City councillors were stuck in a political sand trap.
Sure, they could go ahead and reject a Toronto-area developer’s plan to build 368 units on the abandoned fairways of the bankrupt Saginaw Golf Course in the middle of a massive east Cambridge neighbourhood.
That would have pleased hundreds of area residents, who had fought the plans for three years in a bid to keep 65 acres of open space.
But what would be the point? The developer would probably just get the decision overturned at an upcoming hearing of the Ontario Municipal Board anyway, especially with city staff recommending approval.
“I haven’t seen us in a box like this in a long time,” Mayor Doug Craig said in the middle of a 3 ½-hour planning committee meeting on Monday night that saw the golf course plans approved 8-1.
“If, in fact, we turn this down tonight, and it goes to the board, our staff will be sitting on the witness stand supporting the developer.”
So city council approved the plans, asking staff to get together with the developer to discuss touchy matters of a six-metre buffer around the old course, traffic, grading, home heights and additional green space.
The legal expense of fighting the plans was avoided and the opportunity to further work with the developer as a collaborator was preserved.
But overall, a few dozen weary residents in attendance on Monday felt defeated. They hoped the city would side with them, no matter the cost or unlikely success.
“It’s been a long evening,” said Narisha Joseph, whose home backs onto the former golf course. “We’re disappointed.”
The lengthy one-topic meeting included a 30-minute closed session as councillors left to discuss their Ontario Municipal Board strategy in the case, which the developer appealed to the provincial planning tribunal.
Nideva Properties, which trimmed down original plans for 459 units to appease residents, was frustrated by the pace of the city’s consideration of the project since 2015. Monday’s meeting crept along, especially with an impromptu closed session being called in the middle of it.
“Three times in 35 years, I think, that’s happened,” planning committee chair Donna Reid told the audience. “You’re seeing something unusual tonight.”
The only councillor to vote against the plans, Nicholas Ermeta, wanted council to reject them and take a chance at the Ontario Municipal Board, which is set to hold a pre-hearing on the matter next month.
But a rejecting motion from Ermeta was voted down.
“There have been surprise rulings at the OMB,” argued Ermeta, who represents the neighbourhood.
Ermeta also asked for a month’s deferral so another meeting with the developer and residents could be held. He wanted to pitch an adult-lifestyle community for the property instead.
“No, we cannot consider a brand new plan,” said Ira Kagan, a lawyer for the developer. “We have an OMB hearing in September. And it’s not fair to staff, commenting agencies or the public to basically start from scratch on a plan we’ve been doing for over three years.”
The deferral also lost. So the plan calling for 231 homes, 67 townhouses and a 70-unit, four-storey seniors building, are closer to reality.
Residents don’t expect to win any more compromises from the developer.
“They made it quite clear. They’re not looking to negotiate,” said Waterloo lawyer Patrick Kraemer, who spoke on behalf of hundreds of members of the Save Saginaw Green Space residents association. “They’re looking to dig in.”