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Is Long Branch becoming a city planning battleground?

Yesterday, what I consider to be a wrong-headed  one page leaflet was dropped into my mailbox and in the mailboxes of my neighbours, criticizing something called the Urban Design Guidelines Template.

What is the Urban Design Guidelines Template?

City Planning has initiated a study for the creation of a “Template” for Neighbourhood Urban Design Guidelines and an accompanying “How-To” Manual. These documents are intended to be used by those communities that wish to prepare neighbourhood specific design guidelines. The Template will enable residents and community groups to develop tailored design guidelines that address change occurring in their neighbourhood, while ensuring consistent content and format with other neighbourhood specific design guidelines throughout the City. It is anticipated that as neighbourhoods develop their own guidelines, they can be consolidated over time, to create an amalgamated guidelines document with neighbourhood specific design guidelines covering neighbourhoods across the city.

Additional information can be found here.

The unsigned letter I received (it was signed off only: Concerned, Residents of “Long Branch Diversified”) framed this as a template “of what you can or can’t do to your property.” The letter suggests the guidelines will “restrict the homeowner’s personal tastes and unique expression and possibly not reflect the owner’s needs.” It calls the guidelines a “subdivision style” set of rules that will “hinder the Diversity, Self-expression and Unique Character of Long Branch.” It goes on to suggest that “we cannot let this controlling behaviour dictate in such a communist fashion.” The letter was also a petition, asking neighbours to not support the Urban Design Guidelines Template, and further suggesting the contract with the firm contracted by the city to facilitate the process and develop the guidelines be terminated.

I believe that the issue at the core of this is lot-splitting in Long Branch. In the past few years, our community has come under extensive development pressure – in particular there has been a sharp increase in applications to sever 50 foot lots, and throughout south Long Branch we have seen pairs of what are being referred to as “soldier houses” popping up. These are very tall, narrow and deep homes, with integrated garages, making them de facto 3-storey structures. As near as I can tell, every successful severance in the area has resulted in a pair of these very similar homes. It seems this is the formula for making lots and lots of money from these properties. They all look basically the same and they’re chipping away at the unique character of our community.

The leaflet referred to diversity, and when I read it, I recalled the hired-gun planner at the last Committee of Adjustment hearing I attended attempt to make an argument that the severance/soldier homes concept was all about diversity. I spoke at that hearing and made the point that these applications could hardly be about diversity when they all look the same. No matter what arcane planning language you couch these applications in, we’ve all seen these developments make the neighbourhood more homogeneous and less unique. I believe these developments are all about profitability, and that’s it.

What is this unique character?

In Long Branch it is not a situation in which there is a particular style of house or size of house. In fact the community is remarkably diverse and has developed organically that way slowly over the years. Long Branch once was a cottage community for Toronto, and was not part of the City until the most recent amalgamation in 1998. Prior to that, it was part of the City of Etobicoke, although most long-time residents I’ve talked to preferred to just call the community Long Branch, or grudgingly, part of so-called South Etobicoke. It is one of a group of lakefront communities, starting in the east with Mimico, then New Toronto, Long Branch, and west into what is now Mississauga, Lakeview and Port Credit. These communities have retained a kind of separateness because of the natural boundary (the lake) to the south, and the man-made boundaries (the expressway and the rail tracks) to the north, and residents still like to use the original names.

One feature of our community is that we have not had cookie-cutter architecture until the recent spate of soldier houses. There are still some of the original cottages around, and many small bungalows on large lots. There are some huge homes along Lake Promenade, the street that runs along the lake front. The homes in Long Branch north of Lake Promenade (with the exception of a couple sets of apartments) are mostly single-family dwellings of various sizes, styles and configurations, mostly (but not entirely) modest homes, many of which are on large lots in the 50X150 foot range. There is plenty of green space and lots of mature trees around the homes. When we first came to Long Branch to look at the home we ended up buying, I parked in front of the little bungalow across the street (where a pair of soldier houses is now being constructed) and thought, “It’s like Muskoka in the city.” That quality was one of the things drawing us to this community.

The amazing canopy around here is also a big draw for migratory birds. Col. Sam Smith Park, down the street is known as a “migration trap”, a resting spot for birds migrating north or south. It attracts birders from long distances. The appearance of the soldier homes has without exception meant significant loss of mature trees. In fact at 2 Twenty Seventh Street, 6 mature trees were destroyed without a permit. Further up the street at the site of a pair of soldier homes, it took a couple years for the magnificent mature tree in the front yard of the property to die off, but die it did – it was cut down this year.

A Perfect Storm

Long Branch was a stable community for many years. The current system of addressing variances – the Committee of Adjustment with the Ontario Municipal Board there for any appeals, worked fairly well during that period of stability. This system successfully dealt with applications from homeowners for a bigger deck or an addition that might be a tad bigger than than the by-laws allowed. I don’t think anyone imagined the sharp increase in development pressure which was to come.

I believe a number of factors contributed to the development pressure. There are a lot of homeowners in Long Branch who have been here for 40 or 50 years or longer, and their circumstances are changing. At the same time, housing prices have been rising sharply and interest rates have remained low. There are a remarkable number 50 foot lots in the community, and it seems these have become irresistible to the builder/developer community. There is a lot of money to be made by splitting lots in Long Branch and builders and developers are snapping up houses in an effort to grab a piece of that tasty Long Branch pie. I regularly receive calls from real estate agents who tell me they have clients looking for a property in the area. Some homes in the area have been sold without ever being listed.

Learning to Fight

When we moved to Twenty Seventh Street, I naively thought our community was protected by the Official Plan. It specifically directs increases in density to the main streets in Toronto communities – in our case that means Lakeshore Blvd – and not in the neighbourhoods. We are now seeing a sharp increase in density along Lakeshore Blvd, with hundreds of new units opening up a few blocks west of here. I think there are benefits to that development for business along the Lakeshore business strip. Yet we are seeing the planning bodies approve increased density in the neighbourhoods.

I was surprised when we started to see applications to split lots around here. Again, I confess I was naive. We didn’t know how to fight. We didn’t know the ins and outs of the official plan. We didn’t understand planning language. These are things my neighbours and I began to learn by necessity along the way. When we started attending and speaking at the Committee of Adjustment we learned there were “hired gun” planners and city hall insiders and lawyers involved, people who make their living making these planning arguments. We learned that even things like the word “minor” as in “minor variance” did not have a clear meaning.

We learned to frame arguments in language the Committee of Adjustment would listen to. We learned that letters just were not enough, and that objections had to be raised in person. Neighbours are now better connected and better organized, and at the Committee of Adjustment level at least, have become more successful in fighting severances. At the same time, the number of severance applications continues to increase.

Some residents have banded together to form a neighbourhood association, in an effort to bring an organized voice to this and other issues. I’m not part of that group, and I can’t really assess how successful they’ve been so far – but I’m hopeful that this kind of organization can only help.

One member of our community introduced another way to fight. He had “stop the lot splitting signs” made up and he has distributed them to interested residents. They are now on lawns throughout south Long Branch. Will the signs help? I don’t know. If nothing else they show a remarkable solidarity in our community on the lot splitting issue.

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On my morning dog-walk, I stopped to chat with a neighbour who says he has been followed around when delivering signs and that his home has been egged. Other neighbours have reported finding their signs ripped from the ground. It’s hard to believe but true. Looks like the signs are making some people very unhappy.

The current system is broken

The current system, as I mentioned, worked fine when Long Branch wasn’t under development pressure. Now, residents who oppose severance applications are expected to take time off work and attend hearings and are expected to be versed in the appropriate by-laws and language, and even when they do it very well, some decisions just don’t make much sense.

At the OMB, concerns of neighbours are heard, but from the decisions I’ve read it appears they are not given a lot of weight. On a number of more recent files, Councillor Grimes has directed planners and lawyers to oppose appeals of Committee of Adjustment decisions at the OMB. The very fact that the OMB often finds against the City at these appeals is an indicator that the system is broken.

Inject some Planning

When a community like ours comes under serious development pressure, we need to see some planning that goes beyond the individual hearings. The Urban Design Guidelines Template is an effort to inject greater planning into the process. I think it is a useful and positive exercise to look at what is important in our neighbourhoods. What is worth preserving? It looks to me that this process gives residents a greater voice in the planning process and forces a more careful examination of what makes up character in a neighbourhood.

I support the Urban Design Guidelines process. I don’t believe this initiative will hinder the diversity, self-expression and unique character of Long Branch. Instead, I think it is a step towards saving it.

What do you think? This topic is open for discussion.

 

 

 

 

 

20 Comments

  1. Sergio

    More single homes means way less parking. And I will loose my mind when they gona start charging us for street parking just because someone wanted to make some big bucks from lot splitting.

    With new dedicated streetcar lanes coming it will be a traffic nightmare as it is.

  2. LBD

    I’m sorry Eugene I posted this on the Long Branch Village page and it should have been here.

    I’m sorry Eugene Knapik but at the first UDG meeting SVN Architects & Planners Inc. told everyone that this has nothing to do about severances. It is design related and not lot size related. Therefore it applies to every resident. No other area in Toronto is subjected to these guidelines (except maybe willowdale if it is voted in). The true intent has not been disclosed and this will increase the time and money owners trying to make changes will most likely incur. The increase time and expense will by way of having to conform to UDG or having to appeal the guidelines.
    The fact is the majority of the 10,000 Long Branch residents did not ask for this. It is not even 1% or less of the residents. Why add extra hardships to property owners for no reason at all. Long branch is diversified.
    If residents are concerned about the style of new housing, they can address it directly with the owners during the application process. That’s why the process involves the neighbours.
    I’m sure you noticed it happening at the committee meeting when neighbours have questions or concerns and require clarification.

    Unfortunately Long Branch is diverse and has no particular character. The community exhibits all the styles that Brian Lib wrote about just above. The Boston and San Francisco examples that he used are good for a UDG and if Long Branch had that then it would make total sense, unfortunately it doesn’t.
    You cannot create a defining character in a community that has absolutely none. It is simply an area built by homeowners according to their taste, budgets and required uses at the time of construction. An urban design guideline is for new construction developments and additions that would change the home. 
    UDG cannot be applied in diverse Long Branch.
    Homeowners will lose the right to self-expression and the unique diversity this community has embraced and enjoyed.

    No certified professional planner has been able to give Long Branch a specific character.
    The real question is why is such a small group of individuals trying to fabricate one using tax dollars not approved by the community.
    This UDG study was not voted in by Long Branch Residents. 
    These types of added restrictions are uncalled for and not required.
    Even Brian Lib is his post above cannot tell you what the character is. He just describes what a UDG could be used for and that should tell you a lot about his post. 

    Eugene Knapik hasn’t talked about the middle portion of the petition letter just about the severances, which has been already addressed.

    Here is the letter just to clarify everything.

    Dear Neighbour:
    Many of you are unaware of a big change that is coming to the Long Branch Community. It is called the Urban Design Guidelines Template. (U.D.G.). The U.D.G. is going to be a template of what you can or can’t do to your property. We already have a set of by-laws and the Committee of Adjustments to address standards of height, area and setbacks however the U.D.G. will go further and control the style and appearance of the property. It will restrict the homeowner’s personal tastes and unique expression and possibly not reflect the owner’s needs. This ‘subdivision style’ set of rules and regulations will hinder the Diversity, Self-expression and Unique Character of Long Branch.
    The U.D.G was initiated by Counselor Mark Grimes, City Planning Staff and a small number of anti-change residents. On 02/24/16 the city contracted this project to S.V.N Architects & Planners Inc. for a fee of $92,890.00, which is paid with our tax dollars. A public meeting was held on 05/17/16 so that the community could be involved and vote in the almost 7 month process of making the U.D.G. However, during an Ontario Municipal Board hearing on July 4/5 2016, a member of city planning referenced rules and regulations from the U.D.G., a guide that supposedly does not exist. Further they stated that the U.D.G. is set and will be implemented in the new year. How can this be when the analysis isn’t over till December? Is the ‘Process’ a façade to hide political maneuvering? Where is the truth? Where is the vote?

    Residents of Long Branch PLEASE be aware of the impact this ‘Guide’ will have on your property and rights. We cannot let this controlling behaviour dictate in such a communist fashion. Its time to raise your voice and be heard!!! This signed petition can be scanned or photographed and emailed to lbdiversified@gmail.com or message us on Facebook Long Branch Diversified for at home pick up. Do not hesitate to contact us for more information. Its time to ensure our rights and freedom of expression are safe.

    Concerned,
    Residents of “Long Branch Diversified”

    ———————————————————————————————————————————–

    I ________________________________________________________ do not support the Urban Design Guidelines Template. I wish to see the contract with S.V.N Architects & Planners Inc. Terminated.

    SIGNATURE
    E-MAIL
    MAILING ADDRESS

    • Greg Louganis

      Irrespective of the hotly debated goals of the UDG, lot severances applications in Long Branch are 100% about maximising DEVELOPER PROFIT. Period.

      Developers can make more PROFIT $ building two houses on one property, then they can building one house. Further to this, there is a method that has been used for avoiding half of the capital gains with the two house approach..

      Contrary to the diversionary tactics used, at the core, this is not about building diversity, or affordable housing ( many of these soldier houses are now on the market for (1.15-1.3 Million). These diversionary arguments are a smokescreen and detract from the real issue – lot severances.

      Many LB residents who are actively following this ongoing disagreement have heard the severance focused LB soldier house developers openly and regularly brag how they expect to lose at the COA and win at the OMB – because the OMB does not materially consider local planning bylaws and decisions at the city level COA that are based on taxpayer paid city planner recommendations . These same individual developers also brag about how they will put a family member in the first soldier house for a year so they can avoid paying capital gains on one of the two houses. It’s true. Look it up in the tax code.

      The amount of money taxpayers are subsidising (cost of COA, OMB, city planners, city lawyers, city council votes) for this lot severance charade via COA (usually lose) then OMB (usually win) , and in some cases when they lose at both, a application to the COA then OMB process a SECOND time because they had already lost their case twice is staggering.

      Again, this is about profit, NOT about developer support of “diversity”. Let’s be honest.

      If the spirit of the bylaws are not maintained by an application to sever a property, then it should not be approved by the COA or by the OMB. Period.

      • LBD

        Greg you are like many ignorant residents who don’t want to admit the true situation and state of long branch in regards to values for property versus the quality of housing available.
        This is simply an economic question. If current Long branch residents owned newer high value properties, people would just build one home on large lots.
        The current situation is more like expensive old small housing on large lots. Current renovated and modest size houses on a large lot is around the 1.6 M
        Purchasing an old 800 to 1000 square-foot home (Over $1,000 per Sq.Ft.) on a large lot for over $1 million does not leave any room to even build one new house and achieve any value in Longbranch.
        Banks and Appraisers will never support the values required in that situation.
        Perhaps Greg you should be leading the way in showing newcomers to Longbranch how building one new big home is the way to go.
        Modest size detach homes fit the character of long branch. There is no large and affordable mansions. Modest sized detached homes are required. Large lots with expensive old homes are not desirable.
        New families are looking for newer homes and less importance to lot size and maintenance. Preferably homes with an attached garage. Nice, cozy and convenient living.

        Long Branch has been going through severance since the cottage days. If you can not see the real reason why yet or even know the history of it. You should go and pay attention at what’s going to happen at the rental units on Lake Promenade & Long Branch Ave. Long Branch will continue to be developed this way. The city and Grimes will pretend to stand behind the few people who have some pull in Long Branch who are against this growth. But you should go out and start paying attention to see whose behind these bigger developments. A lot severance makes sense in some areas of long branch and not in others. City planning has had no objections to some applications.

        What about all the profit to the city. You do not seem to realize how much the city collects or applicants are paying to go through the process.
        Just to be heard at the C.O.A. is just under $10,000 for a lot severance. Ask yourself where does all that money go. On top of that the applicant has another $15,000 to $20,000 just to get a pilimanry drawing ready for the city to see.
        If all goes well the applicant will pay an additional $100,000 in city fees buy the time the permits are released. Keep in mind that all these fees that are stated above does not include…OMB ($30,000-$35,000) plus road deposit, tree protection deposit….. it goes on. The city will also make about 4 times the amount on property tax in between these two new dwellings. Kind of shows you who the real developer is! (The CITY) They are the ones that are making all the real profit with no risk.

        Greg you should also go around and see who these people are that are severing Lots. Lots are long time residents of the area 10-15-25 years. Some are new people to the area, and beleave it or not very few are actual builders. Is it bad of someone wanting or being able to do this. There is no evidence showing that lot severance since the early 1900’s has done harm to the area. This is happening in any growing city in the world.

        I don’t know what your situation is with your property but how would you like it if you wanted to do something to better you and your family on your property and some people would oppose you. Think real hard this is people just like you trying to build for their families. Long branch had many large lots back in the day and when families had children they would build a house on their big lot for them. Eventually lots got split up. If you drive around you will see many undersized lots dating back from the early 1900’s. This has been like this from the beginning. Why now try to stop it.

  3. Neil

    In the interest of an open and worthwhile discussion…

    This is a reasonable and patiently-presented argument. However it fails to give consideration to the families that are purchasing these soldier homes. They didn’t cut down any trees; they’re simply families that cannot afford the cash to purchase 7000 square foot lots nor the time & investment to fix up crumbling bungalows.

    To these families, it’s hard to see these “Stop the Lot-Splitting” signs as anything but a hostile provocation. “If we had our way, you wouldn’t be here” is the message that is received. What other interpretation could possibly come to mind? The anecdote in the comments about a neighbour “achieving acceptance” by electing not to split belies the same sentiment.

    If you want to win this debate then you’ll have to put yourself in your newer neighbours’ shoes. It’s too simple to demonize “money-grubbing developers”. They may indeed be that, but they are helping young families realize their dreams along the way.

    • Michelle

      Well said Neil, young families need alternatives to purchasing affordable homes. Sharing a lot and building a rejuvenated and diversified community is a great thing and what intrigued us to buy our home here. I grew up in the area and wanted to stay close to my roots, raise my kids where I was raised and bring them to the same park my Dad brought me too… I am all for splitting lots to build a new community where more families can enjoy where I also grew up as a child! Sure the developers are profiting, but they also did the same when they build giant subdivisions on farmers fields in Mississauga…. at least this way each house looks different and adds character and charm to a wonderful eclectic neighborhood called Long Branch!

      • Thank you Michelle for contributing your opinion, particularly as someone who grew up around here. I would add that for the most part, the soldier homes look pretty much alike to me. It’s the rest of the neighbourhood which is eclectic.

        I’d also like to add, since I did not mention it earlier and it hasn’t come up in the comments that these these homes on severed lots in South Long Branch have been typically selling for upwards of $1 million. Around where I live, the properties which were sold and subsequently severed, sold for approximately $750,000.

        • Michelle

          Hi Eugene,

          I think these “soldier” homes look much more unique then the subdivisions of Mississauga or Milton, Brampton etc. If you compare Long Branch to the area’s in Tokyo we are still very pretty to look at….but that is another discussion…. as for property value…. well unfortunately 750K is actually reasonable for a home in Toronto,(hard to find something less in a good neighborhood) if you want a 20 minute commute to your downtown job and a beautiful park and beach to bring your young family. I have lived here more than 40 years and have to say, I love where the areas is going and look forward to a rejuvenated Lake shore with more businesses and restaurants opening for new small business to flourish. I love Long Branch…. born and raised and proud to of where it is going! I think eclectic doesn’t have to be the house that is falling a part with a rough that is about to blow off in the next storm. I rather see a solder home there with a well kept bungalow next door. But that’s just me… I like sensitive change…. Hope to see more positive change and acceptance of our my neighbors old and new! Thanks for putting time into your post! Long Branch is the next upcoming neighborhood of Toronto. Old and new can be in harmony 🙂

      • John

        Sorry I will fight lot splitting. I own a home on a 50 foot lot. I bought this home with neighbors who have 50 foot lots. I don’t want home values decreased by my neighbors now with 25 foot lots.

    • Thank you for sharing your thoughts in this space Neil. No doubt the “stop the lot-splitting” signs alerts potential buyers to the fact that there is a contentious planning issue in this community. I’m sure the folks doing the lot-splitting would rather the community not express their opinion so openly. Buying a home in Toronto is a very expensive undertaking. If I were looking for a home here today, it’s something I would want to be aware of before making that kind of investment. That said, I’d like to think that the folks I know who are current residents will welcome whoever moves into this neighbourhood regardless of differences as to how this community ought to change over time. If potential buyers ask me, I’ll be happy to chat with them about the issues.

  4. Jr

    When the City needs to update water mains, clean and sewage we taxpayers pay. Not the builders. When more families move in schools are packed and with no new school buildings in the future our kids are thrown into crowded situations, we the taxpayers bear the brunt not the builders, same for our spiritual places, what of shopping facilities etc. When traffic is so bad that what use to take us minutes now becomes hours we the taxpayers adjust our time, not the builders. Take a drive through Lakeshore and Parklawn. We cannot widen Lakeshore Blvd. To accommodate more lanes, add TTC, Go Trains where do we Add? The builders don’t care. When the City of Toronto has an emergency situation and we need to evacuate how do we do this, we can go up Brownsline, Kipling, Islington, Royal York, Parklawn, 5 main viens to get us up and over the tracks and Highway, how long would that take? I care, the builders don’t. Adding more for the sake of lining your pockets is not what we want. We need to always communicate our displeasure and distrust. Fair warning to all when my neighbors are standing up for their rights to appeal and our met with threats to body and property you need to know we are dealing with more than just building soldier houses by builders. There is an insidious presence in our neighborhood, keep your eyes open. Take note, be careful and don’t trust some, they are not what they seem, builders.

  5. Judith Haynes

    Thank you for this very well thought out, researched and written piece. We received one of these one page pamphlets today. The good thing is that it galvanised me to learn more. I found the dire warnings(“Communist fashion”) and unsubstantiated accusations of “political manoeuvring” annoying at the least and the evidence of sincere ignorance worrisome.

    I too support a process that involves a practical and useable plan for the future and offers the opportunity for neighbourhoods to have a respected and actionable say in the development of said neighbourhood.

    I support diversity. True diversity.

    This is, and always will be, about money. We need to recognise that and work to create a template for Long Branch that welcomes a diversity of income levels and housing solutions.

    I am a home owner in South Long Branch.

  6. Perhaps the issue is that the city wants infil housing and higher density that is not just condos or stacked town multi units. They dont want urban sprawl and need more tax income to tackle the issues of infrastructure. I think if the homes were more individual in their appearance then it might be more accepted.

    • Thanks for your perspective vinibiob1. In most recent cases in Long Branch, the City (Committee of Adjustment) has denied the severance applications. Most of the approvals which have occurred (with a small number of exceptions), on appeal to the Ontario Municipal Board. Perhaps what you describe is the provinces position?

      When builders sever these lots, what remains are very unusual lot shapes, very long and narrow. They want to put big houses on these new narrow lots to maximize their return on the property and that has led to designs which are very similar time and again with the integrated garage and two stories above. There is a lot more house and a lot less green space, with trees being collateral damage.

      On the other hand, a builder bought the small bungalow just to the south of our house. He considered going for a severance but instead decided to build a large single family home. It is large indeed, huge compared to the little bungalow that was there. His plan was not opposed at Committee, and he’s built a beautiful home which seems to fit into the neighbourhood really well. All the neighbours I’ve talked to really like it a lot. A couple trees were removed, but the large silver maple at the front of the property was respected. He’s got a driveway going along the north side of the property and a garage in the back. This large house does not have the appearance or “feel” of crowding the property the way the soldier houses do. This is an example of someone putting a single large home on a property which had a small bungalow and achieving acceptance in the community.

      • BK

        I don’t understand what the difference is between knocking down a bungalow and replacing it with a huge home rather than replacing with two homes or a semi detached. I’ve seen plenty of so called lot splits in long branch and they don’t all look the same.

        I guess it comes down to taste and people have different tastes.

  7. Rosa Stranart

    Mrs Voisey used to attend every Committee of Adjustment meeting, and kept them on their toes. Unfortunately, she has died. And that was before The C of A was taken over by the developers, AND the OMB was taken over by the developers. The system is broken. Planning is a joke. E.g. “Soldier houses” approved. Minor variances are really MAJOR variances. E.g. Lack of planning for the traffic snarls at Lakeshore and Parklawn. Planning means proactive behaviour. NOT creating a CRISIS, and later trying to solve it. Like 10 to 20 years later. In my opinion, current city planners are NOT earning their keep .. Salary!!!!

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