By Tony Doob and Dwayne Verhey
Recently, Huntsville’s Committee of Adjustment waived a planning “requirement” for parking spots to service a development on Main Street East. The reason? The developer preferred not to use part of the land for parking. He didn’t like the other standard option either: to pay the town cash in lieu of providing parking, a provision for the inevitable day when the we the taxpayers have to invest in parking to service his development or see the other merchants lose customers.
The applicant himself wasn’t there to be questioned. All that was necessary was the assertion of an agent that he didn’t want to. With the Town of Huntsville, apparently following the rules is optional.
Why then bother with rules at all? And why bother to have a planning department if the real planning happens in the offices of private developers and the minds of real estate agents?
The Town of Huntsville has rules for development. It has an official plan and zoning by-laws crafted to strike a balance between protecting the interests of all taxpayers. It has a planning department supposedly to oversee the enforcement of these rules. Clearly exceptions are sometimes appropriate. It may not be possible to build in accordance with the rules (e.g., when lot lines and other natural features of the land combine to make the strict compliance with the rules counterproductive). But just because a developer wants to maximize his profit is insufficient reason in any town except Huntsville.
There was no principled need for the parking exception. It will cause hardship for the customers of existing merchants and added expense for all taxpayers. The case was simple: the developer wanted one thing and, by standing up to the weak-kneed Committee of Adjustment charged with the responsibility of ensuring orderly development for all of us in Huntsville, the developer got his way. The Committee is described as making its decision “with some hesitation.” But the fact that they hesitated before rolling over and playing dead is cold comfort to those of us who prefer orderly, principled, development.
Before the 2014 civic election, the Lake Waseosa Ratepayers’ Association asked those running for council to agree to a principled approach to development. Specifically, they asked candidates to commit to following existing laws, and if exceptions were to be made, that they follow certain guiding principles, specifically that exceptions:
a) may be required in exceptional circumstances which are explicitly justified. A landowner’s simple desire for an exception is not sufficient justification for an exception. Council and its committees should strongly presume that existing regulations (e.g., the Comprehensive Zoning by-law and the Official Plan) should determine what is permissible;
b) should also reflect the interests of other landowners on the lake;
c) should consider compensatory requirements (e.g. larger setbacks from the shore compensating for a larger than permitted dwelling), where possible, to mitigate potential impact to lake water quality, watersheds, surrounding lands and biodiversity, and natural look of environs.
Nancy Alcock, Brian Thompson, Committee of Adjustment member Jonathan Wiebe, Committee of Adjustment Chair Bob Stone, Deputy Mayor Karin Terziano, and Mayor Scott Aitchison all signed this commitment.
If members of the Committee of Adjustment were to follow and apply the principles of this statement to all development, all they would have to do is to realize that in (b), the exceptions should reflect the interests of the town – or perhaps more specifically other current and future merchants in the town who depend on the availability of parking. Adapting the principle included in (c) would be simple to follow: the town’s suggestion of cash (for future parking) in lieu of the parking requirement must be non-negotiable.
Every four years we vote for people whom we think will represent our interests and the best interests of the Town of Huntsville. It is hard to believe that caving in so easily to an admittedly (and understandably) self-interested developer is in the long-term interests of any member of the Huntsville community. The members of the Committee of Adjustment should be ashamed of how comfortably they demonstrated their unprincipled approach to development. Why do we bother to pay for a planning department, anyway?
Tony Doob and Dwayne Verhey are, respectively, seasonal and full-time residents of Huntsville who have enjoyed following local politics for many years.