Back story: Last year, the Ontario Municipal Board (OMB) gave the go-ahead to Marianneville Developments to build over 740 housing units on former golf course lands that thread their way through the quiet, leafy residential neighbourhood of Glenway, wrecking its tranquility. The Town’s elected councillors unanimously supported the residents in wanting to keep the lands open space but that decision was sabotaged by planners directly employed by the Town who boycotted the OMB Hearing. An outside consultant, Ruth Victor, was employed by the Town at a cost of $129,000 to handle the Glenway file. She backed the developer, Marianneville, saying the former golf course could be built over.

You can wander into the undergrowth if you wish and read the sources I rely on by looking at my OMB appeal letter (Click on documents in top left panel and navigate to "Glenway".  Open “Request for a review of the OMB decision on Glenway". The response is shown as “OMB Review Letter").

Glenway is important as a case study in the forthcoming Provincial Review of the OMB. It shows what is wrong with important aspects of our planning system and illustrates the huge disconnect between the professional planners on the one hand and the people who employ them on the other.

OMB reform a priority says Van Bynen

The Glenway Lessons Learned meeting on Tuesday 23 June 2015 is not the end of the matter. In the municipal election last year, Newmarket’s Mayor, Tony Van Bynen, told us

“bringing reform to the OMB and Planning Act to ensure our residents have a say in shaping their community will be a priority in the next term.”

Now to the Glenway story. There are some loose ends to tie up but the broad picture is clear.

Defending the Official Plan

In his election campaign literature last year, Plan for Newmarket’s Future, Van Bynen wrote:

“Our Council’s decision to fight for Glenway and defend our Town’s Official Plan was the right thing to do.”

In fact, there was no defence of the Official Plan at the OMB Hearing. Not even a stab at it.

In the Glenway Q&As, Rick Nethery, the Director of Planning, says:

“Council did not hire Ms Victor to defend the Official Plan, but rather to process the (Marianneville) application and provide a professional planning opinion and recommendation to Council.”

Ruth Victor reported direct to Council, apparently with no line manager. She then became a temporary but de facto member of the planning staff.

When she concluded that the former golf course lands could be built on, her senior colleagues in the Town’s Planning Department - Rick Nethery, Jason Unger, Marion Plaunt - agreed. This led to the boycott of the OMB Hearing.

The planning priesthood

Nethery tells us in the Glenway Q&A that staff is obliged to give their professional opinion and if it conflicts with the position taken by the Town, even on a unanimous vote by its elected councillors, then the planners are within their rights to boycott.

“… in instances where the Council does not agree with staff recommendations, it cannot then ask staff to defend the Council’s decision at the OMB and it must decide whether it wants to hire its own professional planner (as was the case here) to defend its position.”

Not even the most junior member of the planning department sat in on the OMB Hearing, reporting back to Nethery. He had comprehensively washed his hands of the whole thing.

Consequences of the OMB boycott

This had profound implications. Statements were made at the OMB Hearing that should have been immediately challenged by the Town. But without support from the Town’s planning staff the Town’s Counsel, Mary Bull, was under-briefed and performed lamentably. There was simply no question that the Town’s Official Plan “was being defended”.

The Plan was being taken apart and eviscerated, paragraph by paragraph, by Marianneville’s forensic lawyer, Ira Kagan and there was no-one there to defend it – certainly not Ruth Victor who had been under subpoena by the developer to attend. She was pure gold. In his closing submission, Kagan told the OMB adjudicator:

“If I was really brave I would not have called any other witnesses but I was scared not to.”

The absence of the Town’s senior planners with their deep institutional knowledge meant there was a huge vacuum at the heart of the proceedings. There was no-one there to keep the  OMB adjudicator on track about the Official Plan, the Secondary Plan and the thinking behind them and developments elsewhere in Newmarket. Clearly, neither Ruth Victor nor the GPA’s professional consulting planner, Nick McDonald, was in a position to talk authoritatively about the entire sweep of the Town’s planning policies and their evolution. Given that void, the adjudicator was left to follow her own instincts.

Yet Nethery smugly tells us:

“Although the GPA was able to find a planner to support Council’s position (ie the position taken unanimously by the Town’s elected officials) the OMB was not swayed by that professional’s evidence and instead preferred the argument and evidence of the developer’s consulting planner and that of Ms Victor…”

Perhaps one reason could have been the absence of compelling evidence put before the OMB by the Town’s own staff – whose salaries we pay.

Buying the Glenway lands to preserve open space

The OMB written decision of 18 November 2014 says in paragraph 40:

“There is no evidence before the Board that the Town took any steps to acquire these lands for public open space and public park purposes”

Yet we now know from Nethery that:

“the Council did have discussions regarding the purchase of the Glenway Golf Course however, these discussions took place in closed session and as such, are not publicly available at this time.”

Now, years after these discussions took place, there is no need for this suffocating omerta to continue. We must know on Tuesday what options were put before councillors on the purchase of the Glenway lands and why, in the event, the purchase was rejected.

GO Bus Terminal

The GO Bus Terminal and its proximity to the Glenway lands also featured prominently in the OMB Hearing and heavily influenced the final decision to approve the development.

We now know from Nethery that, over an extended period:

“During the development of the Secondary Plan staff met with Metrolinx to discuss the future of the GO bus station and in particular whether Metrolinx had any plans to redevelop the property and relocate the buses elsewhere…  The future of both the GO train and bus stations was an ongoing consideration throughout the development of the Secondary Plan.”

Not a hint of this was mentioned to the adjudicator. Not one word. This allowed Ira Kagan to say without challenge:

“Mr McDonald (the GPA’s professional planner) may think it (the bus station) should move but no-one else seems to agree with him.”

The fact that Metrolinx had not decided at that stage on possible relocation was no reason for staying silent. (Metrolinx has no plans for a new GO rail station at Mulock Drive yet, despite this, the Town’s planners have inserted a GO rail station in that location in the newly adopted Secondary Plan.)

Other relevant information such as the September 2013 Transportation Study (which showed that discussions had taken place about possible relocation of the GO Bus Terminal on to the Upper Canada Mall site) was held back by the Town’s planning department and their colleagues at the Region and only published after the OMB decision.

McAvity's Cat

Who was responsible for this state of affairs? The man at the top in the Planning Department is, like McAvity’s cat, nowhere to be seen when disaster strikes.

When Nethery is asked when (a) he and (b) the Mayor first learned that Ruth Victor – the consultant hired and paid by the Town - was minded to support the developer’s position we are asked to believe this happened in October 2013 – one month before the Council voted to back the residents.

We are asked to believe that neither the Mayor nor any member of Council ever once asked Nethery before October 2013 how Ruth Victor was getting on in processing the Marianneville application. And we are asked to believe that our incurious Mayor and councillors never asked Nethery how the Town could effectively defend the Official Plan in the absence of any directly employed Town planner participating in or being present at the OMB Hearing.

It seems to me Nethery is comfortable passing the buck. Victor wasn’t his problem. The Mayor, for all his talk about defending the official plan, was disengaged from the issue. Where is the evidence otherwise? He was content – as he always is – to leave it to the paid professional officers to come up with the script that he parrots. He never took a grip.

We can learn many lessons from the Glenway debacle. I shall learn more on Tuesday night. But as I tap tap tap this out these initial thoughts occur to me:

(1)  Councillors must assert themselves. They have power if they choose to exercise it. They can reorganize departments, bring in new people, set goals and objectives and argue for them. They must involve themselves in the big issues and not allow themselves to be spoon fed by professional officers who, as we see in this case, have their own separate agenda.

(2)  Councillors should think carefully about the type of staff they need to support them and lead important departments.

(3)  Councillors should insist on regular and frequent report backs from planning staff and others working on major (to be defined) developments in Newmarket.

(4)  Councillors should consider whether more staff should be employed in-house to reduce reliance on outside consultants but, if these are brought in, they should be more closely monitored.

(5)  The Council should review closed session practice. How on earth can it be that information relating to the possible purchase of the Glenway lands by the Town is kept from the OMB?

(6)  Who, if anyone, is going to carry the can for Glenway? It shouldn’t just be the people who live there.

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