite word at Mulock Drive) with giving staff open ended authorisation to commit funds to prepare for the OMB hearing.
Keeper of the Purse Strings, Dave Kerwin, memorably warns that
“2013 could be pungent with legal litigation”
He wants to know how much the Town has earmarked for outside experts. The Director of Legal Services, Esther Armchuk-Ball, tells him there is a reserve.
This doesn’t satisfy Maddie who says councillors shouldn’t authorise staff to retain outside legal and planning consultants when they, the councillors, didn’t know the staff recommendation for the Slessor appeal or, indeed, the legal ins-and-outs. (Both true)
Chris Emanuel innocently asks for information on the time between the pre-hearing (30 November) and the full hearing (if it goes there).
We learn that staff expect a full hearing in the Spring.
So why can’t staff update Councillors after the pre hearing on 30 November when things are clearer? Coucillors need an understanding of what is involved if the appeal goes to a full hearing.
Now it is back to Esther, the Director of Legal Services, who reveals that a full hearing could take three to four weeks and that retaining professional help and getting potential witnesses (to back the council’s position) could not be left to the last moment.
She tells councillors a lot of discussions may have to take place well in advance of the full hearing and not having outside planning help “may be limiting”.
The Mayor, Tony Van Bynen, steps in with a good question.
If we are to go to a full hearing of the OMB should we engage people for the pre-hearing on 30 November?
Esther, the Town's top legal eagle, says that in an ideal world it would be better to engage people as soon as possible but it probably wouldn’t harm the Town’s position if we got people afterwards and brought them up to speed.
John Taylor returns to the money theme asking for a rough estimate of the cost of going to the OMB.
Chris Emanuel thinks it may cost an eyewatering $100,000 per week.
The Legal Services Director says she is more Conservative, estimating the cost at around $50,000 - $100,000 per week. Still enough to make you mop your brow.
Marion Plaunt winds up by saying Planning Staff have been proceeding “fairly cautiously” on the Slessor file since the developers lodged their appeal with the OMB. There are many areas where no agreement has been reached and these are set out in attachment 6 of the committee report.
By now, there is a feeling that the councillors have squeezed the orange dry and it is agreed to return to the issue at the first opportunity following the OMB pre hearing on 30 November.
This probably means a report to the Committee of the Whole meeting on 3 December. It is scheduled for a Budget discussion but Slessor could be taken.
By then, the Council needs to get its act together and settle on its approach to the twin towers development.
Councillors must realise it is not just about the cost of resisting the Slessor appeal to the OMB.
It is about creating the kind of Town we all want to live in.
A town shaped by the people who live here and not by profit hungry developers.