Development Charges and the Failure of City Council

City council has made a terrible mistake. Tomorrow is their last day to fix it, but they won’t.

Last month, council made a rather bad decision. I don’t know if it was cowardly, opportunistic, jaded or cynical, but whatever the motivation of all but two council members, the decision to settle with developers and homebuilders–“cave to” might be more accurate–and lower development charges will hurt the city this year and for the rest of this council’s duration. It will hurt our finances; it will encourage sprawl; and it will do nothing to help the success of light rail, a rather important project the city currently has on the go.

Not only will it encourage sprawl, but it will degrade our suburbs. The homebuilders have conned the city into accepting the idea that our new communities deserve sub-par roads and parks. These people are looking to build new neighbourhoods on the cheap and still have the city subsidize their developments.

If you’re buying a new home in the coming years, it is likely that the company building your home has worked hard to ensure to lower your quality of life.

There are layers of problems here, some well-articulated by councillor Tobi Nussbaum who voted against capitulation (McKenney was the other).

First, this is a massive financial screw-up. We have development charges for a reason. It costs the city money to have new homes built, either in established neighbourhoods or new communities. There’s infrastructure, a lot of it: roads, transit, water, sewers, parks. You can’t just flatten a plot of land and plunk a house down.

We already know that sprawl costs the city a lot of money. Suburbs contribute a disproportionately small share of tax revenue for the services they demand. Now, the rest of the city has to foot part of maintaining them and for building them. It’s a gift to the homebuilders industry that you and I get to pay for.

Already this year we’re going to have give back more than $7M plus interest. It’s going to cost us tens of millions more over the next few years. We have a deficit and council is just pissing away millions for the sake of developers

It’s not as if development charges are chosen willy-nilly. There is an extensive and exhaustive process. The results are clearly documented. We really staff and consultants, specialists who understand the potential costs to Ottawa for new developments. We spend time and money on this report only to have council rip it up behind closed doors.

And there’s the next problem, there is no accountability on this. Council went in camera to discuss the matter, then came out with a rubber stamp for the proposed settlement. There’s no justification, no explanation. There’s no talk of how we’re going to recoup all the lost millions of dollars. We just get a press release that blatantly glosses over the issue. It’s contemptuous of citizens and staff, alike.

The press release is another problem. It gives us no real information. It talks about the settlement and the new and old amounts for the development charges, but it doesn’t ever talk about the percentage of the increase that was cut, which was about 25%. There’s no explanation how we could go through a long, careful process and supposedly have such a major screw-up in our calculations.

The city will talk compromise and how it worked with the homebuilders to come to a “fair” resolution…but we had a fair resolution last year. When the new development charges were proposed, we were told that they were defensible, that there was no major vulnerability from a legal challenge. They were fully substantiated.

Now we’re left with the impression that it was all a lie…except the people giving us that impression don’t even have the guts to come out and say so. Confidentiality and industry rule over democracy and prudent government. Thanks, guys. Bang up job you’re doing over at City Hall.

You might think that another troubling layer to this resolution is the precedent that it sets. The city no longer has control over our finances because homebuilders can threaten to take us to the OMB and we’ll just roll over. Sure, yeah, that’s a bad precedent. Worse, though, is that we have codified this neutering of government. According to the resolution, we can’t really make any changes to development charges without the okay from the development industry.

City council has willfully signed over it’s rightful power–it’s responsibility that is owed to us–to big corporations. Once again, thanks guys.

So this is all bad, really bad, for the city. The city has given up millions upon millions of dollars, authority over development charges and any precedent-setting backbone for future OMB challenges. You’d think we’d get something out of it, right?

You’d think that the biggest most vulnerable issue–LRT–would get settled and the city would have a bit of security when it came to this massive, massive project we’ve undertaken. C’mon, you really would think that. For all the cowardly rolling-over to industry this council does, you’d think that they’d insulate LRT from any further challenges relating to development charges.

You’d be wrong.

According to the resolution, “[t]here are however certain appeals that are not disposed of by this settlement and at this point are continuing”, including Development in the Vicinity of Transit Stations.

As you may or may not be aware, the city (notionally) wants LRT to succeed. To help that along, the plan is to increase density around LRT stations. It’s pretty basic logic: get more people living right close to transit hubs and you’ll get more people using transit. This is achieved in a few ways: allowing bigger, higher, denser developments is one way. Encouraging development is another.

As part of this encouragement, the city is lowering development charges around LRT stations. It might seem a little backwards (these potential residents will get more value form LRT than people moving to the exurbs), but the success of the LRT is key to the economic, environmental and personal health of the city. We’ll cut a bit of a deal because we’ll reap significant benefits.

Developers, apparently, don’t like that. They want to sprawl and they want people driving on cheaply-financed roads, apparently:

Several developers have appealed the elimination of the 50 per cent reduction in the roads component of the development charge for the construction of apartments, subject to limitations on provided parking, in the vicinity of transit stations. This hearing is also scheduled for January, 2016.

You have to be fucking kidding me. We’ve given away so much in this resolution–money, responsibility, authority, credibility, transparency–and it doesn’t even defend the biggest damned point in this whole issue.

This resolution is a massive, massive failure by city council. It’ll be approved, one would assume, by the OMB on Friday. Council sits tomorrow, but don’t expect any leadership or mettle. They’ve washed their hands, letting the development industry further erode our city.

Cowardice and cynicism rule at 101 Laurier Avenue West again.

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2 thoughts on “Development Charges and the Failure of City Council

  1. I feel a bit guilty to ask that question since I am currently not in Ottawa but what are people doing to show their disapproval? Are there any community associations or people from the inner wards gathering around city hall and demand better treatment? If that case it not reason to show civil discontent I am not sure what is.

    • I don’t think people are really paying attention. It hasn’t received a whole lot of press, there are some people who are (typically and dishonestly) calling it a tax grab, and it’s not really an issue that really grabs people. Further, council was in camera, so we couldn’t follow the debate, and it was a near-unanimous decision, so it doesn’t seem particularly controversial.

      There are a lot of valid reasons why this topic doesn’t get the attention it warrants, but its still a shame. (Also, I probably should have written about this sooner.)

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