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Tewin and my urban boundary vote this week

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At a joint meeting of the planning and agriculture and rural affairs committees this week, I voted against a motion to focus on the Tewin lands as our next tranche of urban boundary expansion lands. I've received a few questions on why, and thought it would be worthwhile to try to unpack a very complicated issue beyond the headlines.

Fundamentally, our debate this week was about which lands should be added to the developable area of Ottawa. As I've written several times, urban boundary expansion exacerbates climate change and diminishes economic sustainability.  As I said a few times during the meeting, the added consideration of whether and how to add the Algonquins of Ontario lands (to be developed in partnership with Taggart) complicated the discussion and added to the challenge of choosing between multiple important public interest priorities.

I do not believe that the decision to add the Tewin lands to Ottawa's developable area meets the test of good planning in the interest of mitigating the climate impacts of sprawl.

It is worth at this point providing some background. Right now, Ottawa is creating its new Official Plan. That document will describe how Ottawa expects to manage its growth in the coming decades.

An important part of that document is the Growth Management Strategy. It describes how we'll approach land-use planning to accommodate our projected future population. At all times the City is required by the Province to demonstrate that it can accommodate 15 years worth of projected demand, and the exercise is not one that can be put off.

In May, Council determined that we would grow with 51% of the increase accommodated through intensification over the next 25 years. The other 49% of growth will be accommodated in new greenfield developments.

It's important to note here that the city has an urban boundary about which you may have read. There is a point in the city past which new suburban development is not allowed. The exercise we were undertaking this week was to finalize an approach to adding a little over 1,300 net hectares to the city's urban area in two tranches: one now, and a smaller one in 2026.

I'll also note here that I voted against expanding the urban boundary at all. Without delving too deeply into it, I and others consider that expansion through adding new developable lands has serious implications for greenhouse gas emissions. Because of their densities, it is also not an economically sustainable approach to population growth.

This week, we were voting on a plan for adding those new parcels that had a couple of discrete parts:

  • Staff were able to find the large majority of the required new lands with a high degree of fidelity to Council's instructions as set out in May. They identified 1,100 net hectares that were reasonably close to transit, reasonably close to sewer and water infrastructure, and not on farmland or significant natural features/wetlands. Most of those parcels meet the criteria immediately, with some remainder that are close enough. Those criteria are critical if we're to mitigate the worst effects of sprawl.

  • We were still shy 270 net hectares. The rolling 15-year supply requirement would be adequate for the next five years while we studied how to bring a second tranche into the urban boundary, and we were required to vote on one of three options: a) finding non-compliant lands all around the periphery of the boundary that could be made compliant; b) focusing on adding lands in three clusters; or, c) adding all of those 270 net hectares in just one area. While it wasn't explicitly spelled out, these would be the Tewin lands owned by the Algonquins of Ontario (AOO) working with their Taggart development partners.

Of those three options, I think there's a clear understanding that the third option from traditional considerations of land quality, servicing constraints and distance from transit is the least favourable. There are significant natural features on the lands, and significant questions about its suitability for efficient development. Choosing this option will result in a new development the size of Blackburn Hamlet (more on this in a moment) that I believe will increase the number of vehicle kilometers driven per year in the city and cost more to taxpayers in terms of servicing. Under ordinary circumstances, this would not even be considered.

I should pause and say that Tewin and its consultants consider that this analysis is wrong, but councillors don't have the detailed information needed to put the argument to rest one way or the other.

During the meeting, we also had two other key debates. The first, less but not entirely irrelevant to the Tewin discussion, replaced a proposed addition to the boundary in the south end that clearly met all of Council's conditions with a different one nearby. Those alternative parcels contain important agricultural land, which called into question for some of us the City's commitment to growing sustainably. I voted against that.

The second more relevant one was to pull some parcels in South March that clearly met Council's conditions out of the proposed additions on grounds that I considered irrelevant and largely superficial to the otherwise rigorous process that staff had undertaken.

Those South March parcels were around 170 net hectares that then became "available" to one of the other three options for next-tranche addition.

Clearly reconciliation is important to everyone around the table. In the end, the committee voted to recommend to Council that the second tranche of lands to be added should be a full 440 net hectares from the land owned by Tewin. In their own presentation, the AOO pressed the Committee to add 500 net hectares of its land to the urban boundary in order to ensure its sustainability (the equivalent of almost two Blackburn Hamlets).

I had an extremely difficult time deciding how to vote and struggled with this more than most. I have received briefings from the AOO and am excited by their vision. In the end, though, I voted against the Tewin option on several grounds after listening to the debate and thoroughly reading the staff report:

  • I don't have the information we need to be comfortable that the development can be done sustainably when there are options that would objectively have met our climate change mitigation priorities more obviously.

  • The removal of the South March lands that were obvious development parcels (if we have to expand at all) are now added to the objectively worse Tewin lands.

  • We don't have any guarantee that Tewin will be able to build the sustainable community that they've said they will. I like some of Taggart's work and consider the Rosemount building a good example of a sensitive approach to high-rise infill, but in the suburbs I don't see a lot of that. It will take a lot of money to introduce the features that Tewin wants (such as creating an electric shuttle service to LRT) that I don't fundamentally believe will be able to be implemented without significant money from other levels of government that is far from certain.

In the debate between exacerbating the worst effects of urban sprawl, versus allowing the Algonquins of Ontario to build in this location, I voted yesterday for good planning and the greatest possible mitigation against climate change. Removing clear candidate lands in South March that stakeholders have indicated to me are critical to the growth of housing in close proximity to our tech sector leave me wondering about our commitment to climate change goals. The replacement of clear candidate lands in the south end with agricultural lands lead me to question our commitment to protecting farmland and, by extension. other important environmental legacies.

The urban boundary vote will go to a final vote of City Council on February 10, and I will continue listening to the arguments made in the intervening days. While not an easy read, the full set of reports and recommendations on which we were voting is here.

Posted January 28, 2021