Tewin has councillors making up planning policy on the fly
Huge planning questions remain unanswered, including how reconciliation fits in
On Wednesday, council will have to vote on what has rapidly turned into one of the most controversial development proposals in recent memory — a new community called Tewin.
In many ways, what the Algonquins of Ontario and their partner Taggart Group are demanding is far from unprecedented. Investors often buy land that is not zoned for development — say, on a floodplain — and then work to get council to change the rules to allow building on that land.
Sometimes they succeed, sometimes they do not. That's business as usual at city hall.
But the Algonquins of Ontario (AOO) are arguing that their land be included in the city's urban area, in part, because of the city's commitment to reconciliation — and many council members, including Mayor Jim Watson, agree.
And that has made this decision anything but usual.
Planning questions over Tewin
Using reconciliation as a rationale for the Tewin proposal has caused an uproar. Indigenous leaders are arguing about who is a "real Algonquin." Elder Claudette Commanda, who often represents the Algonquin community at city events, said that if council approves this plan, it will set city-Indigenous relations back 150 years.
But putting aside reconciliation for a moment, let's consider the planning issues surrounding Tewin.
They are significant.
In February 2018, AOO approached the province about buying the Carlsbad Spring lands — land that government agencies expropriated 50 years ago and then did nothing with. Almost two years later, the AOO bought 1,626 hectares of the property outright for $16.9 million. The purchase, says AOO, was "jointly financed" with Taggart.
AOO and Taggart described the future Tewin development of 15,000 homes as a sustainable, walkable and environmentally friendly community, which would also include hundreds of hectares of natural heritage land that would be protected from development.
It's an intriguing vision for city growth. But the proposal comes with a long list of unanswered questions.
First, there's the cost of connecting the city's infrastructure to the far reaches of the southeast corner of the city.
The AOO-Taggart partners insist that, when it comes to costs of infrastructure for the far-flung community, "Tewin will pay for Tewin." That is, the future 45,000 residents of the new community will pay the capital costs of roads, and water and transit — it won't cost city taxpayers anything.
That might be true for the initial capital costs of installing all these pipes and roads and bus lanes. But who will pay for the ongoing operation and upkeep of this infrastructure over the generations? Or the widening of roads into the area, which will be demanded in the future? Or what about when the community wants an LRT connection — where will that money come from?
That money will come from all taxpayers.
Then there's the issue of employment in this new community. The Tewin partners also promising "a higher ratio of jobs to residents than in the existing communities outside the Greenbelt."
It's not clear how they can make this assertion. Eastern Ottawa has been trying to attract employers to its end of the city for decades, with limited success.
And while Tewin promises more density than traditional suburbs, sensitive marine clay soils in the area raise questions about whether anything higher than four storeys could be built there.
Council must follow planning rules
Council has a right to consider whatever issues it likes when making a decision. But it does have to follow existing planning rules. In particular, elected officials must adhere to the Provincial Policy Statement — the planning guidelines set out by the Ontario government.
The provincial rules clearly state that growth areas "should occur adjacent to the existing built-up area." The rules also stipulate that a new community can only be established if there isn't enough other land to accommodate growth "over the identified planning horizon."
The Tewin proposal meets neither of these criteria, as staff have identified other bits and pieces of land on the edges of existing suburbs that could be added to the urban area that would fulfil the province's requirement for growth.
The Provincial Policy Statement also calls for new development in areas that are "financially viable over their life cycle," but the city has no idea what the financial ramifications of the plan are.
Because of these questions, the city's planning staff scored Tewin lands very low based on council-approved criteria.
Staff wants more study
Yet, despite these obvious concerns, staff did leave open the possibility of including Tewin — or one of another two proposed communities — into the urban area.
They want to take a deep dive into Tewin's assertions, study the financial implications for adding the community to the urban area, and promised to bring back their recommendation to council by 2026 at the latest. A reasonable, cautious proposal, especially as staff identified good-scoring lands that would meet the city's land requirements for the next 15 years.
Not good enough, said the Tewin partners.
AOO spokespeople have told councillors that the Tewin land needed to be added right now, although it's unclear why. And at a joint-committee meeting late last month, many councillors obliged, citing the city's own reconciliation policies as one of the reasons.
And this is when the controversy began.
Planning and reconciliation
Should the city view planning issues through a reconciliation lens? Absolutely. What does this mean? No one knows.
Renaming a road or a bridge is a goodwill gesture that will face little opposition. But when it comes to a decision that could have consequences for generations to come, council appears to be making up policy on the fly.
- We're 'real Algonquins' too, says group behind Tewin suburb plan
- Algonquin chiefs denounce urban expansion as 'wreck-onciliation'
- Algonquin elder Claudette Commanda 'shocked and insulted' over Tewin land deal
The city's own reconciliation action plan was approved in 2018, but it was not mentioned once when council debated and approved the scoring methods for new urban lands last spring, even though at the time the AOO was the first presenter at a three-day meeting arguing for its lands in the urban area.
It was only on Jan. 26, through a motion successfully moved by Coun. Tim Tierney to immediately add 445 hectares of Tewin lands to the urban boundary, that council first referenced reconciliation.
"Reconciliation is a journey," says the city's own action plan.
And governments, like many facets of society, are trying to figure out what meaningful reconciliation looks like. It won't be easy, not everyone will agree and it won't look the same from situation to situation.
But the question council has to deal with on Wednesday is whether meaningful reconciliation can be achieved through a walked-on motion.