Friday, July 19, 2024

ANALYSIS | Councillors concerned over future Tewin development but hesitate to reconsider | CBC News

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A future suburb in southeastern Ottawa once hailed as an act of reconciliation is now making some councillors uncomfortable, but a vote to erase the Tewin development would be far from a sure thing.

Some councillors balked at the $590 million price tag for Tewin infrastructure at a joint meeting of the planning and housing and environment and climate change committees on Thursday, especially the part where taxpayers may be stuck with the $159 million bill for making the pipes future-proof. 

The meeting was about the infrastructure master plan, an overarching guide for supporting decades of growth, but the controversial development from Algonquins of Ontario and its developer partner, the Taggart Group of Companies, dominated debate.

“I just wanted to express, as a new councillor, my discomfort with this situation,” said College ward Coun. Laine Johnson. 

“The idea of the urban expansion, and where the lands are, and how we’re going to meet the very ambitious official plan was not something I got to consider.”

She said she believes urban sprawl may be necessary, but the current council must consider the most affordable and best option for future generations. 

College ward Coun. Laine Johnson says she believes urban sprawl may be necessary, but it’s up to the current council to evaluate what’s the most affordable and best option for future generations. (Patrick Louiseize/CBC)

Councillors split

Johnson was one of eight councillors to vote in favour of a motion by Capital ward Coun. Shawn Menard to examine the possibility during a later environmental review that Tewin not proceed.

Staff assured councillors that would be an appropriate time to consider an off-ramp, but the motion failed by one vote. 

One of those opposed was Stittsville ward Councillor Glen Gower, who brought councillors back to 2021 when Tewin was added to the urban boundary in a surprise vote — despite not appearing on staff’s list of suggested land. 

“It was not an easy decision. There was no black and white,” he said. “It involved a lot of discussion in public. It involved a lot of discussion behind the scenes with all sorts of partners.”

A graphic on a map shows different areas in bright colours
CBC News analyzed property records in the Tewin area and found the Taggart family owns ten of the land parcels involved in Ottawa’s urban boundary expansion, under two corporate names. The Algonquins of Ontario own four, plus portions of a larger fifth parcel. (CBC)

It was sold as an opportunity for reconciliation with Algonquin people, though that was quickly called into question by chiefs who don’t consider the landowner a legitimate entity. 

Neither of the land’s developers appeared at the committee. Taggart staff declined to provide an interview when approached by CBC News at a Wednesday night open house, and the Algonquins of Ontario has not responded to a request for comment sent earlier this week. 

Grand Chief Savanna McGregor of the Algonquin Anishinabeg Nation Tribal Council was at the drop-in session and said their opposition was ignored, since the city felt it had already checked a box on consultation. 

“If we weren’t consulted and this is going on, what is real?” she said. “How far can fraudulent things go before it’s too late to reverse a course of action that’s detrimental to our sovereignty on our territory?”

Two women stand in a room with many cardboard signs.
Grand Chief Savanna McGregor of the Algonquin Anishinabeg Nation Tribal Council and Chief Vicky Chief of Timiskaming First Nation at a public information session about the Tewin development. (Nathan Fung/CBC)

Too many delays already, says councillor

Then there’s the question of the land itself. Because of how the decision came about, staff said they never fully evaluated the suitability of land located so far from the urban boundary.

It originally scored too poorly to be considered, and once council approved it staff could no longer weigh in on whether this is the best place to house new growth. 

“I’m still not sure if that decision was good or bad. It’s probably on a spectrum somewhere between and I don’t really know how we’ll evaluate that. Maybe we’ll have to wait a few decades to see if it was right or wrong,” Gower said, adding that regardless of his misgivings, he is frustrated with what he sees as “relitigating” that choice. 

A politician speaks while sitting at a table during a meeting.
Stittsville Coun. Glen Gower says he is frustrated with what he sees as ‘relitigating’ council’s decision on Tewin. (Michel Aspirot/CBC)

“It took us three years to get to it, and then the province went back and forth … It’s held up our infrastructure master plan. It’s held up our transportation master plan. It’s held up updating our development charges,” he added.

“If there is a possibility that Tewin won’t proceed, we might as well stop all of these long-term planning exercises because we’re just wasting our time and staff’s time.”

A lot of this is politics, and it’s ending up costing the city of Ottawa a lot of money.– Coun. Shawn Menard, environment and climate change committee chair

Menard told CBC he found Gower’s comments “odd,” saying council’s duty to reconsider a “previous bad decision.” 

“A lot of this is politics, and it’s ending up costing the city of Ottawa a lot of money,” he said, expressing concerns of how these infrastructure expenses — which don’t include the cost of building roads — could create a financial burden the city can’t afford to bear. 

It’s a concern echoed by Johnson.  

“We’ve got an asset management plan that shows a $3 billion problem we need to solve. We have a transit problem that’s going to be $6.6 billion to solve. We have development charges that are serving more debt than ever before. We have a landfill problem,” she said.

Still opportunities for discussion

Scuttling Tewin would mean another tough decision, as the city continues to struggle with a housing crisis. 

Barrhaven West ward Coun. David Hill questioned how the city would meet its housing targets. Royce Fu, the city’s acting manager of policy planning, confirmed that Tewin’s removal would likely kick off a process to add an equivalent amount of land to the urban boundary elsewhere. 

It would not necessarily, however, land the city in legal hot water. 

“It is a general principle of planning law that there is no compensation that is due for an up-zoning or for a down-zoning,” said Tim Marc, senior legal counsel for the planning department. “It would be subject to appeal. But if the appeal was successful … in my opinion, there’s no entitlement to compensation for the removal of an urban designation.” 

A man with white hair and dark glasses touches his chin with his hand
Tim Marc, senior legal counsel with the City of Ottawa’s planning department, says removing Tewin wouldn’t necessarily land the city in legal hot water. (Patrick Louiseize/CBC)

Despite several councillors suggesting a new vote on Tewin remains on the horizon, Gower doesn’t expect the outcome will be any different than with Thursday’s failed motion. 

“I’ve seen nothing to suggest that it won’t [proceed],” he said. “It’s passed through council. It’s passed through the province. As far as I’m aware there were no appeals to that decision.”

Fu told CBC that council retains the ability to request staff amend its official plan to remove the Tewin land and also identified two opportunities to halt the development, in 2026 and 2031. 

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