Capital Coun. Menard calls for breakup of planning committee over urban-rural divide

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Ottawa City Hall

In the wake of the Château Laurier brouhaha and other recent zoning controversies, an Ottawa councillor is calling for the city’s planning committee to be split into two bodies that deal with urban and suburban planning issues separately.

In a report released Monday afternoon, Capital Coun. Shawn Menard also made a series of other recommendations, including more public involvement in the zoning approval process, an “advocacy centre” to help citizens who wish to take appeals to the provincial planning tribunal and more “transparency” in how councillors are appointed to standing committees.

Menard told OBJ he hopes some of the suggestions will be taken up during city council’s mid-term governance review in 2020. He said a number of the planning committee’s recent decisions ​– including giving the thumbs-up to the site plan for the controversial addition to the iconic Château Laurier hotel and approving a nine-storey building at 10 Oblats Ave. in Old Ottawa East over a chorus of neighbours’ objections ​– have riled constituents who feel the committee doesn’t represent their interests. 

“I think personally there’s a chasm between what residents want and what ultimately is getting approved,” Menard said. “It really is the wild west out there when it comes to development right now in the city, and that’s what we’re trying to address with this report.”

In the report, the councillor noted that only one member of the 10-person planning committee ​– Kitchissippi Coun. Jeff Leiper ​– represents a ward in the city’s urban core.

Menard pointed out that an agriculture and rural affairs committee already exists to deal with rural development issues. He suggested the current planning committee could be divided into an urban committee – featuring three or four councillors from inner-city wards including Capital, Kitchissippi, Somerset, Rideau-Vanier and Rideau-Rockcliffe plus one councillor from a suburban ward – and a suburban committee made up of a handful of councillors representing those neighbourhoods plus one urban councillor.

Menard said his system would make committee members more accountable to the residents who will be most directly affected by their decisions. 

“Planning committee is the busiest committee at City Hall and it would make sense to spread out this workload to councillors who actually represent those areas,” he said in his report.

Menard told OBJ the city’s committee of adjustment – which deals with more minor planning variances and is divided into three panels representing urban, suburban and rural areas – could serve as a “good starting point” for a new planning committee structure.

“It’s not going to add a ton of work,” he added. “It will be more representative, and we already have some examples of how it works at City Hall now with this type of a model.”

Representatives for Mayor Jim Watson and Barrhaven Coun. Jan Harder, who chairs the planning committee, said they are away from City Hall this week and unavailable for comment.

Menard said the recommendations in the report were the result of input from dozens of residents and planning experts during a meeting last December. He said many residents he has consulted are “frustrated by a lack of trust in dealing with developers and the city” and want more say in what kind of projects get built in their neighbourhoods.

“Communities need to know and feel that they are being meaningfully involved in the process – for example, a reform report could be tabled at planning committees on feedback from various communities throughout the city,” he said in the document he posted on his website Monday afternoon.

In addition to an advocacy centre where residents would be able to consult experts to help them take planning decisions to the province’s Local Planning Appeal Tribunal, Menard’s report also calls for a more “open” process for choosing councillors for city standing committees. 

Under the current system, councillors submit requests to the clerk’s office for the boards and committees they’d like to chair or sit on. The mayor then makes a final list of recommendations for council approval.

Menard, who was one of nine councillors who voted to reject Watson’s nominations for the committees last December, said the existing process is too secretive. 

“This is something that I think needs improvement,” he said. “We need to have discussion and debate about who has what skill sets, what they could bring to the table on these types of committees.”

The Glebe-area councillor said Monday afternoon he’s heard mostly “positive” feedback to his proposals so far, adding he’s hoping his council colleagues will weigh in with their thoughts. 

“I just felt like it was the right time to advance this before the mid-term governance review happens in 2020,” he said.