Browsing the archives for the City Staff tag.

The City’s Failed Wildlife Strategy

Green Reality, Legislative Gaps

The City of Ottawa’s Wildlife Strategy is a disappointing response to the public and to environmental groups who have been highly critical of the reactive and negative way in which the City responded to wildlife conflicts.

The public has been routinely frustrated that wildlife-related decisions are handled by an inter-agency group that included the City’s by-law department, the NCC and the Ministry of Natural Resources – without any transparency or accountability.

So, without any transparency or accountability, it appears that Mayor Watson has done what he seems to do best, a backroom deal that puts the City’s Wildlife Strategy in the hands of the City’s Agriculture and Rural Affairs Committee – even though this group has no mandate to do this and its chairman, Doug Thompson is an advocate for coyote culls.

Killing wildlife whenever there is conflict may be a strategy, but Mayor Watson is it a good one?

So after more than 3 years of deflection and delay and a 200-page report filled with a lot of empty platitudes, it will be ‘business as usual’ for beavers killed at the majority of conflict sites in Ottawa.  Neither will there be any real help for people experiencing a wildlife conflict.

As for the process, the City’s public consultation created a new low for public participation initiatives undertaken by the City because it was deliberately stalled and dragged out.  Several of the community stakeholder groups resigned because the working group had not met in over 16 months after the draft strategy was released. Nor were any community stakeholders involved in its development.

Meanwhile a parallel and secretive process was running in background between city staff and agency representatives, some of whom had obstructed the process on the working group from the very beginning.  This is the same inter-agency group that operates without transparency and accountability – take for example, the MNR’s arbitrary refusal to allow the Constance Creek Wildlife Centre to open.

According to the mayor, ARAC was given responsibility for City-wide wildlife management in 2011. If this is true it is another example of the secretive way that the Mayor runs the City because there is no public record of approval for it.  The wording in ARAC’s 2011 Terms of Reference with respect to wildlife is identical to that in its 2006 Terms of Reference and both documents explicitly state that its responsibilities do not extend outside the rural boundary.

So why is this committee now responsible for managing wildlife conflict within the urban boundary?

Mayor Watson’s abysmal record on the environment continues to reflect 18th century colonialist attitudes.  Maybe it’s time to

  • dispense with backroom deal-making
  • operate an inclusive decision-making process in the public sunlight
  • establish a balance between the needs of development and nature
  • look for creative 21st century solutions to age-old problems.

We can only hope for a new mayor in the near future actually cares for the environment, public participation, and for implementing democratic process.

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Why is Ottawa Overpaying Developers for Land?

Green Reality, South March Highlands

The City’s scarce environmental purchase funds appear to be used to overpay Urbandale and other developers when buying lands designated Urban Natural Area (UNA).

According to the Oct 12, 2012 staff report to the City’s Finance Committee, the going price for environmental land acquisition is $160 K / acre which is up 50% over the originally budgeted amount in 2010.

Considering that UNA lands are already undeveloped and cannot ever be developed, you have to wonder how this exorbitant price increase was justified over only 2 years.

Even if staff are using recent price increases for developed land, the math doesn’t work.

  • According to the Ottawa Real Estate Board, the average price of resale homes in Ottawa increased only 2.3% in 2012 over 2011 compared to 7.7% in 2011 over 2010.
  • Inflating the 2010 budget estimate of $101, 250 / acre x 1.077 x 1.023 = $111,554 / acre  in 2012
  • So why are staff agreeing to pay $160,000 / acre?

But is it even believable that land price increases for developed real estate should be used to justify massive increase in value for land that can never be developed?  On what basis would any reasonable person expect there to be any increase in value at all beyond inflation?

  • Allowing for inflation results in only a compounded increase of only about  4%

So how can a price increase of 50% be rationally justified?

  • It seems that either the process is corrupt  or the City managers that are responsible for these funds are so incompetent that they should be dismissed.

A review of land acquisitions from 1998 – 2010 reveals that the most that the City ever paid in the past was only $86 K /acre and that the only transaction in 2010 was at $71 K / acre.

What seems particularly odious is that the same staff were busy justifying a price ranging between $231 K /acre t0 $363 K / acre in Nov 2010.  The Coalition to Protect the South March Highlands asked the City to purchase 74 acres of KNL’s land in Beaver Pond Forest prior to it being clear-cut:

  • KNL Phase 9 is 110 acres of which KNL had already agreed to convey 40% to the City for free as UNA
  • City staff had estimated the value of the remaining 66 acres at $18 M or $231 K / acre for unserviced land that had previously been designated as NEA prior to granting Campeau development rights in the SMH
  • Note that KNL is a joint venture between Urbandale and Richcraft.  It seems that Urbandale has remarkably good fortune in extracting top-dollar from the City for land acquisitions and that City staff are often willing to pay it.

Since UNA land cannot be developed, and tax assessments are supposed to be never more than 3 years out of date, why does the City ever pay more than the assessed value of the land for taxes multiplied by the appropriate inflation adjustment?

So it appears that staff has misled Council on several occasions:

  • By using an estimate of $100 K /acre in the 2010 budget when the City had only paid $71 K / acre that year
  • By reporting to City Council  in 2010 that a fair price was effectively $231 K / acre or higher when Council was deliberating on the Beaver Pond Forest acquisition
  • By consistently overpaying developers by 50% when acquiring UNA land post-2010
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Turning a Good Swap Into a Bad One

South March Highlands

The original swap proposed by Marianne Wilkinson was workable only because it traded land that was in immediate threat of development for land that was not and did so on an equal basis.  More importantly, it was part and parcel of a larger deal which protected an environmentally significant forest.

However the Peter Hume deal that Councillor Wilkinson settled for on Dec 15, is worse than completely meaningless – it results in a net loss of greenspace at an opportunity cost of $1.46 M!

According to city staff’s ever moving estimate, the 74 acres of Beaver Pond Forest has a fair market value of $18 M or $243 K / acre.

The Hume-Wilkinson deal approved by council surrenders 12 acres elsewhere in the South March Highlands to obtain a 6 acre corridor that has no possible ecological function.  The net loss of trading 12 acres to get 6 at a rate of $243 K / acre means that the city just paid Urbandale the equivalent of $1.46 M for Marianne’s precious corridor.

This corridor is to be an 80m wide pathway through the middle of a subdivision that is supposed to start at Beaver Pond, cross a road, and terminate at Shirley’s Brook.  There is no ecological value to it, while the land that was surrendered is adjacent to a larger protected area.

What was she thinking?

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The Full News on 12 Acres in Beaver Pond Forest

South March Highlands

When the Ottawa Citizen printed “City of Ottawa, developers agree to preserve 12 acres of Beaver Pond Forest” (2010-11-12) , a cynic might believe that they only printed the part of the story that makes Urbandale and City staff look good.  That same cynic might observe that both the City and Urbandale advertise heavily in the Ottawa Citizen.

What the Citizen didn’t disclose is that the City and Urbandale are discussing acquisition of allof the Beaver Pond Forest and some people might believe that Urbandale is dragging its feet on reaching a deal in what might appear to be a tactic to get a higher price. 

Click on each of the tabs below to get the full news.

Swap Details

The Citizen didn’t disclose that City staff originally identified that roughly 1/2 of the 73 acre area could be obtained via land swaps if the City were to consider all available land for a swap – not just land within the South March Highlands. 

Some of the available City land, such as at the Kanata Town Centre, is already serviced and worth considerably more to a developer than unserviced land since the developer would not need to spend the extra time and cost to service it. 

However, according to Marianne Wilkinson, Urbandale declined these other swaps and agreed only to swap unserviced open space west of Goulbourn Forced Road (GFR) for the 12 acres of unserviced land east of GFR.

The implication of this is that acquiring the remaining land will need to financed through a future purchase at taxpayer expense.  Those who oppose protecting the forest are possibly hoping that the new City council will balk at the higher price.

Although swapping green land to protect green land is odious, the Citizen is accurate in reporting that this part of the swap is a good deal.  The land being swapped west of GFR is currently cleared farmland that is slated to be used as soccer fields if the Urbandale-Richcraft consortium (KNL) is allowed to proceed with development.  With the upcoming construction of the nearby Kanata North Recreation Centre, these playing fields would be unnecessary.  So swapping them to save old growth forest east of GFR is a no-brainer that even City staff can figure out.

Busby’s Quote

The one line quote at the end of the article attributed to Chris Busby pales in comparison to what he actually said:

Does the Richcraft-Urbandale consortium think it is offering the citizens of Ottawa an early Christmas gift by agreeing to a land swap to save 12 acres of the Beaver Pond forest?

Seems more like a cruel Halloween trick.  

 There is an unprecedented level of community support for the protection of the Beaver Pond forest. And that energy has generated the Stewardship Plan, which was presented to City Council October 6 by Councillor Wilkinson.

The plan proposes to create, among other things, a centre for ecotourism for this environmentally highly significant old-growth Canadian Shield upland that will be responsibly managed by the community itself—if the land can be put into public ownership.

I have only one Christmas wish: for Urbandale to see the light, as did Ebenezer Scrooge, and join the effort to ensure that the Beaver Pond forest becomes the great gateway to the spectacular South March Highlands, Ottawa’s own Algonquin Park.

If Ottawa’s developers want us to believe in them, they should give us–and our children’s children–something significant to believe in.”

Fair Price

A previous blog posting has already questioned the fairness of Urbandale’s expectation of being paid $18 Million for 110 acres of land that has been only appraised at $5.9 M for tax purposes.

And another blog posting described how deducting the 40% allowance and other requirements for open space means that 110 acres contains only 74 acres of developable land.  Deducting the land swap of 12 acres leaves 62 acres of developable land in Beaver Pond Forest.

If, as the Citizen article suggests, Urbandale is paid $18 M for the 62 remaining acres, this will represent a $290 K price per acre!

According to an unpublished appraisal conducted for the City, a  fair market price for unserviced land inside the urban boundary is closer to $200 K per acre.  Hence the fair market price for buying the remainder of Beaver Pond Forest is approximately $12.4 M.

$12.4 M financed at 6% interest via a debenture which is paid off over 30 years works out to annual payments of less than $1 M per year.

What the Citizen didn’t tell you is that an $18 M price is barely justified even if the City were to expropriate the land in the scenario where negotiations with Urbandale cannot agree on a price. In a similar case, 747926 Ontario Ltd. v. Upper Grand District School Board, the developer received less than 1.5x market value as a result of an expropriation.

If Urbandale is dragging its feet on a sale price for the remainder of Beaver Pond Forest in expectation of triggering a much higher expropriation price, they are playing a risky hand.

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Tax Holiday for Developers in the South March Highlands?

South March Highlands

Fair Value?

City Hall will be voting on October 6, 2010 on whether to expropriate a part of the South March Highlands known to Kanata residents as the Beaver Pond Forest.  Council recently passed a resolution to determine what this land is worth but for some reason didn’t think to consult their own tax records.

In Ontario the Municipal Property Tax Assessment Corporation (MPAC) is a Crown corporation that is mandated to maintain close-to-market property assessments so that assessed value is never far off of market.  This is used to determine municipal taxes for all property tax classes (residential, commercial, farmland, woodland) both within and outside of the urban boundary.

According to city records, the assessed value of the Urbandale property for tax purposes is only $54 K/acre!!  This is much lower than the $200 K/acre that City staff think is fair market value and significantly lower than the $800 K an acre that Urbandale says the land is worth.    

If Urbandale’s land is worth so much why are they not paying tax on it?

If the City valuation ends up being more than the assessed value for tax purposes, the long-suffering taxpayers of Ottawa need to ensure that Urbandale’s property assessment is increased accordingly!! 

Urbandale didn’t pay a cent on the 40% of land that cannot be developed when they purchased the property from Genstar (who bought it from Campeau).  Some may argue that the value of the land being expropriated should be computed on only the 60% that they can develop (since the rest is free).  Even so, this still only results in an estimate of $6 M / (110 x 0.6) = $91 K/acre.

Urbandale isn’t the only developer getting a tax break in the South March Highlands (as is described in a previous blog article).  But if  the City valuation ends up being more than the assessed value for tax purposes, the long-suffering taxpayers of Ottawa need to ensure that Urbandale’s property assessment is increased accordingly.

Farming Loophole

Isn’t it strange that farmland owned by developers within the urban boundary has a lower farm tax rate than the farmland owned by real farmers in the rural area?  (previous blog article). 

Note that all the greenbelt farms are designated as within the rural area, so we really are talking about the so-called farms owned by developers.

The preferential tax rate for farmland is supposed to be available only to qualifying farmers who make at least $7,000 in revenue from farming. 

But the most common way to get around the “working farm” requirement is to simply lease the land for $1 to a real farmer who cuts hay on the land. 

That is a huge loophole that is easily discouraged if the tax rate is raised or if the property is reclassed. 

In the rural area the loophole is of little concern and may be beneficial to farmers who otherwise need to compensate for the small farm sizes that arise from severing lands over the years.

Property Tax Rules

In 2007, the Rotman School of Business prepared a 45-page study on the propety tax system in Ontario.  Unless you’re interested in the fascinating history of property taxes in Ontario, I suggest you skim down to page 15.

According to the Ontario Assessment Act, every property is to be assessed at their current value, based on a 3-year average.  This clearly does not occur in Ottawa when a developer gets land rezoned within the urban boundary causing their land value to soar.   Otherwise how can the assessed values be so out-of-date for developers in the SMH who benefited from soaring land values when the urban boundary officially moved in 2006?

Municipalities are free to set their own tax rates and are allowed to levy different rates for each of residential, multi-residential, commercial, industrial, farms, and managed forests.  In addition to these standard fixed property classes, municipalities are permitted to use additional classes with different rates (e.g. for professional sports facilities, shopping centers, etc). 

The Assessment Act requires the tax rate on farms and managed forests to be no more than 25% of the residential tax rate.  Although this creates a ceiling on how much the farm rate can be increased without increasing residential rates, farmland rates are allowed to be lower than the 25% ratio.  So there is no reason why rural farmland cannot have a lower rate than urban farmland – even if residential rates are held the same in the urban and rural areas of the City.

The Act also specifies that farmland is to be assessed at its value in current use and provides that tax rates on farmland pending development can be phased in over stages.  This is accomplished by using more designations (up to 36 separate property classes are available) and progressively bumping the property into a new designation when a triggering event occurs (e.g. a building permit being issued, draft approval of subdivision, etc.).

So why doesn’t Ottawa have a phased system of progressive taxes for lands pending development?

Fixing The Problem

There is certainly nothing in the Act that allows the city to grant a tax holiday by indemnifying developers against a tax increase as they did for Richardson Ridge and Uniform. 

The principle of treating all landowners with in a class the same is violated by such a deal.  One would think that the city would be open to a class action suit by other members of the same property class – were it not for the likelihood that this type of tax abuse occurs so much that other developers have benefited from sweet deals of their own.

In summary, the City can and should be doing more to collect the fair share of tax from developers. 

  • Residential, farmland, and forest rates in rural areas should be less than within the urban boundary. 
  • Farmland and managed forest property classes should only be used for land not zoned or approved for development. 
  • Additional property classes can and should be defined so that land can be “bumped up” into higher tax rates as the development cycle progresses (draft plan, approved plan, tree clearing or any site preparation, building permit).

Is it possible that the reason why this problem hasn’t been fixed is that ½ of the current city council had over ½ of their campaign contributions paid for by developers? 

Alex Cullen did an in-depth analysis of developer funding of city council in the last election.  In 2006, 11 of 21 members of City Council had over half of their election expenses paid for by developers. 

Would the current City Council have found it easier to balance the city budget if they didn’t have a conflict of interest keeping them from getting developers to pay their fair share of taxes?

In the current election, Clive Doucett is the only mayoral candidate that refuses to accept campaign contributions from developers.  Larry O’Brien is responsible for the problem and Jim Watson doesn’t appear to think there is a problem.  Be careful who you vote for.

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City Auditor Finds That Staff Is Soft On Developers

South March Highlands

Misquoted

The Ottawa Citizen completely mis-quoted my letter to the City of Ottawa’s Auditor General.

The Citizen’s headline “No audit for South March development” is inaccurate –development in the South March Highlands has already been audited as part of the AG’s review of the Development Review Process and the City’s performance has already been found questionable.  The real headline should have been the one I used for the title of this blog posting.

City Management in agreeing to pull up its socks has effectively admitted that City staff are soft on ensuring that developers meet the pre-conditions of subdivision development.

In my letter to the city Auditor General, I did not (as misquoted by the Citizen) “charge that the developer was refusing to meet a number of required conditions” even though that may be true with respect to conditions applicable prior to starting any phase of development or construction. 

I questioned why it took 1,567 signatures on a petition and a motion by City Council to require staff to do what they should already have been doing all along – enforce oversight on a developer meeting the pre-conditions of subdivision development.  I charged that planning staff were lax in the oversight, validation, and verification of conditions of subdivision.

I pointed out that the City’s Greenspace Master Plan identifies this area as one of the most significant natural areas of the City and that anything less than strict attention to the conditions of subdivision approval and applicable environmental studies would be irresponsible as well as in violation of the City’s Official Plan.

I stated that this situation was far from acceptable and questioned by the Mayor has not held the City Manager accountable for this incredible and ongoing failure.  The Auditor General replied that his audit of the Development Review Process had already turned up similar issues and that Management had agreed that these needed to be addressed.

In my follow up letter to the Auditor General I asked that the results of his audit and that the improvements being made by Management be made public.

The full text of my original letter and my follow-up letter can be found on the other tabs of this post.

July 28 Letter To AG

Mr. Lalonde,

The Planning Act requires municipalities to oversee development applications for subdivisions.  Yet 1,567 signatures on a petition were required to ensure that City Council passed a motion on July 14 to direct staff to do what they should already have been doing all along – enforce oversight on a developer meeting the pre-conditions of subdivision development.

At a public meeting held the following night, it was obvious that planning staff had not read in detail the preconditions of subdivision development, nor could they explain why so many conditions were unmet given that the developer has already developed prior phases.  Staff were unable to produce any details or copies of the documents that were supposed to be approved, nor were they able to identify which plans must have updates prior to each phase of subdivision, nor could they identify the approval status of the storm water management plan.

Furthermore, it appears that City staff have become so lax in the oversight, validation, and verification of conditions of subdivision, that the developer, KNL/Urbandale,  has become upset about the City starting to exercise their duties and has filed a complaint with the OMB.

In conversations with city staff and with city councilors I am told that this lack of practice is to commonplace as to be accepted as normal business as usual.   Yet it is far from normal, and it is even further from being acceptable.   It is a mystery why our Mayor has not held the City Manager accountable for this incredible and ongoing failure. 

The area where this subdivision development is occurring is identified in the City of Ottawa’s Greenspace Master Plan fieldwork study as containing 3 of the most significant natural areas in the City.  Anything less than strict attention to the conditions of subdivision approval and to the applicable environmental studies (such as the Special Study conducted by the City in 2004) and subwatershed management  plans would be irresponsible, as well as being in violation of the City’s Official Plan and the City’s statutory obligations.

The area is so sensitive, and residents are so opposed to its development, that this subdivision has a special condition (Condition 11) that requires the developer, prior to each phase of development,  to produce and maintain a communications strategy regarding development plans, schedule, and status.  This condition has NEVER been met and staff cannot explain why they have allowed any development to proceed to-date without it having been met to the City’s satisfaction.

Will you conduct an immediate operational audit of this situation?

Regards,

Paul Renaud

July 30 AG’s Response

Good Afternoon Mr. Renaud

 Thank you for your email and your interest in this file.

I have reviewed your concerns.  In our audit of the Development Review Process, we have identified similar issues to yours.  My understanding is that Management is addressing them.  Finally, all my resources are currently assigned to complete my 2010 audit plan.

For these reasons, I do not plan do conduct an operational audit of the project.

Respectfully,

Alain Lalonde CIA, FCGA
Auditor General
City of Ottawa

July 30 Follow-up

Mr. Lalonde,

How may I obtain a copy of your findings and the steps that Management claims to be taking to address them?

We are obviously concerned about the possibility for gaps between the audit of the overall process and the failures of this project to-date.  Since you do not intend to conduct an operational review of this specific project, it is only by comparing the project issues that we have encountered to the results of your audit that we can be assured that further gaps do not exist.  For example, as they might arise in the handling of environmentally sensitive development projects.

Also, understanding the remediation plan proposed by Management is important to satisfying the concerns of citizens that the steps Management is taking will be sufficient as measured in terms of this environmentally sensitive project.

Regards,
Paul Renaud

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Terry Fox Road Ecological Disaster

South March Highlands

Bogus Environmental Study
It took me 2 months to obtain a copy of the environmental report for the Terry Fox Road extension.    The report states:

the South March Highlands is literally unique within the City of Ottawa.  Both upland and wetlands habitat are Provincially Significant, ecologically placing them on a par with landscapes such as Algonquin Provincial Park, Windsor’s Ojibwa Park Prairie and protected areas along the Niagara Escarpment.”

Yet incredibly, the so-called environmental report is devoid of ecological concern and fails to place any priority on ecological issues.

10 Failures In The Report

1. Ms. Wilkinson, the City Councillor for Kanata, will be surprised by the fact that the environmental studies that she thinks were performed actually have no analysis, consideration, nor plan to protect endangered species.

  • Nowhere in the 300 MB of material is this important topic addressed and it is disturbing that a City Councillor may have been misled on this fact.

2. Although the environmental report recognizes that the area being threatened is ecologically significant at a provincial level, less than 25% of the report addresses the natural environment. 

  • The majority of the report examines human environmental aspects such as bus ridership, noise from traffic, etc.

3. In the ecological section, the report notes the presence of endangered plant and animal species in the area under study and then proceeds to ignore that fact for the balance of the report. 

  • One would expect that endangered species would have received deeper analysis and consideration or at least highlight the need for such a study in its final recommendations – but it did not.

4. Even though ecological impact was clearly established as being the most important criteria for the environmental study, the report selected the alternative that it rated to be the absolute worst for the natural environment! 

  • And, after selecting the ecologically worst routing for the road, the subsequent alignment analysis also failed to select a mitigation option which would minimize impact to the natural environment (given that the environmentally worst route had already been selected). 
  • This occurred in both cases because a flawed paired-comparison methodology failed to establish weights for the criteria used.

5. Incredibly, the memo on 17 April 2000 from the Planning & Development Approvals Commissioner, to the Transportation Committee failed to discuss the obvious concerns that

  • the routing alternative being recommended did not align with the highest priority criteria set by the Transportation Committee, and
  • endangered species were present in the area and that further ecological study was warranted prior to finalizing the recommendation. 

6. The only concern expressed with the recommendation was that it would lead to additional pressure to develop sensitive natural and agricultural areas.

  • The current plan sets up even more ecological problems in future.

7. The traffic volume portion of the main “environmental study” forecasts over 1000 vehicles an hour during peak periods but does not provide a forecast of animal deaths caused by this volume. 

  • The mitigation strategy that it recommends consists of posting animal crossing signs to alert drivers.  This is outright ecological irresponsibility. 

8. The alignment study provides for a single passageway but does not provide an analysis of how effective that would be considering that slow moving turtles are unlikely to hike down to the passageway just to cross the road. 

9. In fact in no place in the report is the magnitude of ecological impact assessed.

10. The City of Ottawa’s own report shows that current plan for the Terry Fox road extension is the worst possible ecological option both short and long term.  This is a flawed project that must be stopped immediately and sent back to the drawing board.

Call To Action
Construction activity has already started and significant habitat damage is about to occur to the Blanding’s Turtle.  The soil temperature in the spring is crucial for the survival of the turtle population.

 
The truth about this flawed environmental study needs to be brought into the sunlight of public awareness.  With informed public opinion, it will be easier for Council to make the right decision to stop this impending environmental disaster.

Please share these findings as much as possible so that we can stop this thing.

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