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Proposal for five-tower apartment complex heads back to council

Residents and councillors set to oppose staff recommendation supporting massive residential development

A proposal to bring five-15 storey condo towers, and 40 two-storey townhouses to the sloping green space between Water Street South and Highman Avenue is returning to the council horseshoe Tuesday, this time with a full recommendation from planning staff.

The proposal would bring 991 units to the south end of the city, creating what staff is calling a "gateway development" positioned to support area businesses and bring "economic prosperity" to the core.

But area residents, particularly those living on Highman Avenue overlooking the site, have been opposed to it from the beginning.

They cite the loss of privacy, green space, heritage impacts, traffic congestion and the 10 to 20 year build time among a laundry list of concerns levelled at the developer during two public meetings over the last year.

Tuesday's meeting has already garnered widespread attention from neighbours opposed to the development, some calling for the decision to be deferred for the new council to consider.

Crystal Harvey-Robertson is among Highman Avenue residents whose homes back onto the property and will be within 15 metres of the townhouse units. The fear among some is the 15-storey height of the towers means the units will have balconies peering over their backyards.

Staff, however, say that's not the case. No balconies are proposed for the eastern sides of the towers and the site design uses the 45-degree angle from the rear property line to heighten the townhouses to more closely blend in with surrounding homes along Highman Avenue. Those homes would be a minimum 45 metres from the towers. 

But it's far from the only concern for a project that will add over 2,000 new residents to the neighbourhood and at least one vehicle per unit, says Harvey-Robertson.

She is one of about half a dozen delegations at Tuesday's meeting who, along with her partner Craig Robertson, doesn't believe the traffic impacts alone have been properly considered given all of the other development proposals in Galt's core.

The developer hasn't budged on any of the requests made last winter.

The Burlington-based company behind the project, LJM Developments, went back to the drawing board at the request of council following the first public meeting on the proposal more than a year ago

Back then, councillors wanted the company to address concerns about the scope of the project, a lack of affordable housing units and loss of trees.

A second submission in January came with a revised plan for a construction access off Highman Avenue that eliminated a planned parkette to accommodate emergency access in the event of flooding. The revised proposal added 50 "affordable units," one for each floor of the towers and also preserved 107 existing trees on the heavily-wooded property.

The development includes approximately 624 one-bedroom units, 295 two-bedroom units and 32 three-bedroom units.

After a neighbourhood meeting in February, planning staff had planned to complete its report and submit a recommendation in the spring. That plan was delayed.

"They haven't worked with the community at all," said Harvey-Robertson, adding neighbours aren't necessarily asking council to defer its decision.

"We really just want them to consider all of the things we laid out at previous meetings," she said, acknowledging some degree of development on the site is inevitable.

But not at this scale, which residents have been told would take between 12 and 20 years to build.

"That's a lot to ask for a community and neighbourhood to put up with," Harvey-Robertson said. 

A candidate in Ward 6 has suggested council isn't in a position to make such an important decision since at least three of the sitting councillors won't be returning to the horseshoe in November. 

But the so-called "lame duck council" definition doesn't include planning decisions among the situations council is prohibited from acting on following the nomination deadline in an election year.

Officially known as a restricted acts period under the Ontario Municipal Act, lame duck councils aren’t allowed to sell or otherwise dispose of municipal property with a value of $50,000 or more, or approve un-budgeted expenditures of the same value.

Despite that, Ward 6 councillor Shannon Adshade said if he's asked to support a motion to defer the decision on Tuesday, he'll do it, even though any further delay could lead to an appeal with the Ontario Land Tribunal (OLT).

He is adamant he won't support the recommendation, adding the impacts on everything from traffic to loss of green space are too high to even consider.

But he also understands council likely doesn't have as strong an influence over development decisions as they did even a year ago.

In April, the province adopted its More Homes for Everyone Plan based on the recommendations of a housing task force looking for solutions to the province's housing crisis.

Among those "expert recommendations" was a call for changes to streamline the approval process at the municipal level to increase housing supply.

In making the changes to the Planning Act, the province cited a Scotiabank housing report that found "Ontario is one of the few provinces in Canada below the national average for the supply of homes per capita, with Canada having the lowest amount of housing per capita of any of the G7 countries."

The More Homes for Everyone Plan plan includes "measures to cut red tape and get homes built faster."

Staff hints at the province's new housing mandate in its recommendation, which states, "it is the opinion of staff that the proposed development aligns with Provincial, Regional and City development policies." 

Ward 4 councillor Jan Liggett shares Adshade's concern the developer may feel the province is on its side and not council's if it votes down the recommendation.

She hasn't supported the proposal from the beginning and didn't want staff to even consider it believing how significant the tree loss would be, among other impacts.

"There is just too many problems with this development," she said. "How can we keep our status as a 'tree city' if we keep allowing these things to happen?"

The province's new housing objectives aside, Liggett said council can't make local decisions in fear that it will end up in an appeal at the OLT. 

"Decisions should be made based on what's best for a community."

Liggett understands that a recommendation from staff will make it that much harder if an appeal lands at the OLT, but said it's not a scenario that should tie council's hands. 

She shares the overriding sense with more than 70 municipalities that the OLT too often favours developers over local planning decisions, but doesn't believe it's ever a lost cause.

"It's the luck of the draw in which adjudicator you get and you could get an adjudicator who is a firm believer in the environment, or transportation issues," she said.

Should council vote against the recommendation Tuesday and the developer appeals it, the city would have to pay an outside consultant to defend council's opposition to the proposal at the same time it would be paying its own planning staff to attend the hearing to defend its recommendation.

That cost is worth it, Liggett says, because it demonstrates how much the municipality values what would be lost. 


-with files from Richard Vivian, GuelphToday