Analysis

Rockcliffe home debate feeds fears about developers' access to city hall

For those who worry that developers have too much access, too much sway and just too much contact generally with city hall, an hours-long debate over a single application to demolish a Rockcliffe house did little to assuage those fears.

Councillors spent more than 3 hours discussing demolition application

Councillors spent more than three hours discussing the application by developer Richcraft Homes to demolish the house at 270 Buchan Rd., against the recommendation of the city's heritage planning staff.

For those who worry that developers have too much access, too much sway and just too much contact generally with city hall, a recent hours-long debate over a single application to demolish a Rockcliffe house did little to assuage those fears.

The issue concerns 270 Buchan Rd., a home in the Rockcliffe Park Heritage Conservation District — a plan unanimously approved by council last year to protect the heritage aspects of Rockcliffe and manage change in the former village.

Demolition not allowed by staff

The home was built in 1940 by then-popular architects Hazelgrove and Mills. In recent times, it was purchased by local developer Richcraft Homes and currently is being rented out.

However, the company wants to demolish the house and build something new for one of the members of the Singhal family, which owns Richcraft.

But under the heritage conservation plan, that's not so easy.

The plan prohibits tearing down a so-called Grade 1 home — a property that scores above 50 according to certain city-heritage planning criteria — except for "extraordinary circumstances such as fire or disaster."

And any application for demolition needs to be accompanied by a rationale explaining why retaining the property isn't possible.

I suspect probably there would have been less discussion if it was a less well-known family, to be perfectly honest.- Mayor Jim Watson

The home at 270 Buchan scored 69 (although it first scored 80 due to an error about someone of significant local history living there).

And there wasn't, in city staff's view, any structural reason why the home should be torn down. Hence, the planning staff recommended that Richcraft's proposal to knock down the house be refused.

And the built-heritage subcommittee did just that.

Councillors spent hours talking about developer's home

But when the file hit planning committee at the end of April, it took on a new intensity.

Councillors spent two-and-a-quarter hours debating the validity of the score given to 270 Buchan. In the end, the committee voted in a tie, which meant that the item failed and Richcraft could tentatively demolish the house.

The demolition still had to be approved at council last week, where councillors Tim Tierney and Allan Hubley — who sided with Richcraft at planning committee — took up the developer's cause yet again. They were joined by a few of their colleagues, including Kanata North Coun. Marianne Wilkinson.

Council spent yet another hour debating the issue. While it's not unheard of for council to fixate on one single property, it's certainly unusual.

Significant lobbying

As Mayor Jim Watson pointed out, councillors faced significant lobbying over the demolition. The lobbyist registry shows that Kevin Yemm, Richcraft's vice-president of land development (and husband to a Singhal family member) personally met with 16 councillors and the mayor's chief of staff.

Kevin Yemm, VP of land development for Richcraft, lobbied 17 members of council (including the mayor's office), about demolishing 270 Buchan Rd.

Members of Rockcliffe's community association also reached out to some councillors, but community groups aren't compelled to register their lobbying activity.

Donations to councillors, city

Like many developers, Richcraft has donated to council members' election campaigns. This makes sense — development companies deal extensively with city hall, and, like all voters, they'd like to support those they believe are like-minded. 

Unlike many voters, however, they have deep pockets.

During the 2014 election, Richcraft donated $4,500 to a number of councillors, while individuals related to the company contributed more than $10,000, according to public records of financial campaign contributions.

And development companies contribute to loads of other things at the city as well, from community events and charity golf tournaments — often attended and sometimes sponsored by councillors — to major city infrastructure projects.

There are also a number of community centres in the city bearing development companies' names after they received much-needed injections of cash, including Kanata's Richcraft Recreation Complex.

Appearance of access

It's important to note that all this activity is allowed. The campaign contributions are legal, as is the lobbying, which was promptly registered.

As for donating to city causes, it may well be that we rely too much on development money — what other local industry is helping fund our community centres, major events or neighbourhood parks?

Regardless, the unique relationship developers have with city hall can appear to give them more access to decision-makers than an ordinary citizen. Consider the case of Diane Cameron, a woman who attended the April 25 planning committee meeting to speak against her York Street home being added to the city's heritage registry.

Cameron was told curtly by planning chair Coun. Jan Harder that she'd have to wait hours before she spoke. (In fact, the issue could have been moved to the front of the line, as there was only one speaker and no staff presentation, but the chair chose to stand by the order of items as laid out in the agenda.)

When Cameron did finally get her turn, two councillors had left the table. Her request to have her home left off the registry failed. 

Cameron appeared at the same meeting where 270 Buchan was discussed for more than two hours. 

Needless to say, Cameron's resources to lobby for her case pale in comparison to that of Richcraft. The federal bureaucrat already had to juggle her workday to hang around for hours before speaking. A single mother-of-three, Cameron also had to hire a babysitter so she could work into the evening to make up for work she'd missed earlier in the day.

Richcraft, on the other hand, has an in-house lobbyist who has the time and connections to take 17 meetings to press its case well before it arrived at the committee meeting. 

Demolition ban upheld

Mayor Jim Watson said he lobbied his council colleagues to uphold the Rockcliffe Park Heritage Conservation District and refuse the demolition of 270 Buchan. (CBC)

In the end, however, council voted 13 to 10 to ban the demolition of 270 Buchan. Watson himself lobbied his colleagues to uphold the heritage conservation district plan, which Richcraft is currently appealing to the Ontario Municipal Board.

In fact, the developer had already asked for the 270 Buchan demolition issue to be added to its appeal of the heritage plan. Both files will be heard at an OMB appeal in September.

As the mayor pointed out, people are allowed to lobby for their personal property. And neither council, nor city staff, should take lightly their power to limit what people can do with their homes and land.

However, that consideration doesn't always appear to be meted out evenly. Even the mayor admits it.

"I suspect probably there would have been less discussion if it was a less well-known family, to be perfectly honest," said Watson.

And that may very well be a suspicion shared by many other city hall watchers.

About the Author

Joanne Chianello

City affairs analyst

Joanne Chianello is an award-winning journalist and CBC Ottawa's city affairs analyst. You can email her at joanne.chianello@cbc.ca or tweet her at @jchianello.