Draft city staff report said no to Glencrest rezoning

St. John's planning staff initially advised this month against the "premature" rezoning parcels of land for the massive Glencrest development near Southlands — a recommendation that was quickly reversed.

Final memo 2 days later reversed course and recommended approval

Documents show that St. John's staff had reservations about massive development, reports Zach Goudie 7:03

St. John’s planning staff advised this month against rezoning parcels of land for the massive Glencrest development near Southlands, calling it "premature" to do so.

But within 48 hours, those recommendations were changed in the final version of the report. "The rezonings warrant consideration of approval," that document noted.

CBC News has obtained the initial memos written by city staffers for consideration by the planning committee — and later, council as a whole.

Those memos, dated March 6, are in response to a request to rezone four blocks of land — one commercial area, two nearby residential zones, and an industrial zone.

All together, the blocks of land in question comprise about 10 per cent of Glencrest’s 2,178 acres, owned by former premier Danny Williams.

After considering the final memo, the city’s planning committee recommended approval of the rezoning requests.

And at a public meeting Tuesday night, St. John’s councillors unanimously voted in favour of the proposals.

But what city councillors never saw were the early drafts of the planning department's recommendations — drafts that tell a different story about the development, and come to a different conclusion.

Initial draft memo conclusions

The initial drafts of the memo lay out the rules for development above 190 metres, and without water and sewer systems.

Those drafts dealt with the four rezoning requests separately; they were later collapsed into one final document.

In underlined type, an early draft stresses that "... no development may be permitted ... until such time as the city's department of engineering determines that the area is available for serviced urban development."

Memos written by city planning staff on requests to rezone parts of the Glencrest development changed significantly over a 48-hour period. (CBC)

Until then, the memo notes, "rezoning to accommodate urban development would be premature."

Demand for new homes in the St. John's area has never been higher.

The city is rapidly running out of room in areas serviced by the municipal water system.

Developers can get permission to build outside those areas if they have a legal agreement to pay for water and sewer systems themselves.

But staff's initial conclusion stresses that Glencrest doesn't have such an agreement.

"(U)nless the applicant contracts to pay the full cost of construction of the services ... this application is considered premature and cannot presently be recommended for approval," the draft memos note.

Objections changed in later drafts

But those objections never saw the light of day.

Instead, staff went back to the drawing board and, within 24 hours, prepared a second recommendation.

But many important details have changed.

The first section, where staff had underlined concerns about missing services, now simply reads: "Design work for servicing is ongoing. Council's approach is that the water and sewage systems and trunk systems shall be provided at the developer’s cost."

In the first draft, staff said the rezoning couldn't be considered without contracts to pay for the full cost of construction.

In the second draft, those concerns have disappeared.

The new conclusion says, "The rezoning is recommended for consideration by council."

But even that wasn't enough.

Staff wrote one more draft of the recommendation — with an even more enthusiastic conclusion.

Now, instead of being "recommended for consideration," the "rezonings warrant consideration of approval."

That is the final recommendation that went before the city’s planning committee on March 12, and the full meeting of council Tuesday night.

Other concerns downplayed

Other concerns are similarly watered down from one draft to the next.

In the first draft, in a section on the environment, staff write that the applicant should check with the Department of Fisheries and Oceans to determine if a river is salmon bearing.

In the next draft, city staff will do that checking themselves.

With the development backing onto the Trans-Canada Highway, the first draft says that "an appropriate buffer is required."

St. John's Mayor Dennis O'Keefe is declining comment until he sees the memoranda cited in the CBC News story. (CBC)

That was changed to "an appropriate buffer may be required."

It is unclear why planning staff changed their minds, and their recommendations.

The later drafts don't suggest a reason.

But they do suggest that at least some staff members had objections to what was happening.

At the end of the first draft, there are two names — both senior members of the planning department.

But in the second and third drafts, only one name remains.

A spokeswoman for the city said Mayor Dennis O'Keefe was not available for comment until he reviews the documents cited in the CBC News story.

The city instead issued a written statement that noted "there are often many variations as information comes in before a final memorandum is presented to council."