Two Ottawa councillors have asked the city’s auditor-general and Ontario’s Ombudsman to review how a developer received permission to construct a large new subdivision in a river floodplain.
Ottawa and other fast-growing cities have an urgent need for new housing, a need that sometimes conflicts with regulations and guidelines that seek to prevent development within floodplains. The Barrhaven Conservancy neighbourhood, which will accommodate more than 900 new homes and two parks, offers an example of how those tensions can play out.
Located in western Ottawa, the new neighborhood will be built in the former floodplain of the Jock River. In 2019, the Rideau Valley Conservation Authority (RVCA) granted the developer a permit to fill in a portion of that floodplain with more than 400,000 cubic metres of soil – the largest such application it had ever received. Workers placed the fill immediately afterward.
The two councillors, Catherine McKenney and Carol Anne Meehan, said the developer’s application circumvented the city’s planning process and breached provincial and municipal rules prohibiting the filling in of floodplains. Neither city councillors nor residents of downstream communities were consulted, they alleged.
“Once this is allowed to happen here, I fail to see how we can defend and protect any of our floodplains in the city,” said Ms. McKenney.
RVCA general manager Sommer Casgrain-Robertson said her organization’s executive committee (composed of five directors) had the authority to approve the application if it believed flooding, erosion and other environmental parameters would not be adversely affected. The Barrhaven Conservancy “met this test,” she said.
On an afternoon visit late this past winter, the Jock River wasn’t much to look at. A tributary of the much larger Rideau River, it drains an area of more than 550 square kilometres. Two drainage ditches on either side of Borrisokane Rd. delivered meltwater into the Jock, which otherwise seemed to be barely moving.
But that’s not always the case. The area was designated a floodplain in 2005 following an RVCA study which found that during a 1-in-100-year flood, the river would discharge just under 200 cubic metres a second – by which point the Jock would rise about three metres. According to RVCA documents, the area flooded in 1976 and 1999.
The developer, Caivan Communities, proposed raising the land above the 1-in-100-year floodplain by placing new soil. The 1-in-100-year floodplain is a regulatory standard in eastern Ontario, but is generally considered a low level of protection. The RVCA said it wasn’t comfortable with Caivan’s earlier proposals.
“This applicant took many years and many different attempts to figure out a way to develop the site, and many of which we were not supportive of over those years,” said Ms. Casgrain-Robertson. “There was lots of preconsultation, lots of back and forth with different approaches.”
What Caivan eventually did was unprecedented. “We’ve never had an application that did this type of technical work, to demonstrate that there would be no adverse impact,” she said.
Ontario policies seek to reduce the risk of death and property damage through “directing development away from floodplains,” according to a provincial document.
Meanwhile, the conservation authority’s policies prohibited alterations within the Jock River’s floodplain. RVCA staff said they couldn’t approve Caivan’s cut-and-fill proposal because, among other reasons, “development involving site grading or fill placement or removal within the floodway is generally not permitted.” Granting permission, they added, “will set a precedent.”
Noting the “potential for public cost or risk of injury, loss of life, property damage, and economic and social disruption” resulting from floodplain development, Ottawa’s official plan also restricts development on floodplains. It prohibits the placing of fill except for “minor additions and/or renovations of existing structures which do not affect flooding.”
Some Ottawa officials, however, wanted to see the neighbourhood built. During 2019, the RVCA received at least two letters, including one signed by Mayor Jim Watson, supporting the project. “We want to reinforce the support Council has expressed for this file,” noted a letter to the RVCA from Lee Ann Snedden, Ottawa’s director of planning services, in November, 2019.
Therein lies the heart of the dispute. According to Ms. McKenney and Ms. Meehan, council never approved the cut-and-fill. “That never happened,” said Ms. McKenney.
Ted Cooper, a water resources engineer with the City of Ottawa, has opposed the permit on his own behalf. Presenting to Ottawa’s planning committee on April 14, he said the new development would aggravate flooding and erosion in Heart’s Desire, a neighbourhood immediately downstream. He added that the fill permit was inconsistent with provincial guiding principles.
“What the fill permit has done is reward the developer in Ward 3 with an unprecedented floodplain development opportunity while placing residents and their properties and Ward 22 at unknown risk, without any consultation or notice,” he said.
Caivan co-founder and CEO Frank Cairo categorically denied Mr. Cooper’s statements. “The entire watershed was studied,” he said. “The cut-fill was approved based on no adverse impacts up or downstream … that includes erosion, water levels, it includes all components of the river’s performance.”
In his own presentation, Mr. Cairo said his project relieved the need to annex new land “by harnessing this area which was previously undevelopable, by virtue of some floodplain modifications that ran the test of all the agencies involved.” He said the new neighborhood will be protected to a 1-in-500-year flood, which is well above regulatory standards.
Developers are among the RVCA’s largest donors. Records show that one of Mr. Cairo’s companies (South Kanata Development Corp.) donated $250,000 to the Rideau Valley Conservation Foundation, which enabled the conservation authority to restore a wetland. Mr. Cairo and Ms. Casgrain-Robertson attended its opening in 2016.
Ms. Casgrain-Robertson said the payment had been required to offset habitat destruction for one of Mr. Cairo’s previous developments. That requirement was later dropped, but “the developer chose to follow through with the project anyway.”
Conservation Ontario, an umbrella group representing Ontario conservation authorities, said donors can make donations at any time. “CA staﬀ are kept at arm’s length from donations made to CAs in order to ensure no connection to permit decisions,” wrote Kim Gavine, the organization’s general manager.
Ontario’s ombudsman and Ottawa’s auditor-general both said that, as a matter of policy, they do not confirm the existence or status of investigations. The ombudsman’s office said most complaints “are resolved informally without the need for formal investigation.”
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