Ward 6 Councillor Mark Grimes and the City planning group held a public meeting last night at the Assembly Hall to address the growing frustration of Long Branch residents who have been coping with an explosion of applications from developers to chop up 50 foot lots and over-build on the resulting long, thin properties. It was the right thing to invite the community to come together, to provide information about the process, and to hear the experiences of local residents. I am not alone when I say I very much appreciate the work done by the Councillor and his staff to prepare the material, and as well I appreciate that he and the planners showed up and listened to the experiences of residents of our community, some of which did not reflect positively on The City.
The current system worked fine for 30 or 40 years, before Long Branch was targeted by developers, back when the Committee of Adjustment spent more time talking about proposed decks and small additions than Consent to Sever applications by developers out to extract as much money as possible from local properties. Planners presented a slide demonstrating the spike in severance applications. Developers have discovered the preponderance of 50 foot lots in our community and see dollar signs.
The current process deals with single property applications but the community needs a broader, more robust process that addresses the bigger picture, a process that is inclusive of the concerns of all the stakeholders – residents as well as developers, planners and politicians. Some change is inevitable and reasonable in Long Branch, but change needs to be planned and managed when it is extraordinary, as we are witnessing in Long Branch.
At the meeting, residents spoke of developers who simply discounted the Committee of Adjustment. “I’ll just take it to the OMB” is the chorus many of us have heard. I’ve heard it myself. The stats presented by the planners bear this out. At the OMB, developers are simply much more likely to succeed with even the most aggressive development plans than they are at the Committee level. One of the planners talked about a plan that has been put forward for consideration in which the City could initiate a process to handle Committee of Adjustment appeals, effectively cutting the OMB out of the picture. I don’t know what it will take for this to happen, but based on my personal experience (which was frankly horrible) attempting an appeal to the OMB, I welcome any move for change.
It was good that planners explained how the full process worked when a developer applies for Consent to Sever, although it was clear that many residents in attendance (there was a crowd of perhaps 150 people), have learned a lot about the process simply through first hand experience. That is true for us. We have participated at both Committee and at the OMB and we have sat through Committee of Adjustment sessions to watch the process and decisions in action.
Here on lower Twenty Seventh Street, we have recently witnessed a nightmarish situation in which a developer applied to destroy six trees, and when the application was refused, destroyed the roots of the trees anyway, rendering the trees so unsafe they all had to be taken down. One of those trees was teetering so badly that residents from one home were asked by Urban Forestry to vacate their home for their own safety until a top section of one of the trees was removed to reduce the hazard. During this activity, residents contacted Urban Forestry and Councillor Grimes’ office (and other departments as well) and were asked to supply video and photos to the Forestry people, who we are told, are actively investigating. It was pointed out by a resident at the meeting, that the highest ever fine for the illegal destruction of a tree in Toronto has been $18,000 with the average considerably lower. At what point is a fine simply the cost of doing business for developers who are eyeballing huge profits? Nobody should be allowed to benefit from the illegal mass-destruction of trees. I have spoken with the Forestry manager, and I am convinced they are doing everything they can within their mandate to pursue their investigation. I worry though that with so much profit to be made, developers will simply ignore the rules and do as they please.
Neighbours have witnessed unsafe work practices (which were described at the meeting), including a worker, unharnessed, sent up in the bucket of a piece of heavy equipment to pull trees down with a chain. Days earlier, at the same job site, we suffered a power outage of several hours at the lower end of our street when contractors hit a power line with their heavy equipment. After my wife told the hydro officials what a worker told her had happened, a contractor walked over to our house where she was gardening, took photos of her and our house and our car, in what I can only imagine was an attempt to intimidate her, and asked her why she told the truth. We need much better oversight and enforcement, and neighbours need a phone list of who at the City to call when bad things like this happen. This was an extreme case, but everybody is watching, including all the developers.
The public meeting was a good first step, but it was only a first step. I would have liked to have seen minutes taken, all the questions and comments logged by City officials and take-aways noted. Not all residents who wanted to speak had an opportunity – and they need to be given full opportunity to provide feedback to the Councillor and City officials. Perhaps more regular meetings are needed. Certainly a strategy for the preservation of the character of Long Branch is needed before it is gone.
I understand that a new residents/neighbourhood group is being organized. I support this 100% and will be happy to participate and help out any way I can. At this time, I think we need an organized voice in our community. One thing that is clear to me is that as neighbours in Long Branch have been in touch with one another, we have all become more educated about how to be successful in addressing severance applications.
I am pleased and encouraged to see that Councillor Grimes has recently been active in opposing severance applications (for instance the application to sever 4 Twenty Seventh St which was refused by the Committee of Adjustment). We were told that planners will participate at OMB hearings when directed to; however they are not always directed to engage. In my view, that needs to be reviewed. One of the planners at the meeting pointed out that they had heard criticism of the effectiveness of their participation at the OMB and steps were being taken to address that. Given the strong concern expressed at the meeting, I believe it is important for our community that The City give this a great deal of focus so that the City’s objections to aggressive severances are heard loud and clear at the provincial level.
Seeing so many people from our community (including numerous Twenty Seventh Street residents, who came out in force) at the meeting, demonstrated the level of concern across the community – and as was pointed out loud and clear last night, for all of Long Branch and not just South Long Branch.
I think there needs to be more discussion around two key terms. What constitutes “minor” as in minor variance, and how do we define character in Long Branch.
One of the planners suggested there is case law that says that a change can be “100%” and still be considered minor. If everything is minor then we have a problem we will never solve. If this is an issue of case law, I would like to see the City explore that. There needs to be a loud conversation. If there is no definition there can never be any accountability for destructive decisions and that has to change. I don’t accept the absurd idea that we have to accept that minor can mean anything. We need to give minor variance some real meaning in our community. Proposed major changes should be treated differently than applications from a resident who wants to extend a garage on build a new deck.
We also need to have an active and robust discussion about what we mean by character and how the character of our neighbourhood can evolve in a way that is acceptable for all concerned. What makes our community special, different from others? How do we define this in the context of a neighbourhood that is not in fact homogeneous – Long Branch has evolved in such a way that we have a complex of characters forming the broader community, and that is part of what makes us unique. At the same time, our community character is influenced by many things we share, such as proximity to the lake, the isolation from other areas due to the tracks and the expressway, and the wonderful mature canopy (and associated bird and wildlife) we see through much of the community. I think we need to collectively begin to define this so we argue it as effectively as possible.