Intensification is causing some tension in the City of Waterloo as neighbourhoods push back and councils vote down applications in line with the city’s official plan, leaving developers uneasy about what council might do.
In recent months, politicians voted down two applications supported by their own planning staff and criticized another not yet up for approval.
The applications voted down were faced with vocal community opposition and concerns from some politicians, particularly about the fit with the neighbourhood, despite being in line with city and other planning policies.
Mayor Dave Jaworsky said it’s up to council to make the best decisions for the community.
“Citizens elected council to look after the best interests of the city and their neighbourhoods and we have to use all tools available in making our final decisions as to whether its right for the city,” he said.
He said citizen input, neighbourhood context, built form, land use and many other components of a project must be considered in addition to key documents that dictate development.
The documents are the official plan, approved in 2012, and the zoning bylaw. According to the provincial Planning Act, zoning must line up with the official plan.
Partly driving issues is the city’s outdated zoning bylaw.
It does not align with the city’s official plan. The plan sets the vision and principles for development and zoning gets into the nitty gritty.
The official plan envisions intensification along nodes and corridors in the city, while keeping a hard line against outward growth.
The zoning bylaw is currently being reviewed, but may not be approved until next year.
For applications that are in line with the official plan but not zoning, developers must adhere to an application process asking for exceptions. That requires council approval.
The lack of alignment has seen several development projects coming to council in the past couple of years seeking exceptions to the zoning bylaw so the projects can instead follow the guidelines in the official plan.
Carol Wiebe from MHBC Planning said developers review the official plan to understand development rules for a property in question.
If politicians ignore the official plan, she said, that makes developers uneasy.
“When an application comes in that conforms to the official plan, there needs to be some certainty that what you’re proposing is not going to get refused. … It’s very unsettling because that’s what we rely on,” Wiebe said.
Wiebe had to deal with several council questions in June when she was representing a developer for a project on Caroline Street.
Van Mar Constructors bought the undeveloped 155 Caroline St. S. project from Mady Development Corporation after the company’s 144 Park St. project went into receivership.
Van Mar’s proposal, not yet up for approval, asked for more storeys, units and bedrooms than council originally approved for Mady.
Wiebe said what was proposed was within the official plan and she was startled to get such pushback from council. She and the developer consulted with staff about what would be allowed before Van Mar even purchased the property.
“It does shake confidence in the city’s ability to uphold their own policy,” she said of the recent events.
Cameron Rapp, commissioner of integrated planning and public works for the City of Waterloo, said staff encourage developers to adhere as closely to the rules as possible.
“Quite often they do not, sometimes they do and again we always drive that if they’re picking that zone, we really want (them) to match those regulations because those are community standards,” Rapp said.
In the case of the rejected zone change applications, staff recommended proceeding with one developer’s plan and proposed approval of a modified version of the other.
Both decisions are being appealed by the developers at the Ontario Municipal Board, which decides land planning disputes.
Politicians voted unanimously in April not to approve Kitchener Coun. Scott Davey’s development application for the corner of Lexington Road and Bridge Street.
In October, Davey proposed building four stacked townhouses with eight units on the lot that’s been vacant for 30 years, but the neighbourhood was furious about the idea.
He then came back with the plan for three single-family homes between 2,200 and 2,600 square feet. The neighbourhood didn’t like that either, and more than a dozen delegations spoke against the proposal.
Both proposals conformed to the city’s official plan and staff recommended approval of the single family homes.
Next was NKL Properties’ proposal for 151-161 King St. N.
The developer wanted to build a 26-storey condo project at 151-161 King St. N., adjacent to MacGregor Public School. But there was community pushback and politicians were concerned about the scale of the building. Plus, only 25 storeys were permitted at the site in the zoning bylaw. The developer was also asking for exceptions to some other rules.
To get to that final proposal, staff had pushed back for several changes to the project. They recommended council approve the developer’s final proposal, with some tweaks.
It was also in line with the city’s official plan.
“We felt that it was reasonable, but this is where we’re seeing a bit of the rub happening right now is intensification is really happening quite quickly but it is premised on the official plan which is where our council and community several years ago said that’s the appropriate locations,” Rapp said.
Jaworsky said until a new zoning bylaw is approved, possibly not until next year, council wants applications to stick closely to existing rules.
“The key thing is that there’s an existing zoning bylaw that describes exactly what they can do for their individual properties,” Jaworsky said. “As soon as we’re using hypotheticals of what might be possible in the near future … you start moving to a grey zone.
“Once a zone gets too grey … we simply can’t approve it as it is.”
Because city staff recommended approval of the projects, Waterloo will now incur additional costs for the legal challenges because it must hire outside planners to defend its decision.
Wiebe said she wonders whether council is not so certain anymore about the policies in its official plan for intensification, which are significantly guided by provincial policies that guide growth.
“To reject individual applications is not the way to go,” she said. “If they’re having second thoughts about their official plan, they need to be sitting down with their staff.”
Rapp said if council wants to revise planning policies, staff could be directed to review them, with public input.
“If council and the community believe that type of development is no longer appropriate in the city, then the community, through council, can direct staff to go through an exercise to modify our policies,” he said.