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Ottawa has a new planning board, but the same old grievances

Ottawa Mayor Jiim Watson, left, and Infrastructure and Communities Minister Amarjeet Sohi tour a future transit station in 2016.

Adrian Wyld/THE CANADIAN PRESS

It took three tries and more than a year for the City of Ottawa to settle on the shape of its new provincially mandated planning advisory committee, but in the waning days of 2017, it voted into effect a 15-member body that will involve residents in planning discussions between city staff and politicians and developers.

But even the lead councillor behind the committee isn't entirely happy about its existence.

"We wouldn't even have been considering it if we weren't mandated to. … We already do an excellent job of consulting the public on planning matters," says Jan Harder, the councillor for Barrhaven and chair of the city's Planning Committee, referring to recent changes to Ontario's Planning Act that sought to better involve residents in civic planning. "We do communication constantly, and we do it not because we were forced to do it; we do it because it makes sense."

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The committee is only intended to meet twice a year to review the annual work plan of the Planning, Infrastructure and Economic Development Department.

"All necessary groups appear to be represented. I think, as an industry, as the group that's building these projects, it might be appropriate to have more than one person from our industry sitting on this group," says John Herbert, executive director of Greater Ottawa Home Builders' Association.

Mr. Herbert says that in the context of the Ontario Municipal Board reforms, which will limit a private developer's ability to appeal a civic decision, the Ottawa planning committee has stacked the deck with six citizen members (two each from the city's urban, rural and suburban areas), three councillors and a representative of the city's resident's associations.

"In a sense, the system is now rigged fairly strongly in favour of communities and residents – in other words, anti-development factions," Mr. Herbert says.

The 10-vote block of residents (who will be chosen and vetted by the city councillors) and politicians leaves only five votes for professional opinions: one for developers, one vote for the commercial real estate group the Building Owners and Managers Association, and three other professional advisers (a member of the Ontario Professional Planners Institute, a landscape architect and one more architect who is a member of the Ontario Association of Architects).

"The problem, generally speaking, with citizen participation; all these people know is they don't want a project in their neighbourhood," says Mr. Herbert, who expects he will represent builders on the committee.

Ms. Harder couldn't disagree more with Mr. Herbert's view about resident input, but again stresses that the city has already been making strides to get great community buy-in on new developments.

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"As evidence of the fact that we're doing a lot more than others are, in the last two years the OMB cases in Ottawa have dropped by 68 per cent," says Ms. Harder, falling from 19 hearings in 2015, to six in 2017.

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