Attention City Hall: stop squandering the public’s money – especially during a pandemic. Councillor Carolyn Parrish thinks COVID-19 has only amplified the need for fiscal responsibility.
She is tired of a wasteful tradition that has long been a feature of municipal government: spending millions fighting unwinnable battles against developers and other parties over various growth-related disputes.
Figures compiled by staff in a report presented to Council show these forays have cost taxpayers $1.1 million over the past five years. The City has spent $748,391 fighting against development applications its own staff have agreed with, while taxpayers have also forked out $379,199 on Committee of Adjustment appeals.
While the final few solutions are trickling in as City staff work out how to cover the deepening losses sustained as a result of the pandemic, Mississauga councillors this past Wednesday voted down a plan designed to save the City cash, and a little sense of pride.
A motion tabled by the veteran Ward 5 politician outlined a proposed change to how council deals with the Local Planning Appeals Tribunal (LPAT), a body designed to oversee planning disputes between cities and developers. It called for a two-thirds majority of councillors to overrule advice from City planning staff, before sending challenges to the LPAT.
Many of these applications for a hearing are destined to lose, because the developers seeking to build projects have followed pertinent rules and regulations around the plans submitted to the City for approval.
Parrish contends that councillors often oppose builders not on any reasonable grounds, but for political reasons that pit sound planning principles against private interests.
The LPAT, where these disputes land, is far from perfect and has a recent history of siding with developers, since the PC government took power in 2018 and changed the dynamics of the arbitration body. But it is the court of planning-related appeals for cities. Panelists appointed by Queen’s Park hear cases in an expensive process that routinely costs both developers and municipalities hundreds of thousands of dollars to deal with disputes, including doomed efforts launched by councillors simply to show concern.
There are some occasions where planning staff, residents and councillors agree a proposal is unworkable and must be contested. But in other situations, councillors overrule the wisdom of planning staff, many of whom hold multiple post-secondary degrees in the field and are licensed under stringent rules by the Canadian Institute of Planners.
In particularly contentious projects that raise the ire of residents, elected officials can side with locals and ignore their staff, even when the professionals are clearly right. It’s a move that almost guarantees to end in an expensive defeat for the City, paid for by the very residents council members are trying to appease.
The costs are passed onto residents in two ways: the City charges them through the property tax, and developers through more expensive development-related charges, which builders generally pass on to buyers.
In March of this year, Mississauga Councillors voted to overrule staff on a Ward 7 proposal to build stacked townhouses. The project was recommended by the City’s planning department and represented exactly the kind of intensification the Province is calling for cities to adopt.
“They’ll lose,” predicted Sean Galbraith, an urban planner based in Toronto with 20 years experience, who spoke to The Pointer after councillors ignored their own staff.
Parrish’s motion hoped to make it harder for council to send such doomed costly appeals to the tribunal. Currently it requires a simple majority of councillors to set the expensive and fruitless effort in motion. Parrish's defeated motion suggested changing this to a two-thirds majority, meaning eight councillors would have to agree to overrule the advice of staff.
After a robust debate, councillors voted to reject her idea and continue to send hopeless applications to LPAT on a simple majority. Stephen Dasko, Dipika Damerla, Matt Mahoney, Ron Starr, Karen Ras and Sue McFadden voted to maintain the status quo. The motion narrowly failed.
One obvious question is why Damerla is even voting on such issues. She was recently nominated to run for the Liberals in the 2022 Ontario election, after losing her provincial seat in 2018. So not only is she disinterested in municipal governance, she could be casting votes with the provincial election in mind, rather than doing what’s best for the City’s interests.
“It’s window dressing,” long-time Ward 11 Councillor George Carlson said during the meeting, conjuring a pointless exchange. “We know it and it’s frustrating. It’s like a doctor that is just sort of lying to the patient.”
Councillor: “We’re going to go to LPAT.”
Resident: “Oh, that’s great.”
Councillor: “...we’re not going to win there, but we will take it.”
More than $200,000 a year has been spent since 2015 either fighting case at the LPAT or on disagreements at the City’s committee of adjustment.
“This amount does not include the internal expense to the City of planning staff being placed under summons by appellants to attend and testify before the LPAT, nor the internal Legal Services costs,” the recent staff report notes.
Development appeals eat up the lion’s share of costs and have resulted in just one victory compared to three defeats. Three cases are ongoing, one from as far back as 2017.
The lone win came in Ward 9, but local councillor Pat Saito told staff she felt it shouldn’t be on the list. She described a complicated process of an initial win for the City followed by an appeal and, eventually, a settlement with developers.
Most of the objections fit a pattern, Parrish told The Pointer after her motion was defeated: “‘We don’t want townhouses across the road from our single family homes’ and ‘we don’t want change’ and ‘we don’t want intensification’.”
“They’re not scientific, they’re not planning arguments. And what happens is the councillors all, to one degree or another, bend to the will of the people who elected them.”
She explained that, by elected, she means those residents who actually turn out to vote in municipal elections, roughly one-third of eligible voters, who are overwhelmingly older.
So the needs of younger residents and many newcomers are forsaken in favour of appeasing those more well established residents who turn out on election day and hold great sway over councillors. It's a common dynamic, even though councillors are expected to represent all their constituents and aren't even supposed to know who votes and who does not.
The councillor says the key is extended negotiations. That means gathering residents and planners and developers together to discuss their concerns. Despite knowing an easy win awaits them at the LPAT, developers want to press forward with their projects as quickly as possible — they’ll often make compromises in the name of efficiency.
Parrish’s council colleagues did not agree.
Damerla, the ward councillor for three different appeals that have overridden staff advice, conflated residents who are resistant to change with democracy. She said the current system worked well by weighing trained planners against residents, adding that “experts aren’t infallible.”
“This is fundamental to democracy,” she told the council. “We can give it whatever name we want to — NIMBYism — but the fact is, that’s democracy. It’s messy and you can’t just shut people down.”
But the LPAT can.
Damerla’s views were echoed by other councillors, saying the right to easily appeal to the LPAT when a development doesn’t fit a neighbourhood should be protected. “This is the cost of doing business,” Ras said. Meanwhile Dasko said, in the long run, the cost was not particularly high. “I don’t think these are massive numbers,” he added.
Their position might have more merit, others argued, if cases stood a chance of winning. But when cases are continually struck down in tribunal rulings, it begs the question: what’s the point? The cost over five years may only be the price of a few traffic lights, but even the money for such basic infrastructure is worth it in the face of another avoidable defeat.
Parrish’s motion is reminiscent of a move by now Region of Peel Chair Nando Iannicca when he was a Mississauga councillor. It was to force Caledon to pay its own legal costs (instead of the Region) after a series of failed hearings at the Ontario Municipal Board (OMB, now the LPAT). That motion was defeated in 2010.
When developers win at the LPAT, they are likely to pass their legal costs and delays directly on to consumers. There are few times where the phrase ‘time is money’ is more true than the development process and pointless LPAT battles that can increase the cost of new units.
In a housing market like Mississauga which continues to sizzle even during a global pandemic, those costs can have a serious impact.
“We’re here talking constantly about affordability,” Parrish said at council, before concluding that, realistically, the delay of two years in future LPAT cases (which include very expensive lawyers) will simply add to the price of the unit. Younger generations including new families and many immigrants will bear the costs.
Not those older voters, so feared by ambitious career politicians who don’t like using the term, Not In My Back Yard!
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