Councillor demanding answers on changes to flood plain in south Barrhaven
Catherine McKenney believes council was misinformed about developer's bid to alter Jock River flood plain
When Ottawa city council approved a major expansion of the urban boundary less than two weeks ago, it vowed not to allow future construction on certain sensitive types of property including prime farmland and flood plains.
Yet at this very moment, a 100-hectare swath of the Jock River flood plain — the equivalent of four LeBreton Flats — is being significantly altered to make way for a future development in south Barrhaven, leading one councillor to question the city's commitment to protecting flood plain lands in coming years.
"I don't know how we can say that," said Coun. Catherine McKenney, "when in fact we are allowing development —significant development — on a flood plain today."
Although the application to change the contours of the Jock River flood plain was filed and approved months before councillors debated urban expansion, McKenney can't understand how the project went ahead without council knowing about it.
McKenney submitted a formal inquiry about the file, which is expected to be addressed at Thursday's planning committee meeting.
Among many questions, the councillor has demanded to know why a senior staff member told a provincial regulator that council supported the plan.
"I am very concerned that my view was misrepresented as a city councillor," McKenney told CBC.
3-year effort to build on flood plain
Behind McKenney's concerns is a complex, three-year effort by developer Caivan Communities to change part of the Jock River flood plain, north of the river up to McKenna Casey Drive, from Highway 416 to Greenbank.
"It has been one of our more challenging files," said Sommer Casgrain-Robertson, the general manager of the Rideau Valley Conservation Authority (RVCA), the regulator of the Rideau River watershed, of which the Jock River is a part.
Flood plains are the low-lying areas around a river that are theoretically subject to flooding once every 100 years. Neither provincial nor municipal policies allow construction within the areas subject to flooding, although applications for exceptions are allowed.
The Jock River flood plain experienced notable flooding in 1976 and 1999, according to the RVCA, but most years the floodwater in this area is shallow and slow-moving.
Armed with expert studies that showed how construction could be safely accommodated once the land was elevated, Caivan approached the RVCA and the city back in 2017. Its first proposal to fill in the flood plain with enough soil to raise the land above the flood levels was rejected by both the RVCA and the city.
The developer's next move was to change the current flood plain mapping, last updated in 2005. And that's where council comes in.
RVCA didn't support mapping update
In 2018, Caivan applied to the city for an official plan amendment, considered a notable change to the city's land-use policies, to allow future residential development on what is currently a flood plain.
The developer's own modelling indicated the actual flood line was lower than currently identified by RVCA and the city, according to a city staff report to council.
Caivan and its engineering experts, J.F Sabourin and Assoc., contended that "there are inaccuracies" in the current flood plain line last revised in 2005, the report states. "The proper approach would be to do a flood plain mapping study to update the mapping."
But the RVCA never had any plans to re-map the flood plain.
According to Casgrain-Robertson, RVCA staff reviewed the technical information provided by Caivan and concluded that the existing 2005 map was still valid.
"We did not support lowering the flood elevation or revising the mapping," she said.
RVCA and city staff agreed among themselves in February 2019 to end the mapping exercise, but in March of that year, Mayor Jim Watson and planning general manager Stephen Willis wrote to Casgrain-Roberston to urge the RVCA to conclude the mapping.
The RVCA stood its ground. As for council?
"We never heard about it again" McKenney said of the mapping.
3rd time's the charm
Caivan's next move was to apply to the RVCA for a "cut and fill" permit in July 2019, as it's allowed to do under the provincial Conservation Authorities Act.
The developer petitioned to remove, or cut, 116,000 cubic metres of soil near the river and build up, or fill, the more northerly areas of the flood plain with 407,000 cubic metres of soil.
In theory, the change would remove 291,000 cubic metres of floodwater storage from the area.
Casgrain-Robertson characterized the request as "very significant in its volume … it's the largest-scale application that we've received."
In fact, the proposed change was so significant that RVCA staff were not allowed to approve it. They're only allowed to approve minor applications to alter the flood plain, and even those must be balanced, meaning the same amount of soil that's removed must be replaced elsewhere so that the watershed's storage capacity remains constant.
"This is not a traditional balanced cut and fill," Casgrain-Robertson said.
An application of a major change is ultimately decided not by RVCA's own technical and regulatory staff, but by its executive committee — residents appointed by the municipalities that are located within the Jock River flood plain.
RVCA's executive committee heard Caivan's application on Nov. 7, 2019. That same day, Lee Ann Snedden, a senior planning manager for the city, wrote to the committee "expressing the City of Ottawa's support for the approval of the application."
It's usual for a city official to let the RVCA know how an application fits in with the municipality's overall planning policies.
However, Snedden's letter went on to say: "We want to reinforce the support Council has expressed for this file, founded on the comprehensive work completed by the applicant and its consulting team..."
In fact, council was never told about Caivan's application. As far as most members knew, there was a flood mapping exercise going on.
"I don't know why senior staff would suggest very strongly in a letter to the conservation authority that council had approved the fill permit when that in fact wasn't the case," McKenney said. "I never supported a fill permit on a flood plain."
Appointed board approved changes
At its Nov. 7 meeting, the board heard from Caivan and its experts, who used sophisticated digital modelling that has become more widespread in the last few years, and is considered more capable of accurately analyzing the river's flow. The study, which Caivan had peer-reviewed by yet another firm, indicated that the proposed cut along the south side of the property would be able to move any floodwater downstream, eventually into the Rideau River.
So even though the cut and fill wasn't balanced, the plan should not lead to future flooding.
RVCA presented the executive board a long list of cautions about developing in the flood plain, including how the application doesn't meet the conservation authority's own policies, and that Caivan's application would set a precedent for other landowners to make similar alterations to the flood plain.
Still, conservation authority staff told the executive committee it was "comfortable with approval of the application," as long as certain conditions were met, such as monitoring the water levels and velocity.
The four-member executive committee voted on the application in camera, which is standard procedure for conservation authorities. The vote wasn't unanimous, but it was approved, and Caivan began work on the flood plain in the following weeks.
Caivan's Conservancy underway
Caivan is calling its south Barrhaven development "The Conservancy," and is planning for up to 2,800 homes north of the Jock River. The developer already had approval to build the first phase of the subdivision, a small piece of which was on the flood plain.
The area being cut-and-filled by Caivan now still has to go through several steps of the city's planning process.
Frank Cairo, CEO and co-founder of Caivan, said the company has worked diligently with engineers and the RVCA for years to ensure that, among other things, its development would have no impact either upstream or downstream.
Caivan always takes into account "both existing and future residents in the establishment of new communities," Cairo said in an emailed statement to CBC.
He also stated that no development would occur in the low-lying areas. As well, Caivan plans to build a 60-hectare green corridor along the north shore of the Jock River, which will restore the ecology of the northern bank and provide an additional buffer between the waterway and any future residential development.
Inquiry into process
It's important to note that the developer followed all the proper procedures and rules — there's nothing wrong with perseverance. As well, once the cut and fill is completed, the land will no longer be considered a flood plain.
But McKenney wants some answers about this process, and is hoping to get them at Thursday's committee meeting.
In an email to CBC, Snedden said when she mentioned council's support for the cut and fill in her letter to the RVCA, she was referring to council's approval of the official plan amendment, even though that was supposed to be subject to a flood plain mapping update. Snedden also said council isn't normally "consulted or advised" about RVCA application permits.
As well, Don Herweyer, a senior staffer in the city's planning department, described Caivan's application as a "very minor change and a balanced cut and fill" to councillors last month. The city has since told CBC that Herweyer's comments "were intended to characterize that there was no impact" to the area from the cut and fill application. The city has apologized if Herweyer's comments were "unclear."
That's not good enough for McKenney.
"I want to understand why there wasn't more transparency from the city's perspective," the councillor said.