Office of Councillor Jeff Leiper, Kitchissippi Ward, Ottawa | (613) 580-2485  |
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Why did Council drop its opposition to the Steacie Drive proposal today?

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Today at City Council there was a motion for which no prior notice had been provided to drop Council’s opposition to an apartment development at 100 Steacie Drive. As chair of the Planning and Housing Committee, I brought the motion, which passed unanimously.

It’s worth taking a moment to explain what that motion was, and to address some of the confusion I heard around the table while the motion was being debated and elsewhere.

In September last year, Council refused a requested re-zoning that would have permitted an apartment complex to be built on Steacie despite a City planning department recommendation that it be approved.

As is its prerogative, the developer appealed that refusal to the Ontario Land Tribunal (OLT), which is the appeals body appointed by the Province to hear land use planning appeals.

The OLT is a quasi-judicial body, which is to say it functions as a court.

In an appeal such as this one, the developer would argue (as it would in the original application) that its requested re-zoning is compliant with the policies and guidelines that are supposed to guide development in Ottawa, including the Provincial Policy Statement, the Official Plan, and other planning policies.

The City’s lawyers on the other hand would defend Council’s decision, putting forward the best case that the requested re-zoning fails to meet those same plans and policies.

Because it functions as a court, both sides call witnesses who are examined and cross-examined to make their case. The Tribunal gives significant deference to expert testimony, which is important to understand. There is no playing to politicians’ sympathies before the Tribunal: these cases are technical and legalistic.

Tomorrow was the deadline to exchange witness lists. It’s important to reiterate that while Council refused the application it was against the advice of our planners. Those planners who evaluated the application and made a recommendation to approve it would have been subpoenaed by the developer as their own expert witness. The decision by Council to refuse the application doesn’t change the recommendation that planners originally made.

On our side, and despite best efforts and approaching six reputable firms to find a professional planner who could defend Council’s refusal, no planner was willing to take the case. Without a witness, and almost certainly facing our own planners defending their recommendation on the stand, there would be no chance for our legal team to succeed in defending Council’s decision. Legal asked for permission to drop the case, and today Council provided that permission.

I’m not going to litigate the appropriateness of Council’s decision here - last September my own vote changed from support for the project at Planning Committee to voting with the majority to refuse it at Council.

Had the City been able to find an expert witness - a credible professional planner willing to defend Council’s refusal - it would have gone the distance. But no witness was forthcoming and our legal team appropriately asked for Council's permission to drop the case under the circumstances.

I frequently exhort colleagues and the community to put themselves in the shoes of the Tribunal when evaluating requests for re-zoning. When supporting or opposing an application, it’s important to ground that position in the policies and guidelines that guide development in this province and City. It is tough to draw any general lessons in this particular case about whether Council should or shouldn’t support any given application. But, I do think that councillors and community members should understand what the Tribunal is, how it operates, and some of the dynamics of its workings. For many new (and even returning) members of Council, today’s vote on Steacie was likely an eye-opener.

Posted April 12, 2023