By Teviah Moro
It’s important that Orillia not get a case of the chills following the resolution of two landmark planning disputes.
The outcome that hit closest to home was an Ontario Municipal Board’s (OMB) ruling in January that a pair of luxury towers at Orchard Point in Orillia should go ahead without any significant concessions.
The other decision, made by the board later last month, rejects a developer’s multimillion-dollar claim aimed at those who presented a case against a massive project on Lake Simcoe at Big Bay Point.
The Orillia example, also involving a high-density development on Lake Simcoe, is quite layered.
While the city’s planning department backed the twin towers, a majority of council rejected the idea and asked for changes in October 2007. A group of residents on the point also hired a lawyer to help campaign against the scale of the project.
Council is still divided over the decision to tangle with a deep-pocketed developer. The legal process is estimated to have cost the city in the $100,000-$125,000 range.
“Strictly political,” Coun. Ralph Cipolla said this week about the 5-4 vote to reject the proposal. “It had nothing to do with planning. It had to do with personal agendas.”
Coun. Tim Lauer disagrees and argues the stance was about protecting a neighbourhood. “This was the right thing to do. I believe the case could have gone either way.”
In any case, the OMB verdict certainly sets a precedent for developers who want to build high-density condos in neighbourhoods characterized by single-family homes.
In the Big Bay Point case, the developer defended its plan to build 2,000 units and a 1,000-slip marina among other amenities on the Lake Simcoe shore.
As was the case with Orchard Point, a ratepayers’ group mobilized a campaign against the project.
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But in December 2007, the developer served its opponents with a $3.2 million suit for the trouble they caused by raising a fuss.
In a July interview with The Packet, a spokesperson for the developer, Geranium, denied the corporation had launched “any kind of frivolous or vexatious” suit.
Late last month — after a lengthy process that watchdog Environmental Defence says cost project opponents more than $1 million — the OMB rejected the developer’s claim.
Such a claim, if successful, would have provoked a chilling effect for those wanting to oppose developers before the OMB.
That is the end game of what’s known in activist circles as a Strategic Litigation Against Public Participation, or a SLAPP suit.
In a Jan. 30 news release, after the OMB decision, high-profile lawyer Clayton Ruby stated the ruling “protects the public from developers’ SLAPP suits.” Ruby added: “These meritless suits are so costly to defend that simply being a target is enough to chill public participation to protect the environment.”
Planning battles are becoming more pitched as GTA sprawl continues to leapfrog into Simcoe County.
Repelled by the Greenbelt, which protects the Oak Ridges Moraine, builders have found fertile ground in Simcoe County.
In fact, one report called Simcoe County: The New Growth Frontier, published by Neptis, a non-partisan regional urban development research foundation, found growth here to be driven by developers rather than municipal authorities.
“While developers have marshalled more and more sophisticated arguments to justify their strategies, many local planning departments lack the capacity to respond to them,” stated the May 2004 study.
“Local politicians are not always clear on whether they have the capacity to refuse development that is incompatible with their vision of their communities.”
Meanwhile, GTA ex-pats are moving to the county, spurring a population boom.
The province is also pushing “intensification,” a policy meant to control urban sprawl.
The best line of defence against abuses of this policy is a tightened-up municipal official plan, which the city is producing.
That should remove vague references to land use with more “concrete” terms, Lauer said.
This week, during budget deliberations, Lauer suggested a “legal reserve” for OMB disputes. With that, costs shouldn’t discourage council from taking stands on applications.
Not withering in the face of a legal challenge is “about protecting the integrity of the process,” Lauer said in an interview.
His proposal didn’t seem to spark much discussion. One has to wonder if councillors already have a case of the chills.