Out of the blue, several neighbours and I recently received a letter from the City of Toronto Planning Department. The new owners of a house very close to all of ours are intending to tear down the existing structure and replace it with something much bigger. That would require several variances from the zoning bylaws, and the variances would be considered by the Orwellian-sounding Committee of Adjustment. The deadline for written comments was less than two weeks after we received our letters, and the committee hearing considering the application for the variances a week later.
The Neighbours Object
We dug into the application and supporting documents posted online and realized that the new owners want to build a 5200 square foot home that would be 33 feet in height with a triple garage. This is in a neighbourhood of 3000 square foot homes with double garages that are approximately 25 feet high. The neighbours closest to the proposed new house objected because it would reduce their sunlight and privacy.
We noticed that the architectural plans for the house were dated December 2019, strongly suggesting that the new owners were looking for a site for their drawing-board dreamhouse, rather than designing a house for their property. The most significant variance, in our view, was asking for 35 percent coverage of the 7700 square foot lot by the house’s footprint, rather than the 30 percent coverage the bylaw permitted. With a large back deck and swimming pool within three feet of the property line, they were covering the lot with structures.
Other neighbours objected because the proposed house is out of character with existing homes and would set a precedent that would fundamentally change the character of the neighbourhood. One aspect of that change would be greater lot coverage that would diminish the neighbourhood’s tree canopy.
By the deadline for comments, 10 letters of objection had been filed, including one from the neighbourhood association. The day before the meeting, the city councillor wrote to request a two-week postponement of the hearing because of the complexity of the planning issues and limited time that had been available for consideration of the proposal.
Old Small Houses; Development is Inevitable
At the hearing the Committee of Adjustment simply ignored the councillor’s letter, as we were warned by the neighbourhood association they were likely to do. We then raised our objections. One of the neighbours went through the city’s tests for granting a variance and argued the proposal failed them all: the change wasn’t minor, the change didn’t meet the general intent of the zoning bylaw because it woud reduce greenspace and didn’t maintain an appropriate relationship with, or distance from, surrounding houses; and the change didn’t meet the general intent of the official plan because it didn’t respect and indeed undermined the neighbourhood’s character.
The applicant’s representative, in responding to our objections, referred to our 3000 square foot homes – sizeable by any standard – and built in the early Seventies as “old small houses.” Asserting that “development is inevitable,” they implied we were standing in the way of progress. Though all the houses in the street where the proposed house is located and the street behind it are similar in size, other nearby streets have bigger houses, so why not this one? And the representative argued that “lot coverage is a number [that] has negligible impact.”
Guess who Won
If you’ve recently driven around the former City of North York (now part of Toronto) and observed streets with many large new houses overshadowing – and throwing shade on – smaller older houses, you would predict that the applicant won. They did, and indeed applicants won 34 out of 35 decisions at the Committee of Adjustment that day.
What our band of neighbours found depressing and even humiliating is that the three members of the Committee of Adjustment never responded to anything we said nor did they even address us. They just looked bored, and seemed to be thinking, “We’ve heard it all before, let them vent.” They voted unanimously to accept the proposal and the closest one of them came to a rationale was to say that the proposed house didn’t look too big.
A Tilted Playing Field
Our lived experience and a bit of reading made clear that Toronto’s Committee of Adjustment is a playing field tilted in favour of developers (the applicants). Developers can delay consideration of a proposal but residents or even city councillors can’t. Developers can submit new architectural plans at the meeting and often do. And the Ford Government tilted the field even more because its More Homes Built Faster Act withdrew the right to appeal Committee of Adjustment decisions from neighbourhood residents, but not from developers.
KPMG Consultants recently completed a review of the Committee of Adjustment process. They consulted developers and neighbourhood groups and heard diametrically opposed feedback. “Applicants believe the CoA is an arms-length approval authority for technical amendments to municipal planning rules. Members of the public believe the CoA is a City-led agency with a mandate to uphold and enforce existing municipal planning rules.” It is indicative of the CoA’s track record that “nearly half of applicant respondents to our survey indicated that their participation in the public hearing process was either good or outstanding, while near 70 percent of members of the public indicated that their participation was not satisfactory.” You can count the residents of our neighbourhood among the unsatisfied majority.
Why is the City of Toronto so strongly on the side of the developers? Perhaps it is all about the money because bigger houses mean more property tax. Perhaps it is about assuring more work for the construction trades. Perhaps it is about enticing wealthy people from around the world to move to, or at least build houses in, Toronto. (I know this is armchair empiricism, but a friend a mile or two away observes that large new houses are always going up on their street, but no one ever moves in.)
In my next post I’ll consider the implications of this pattern of urban development.