Monday, June 21, 2010

A Sad Day for Local Democracy in Greater Sudbury: City Shuts Down Public Input into Changes to Proposed Zoning By-law Related to Drive-throughs

I just returned home from a local council meeting. Or, more correctly, the continuation of a meeting of Planning Committee, which is a Committee of Council, consisting of 5 council members; they make recommendations to council on various sorts of land use matters. A meeting on the City's new zoning by-law was held on June 1st, and most of the issues related to the zoning by-law appeared to have been resolved, except for a matter related to rooming houses, which did get resolved at the meeting. However, out of the woodwork and at the last minute, there arose a new issue, brought to the City's attention by the Ontario Restaurant Hotel and Motel Association (ORHMA). They were very concerned with the City's modest proposal to regulate drive-throughs.

I was at the meeting on the 1st to discuss another matter (one I had blogged about earlier related to neighbourhood gardens, the fourth item in this blogpost). I was not particularly familiar with what the City had proposed to do, through zoning, to regulate drive-throughs, but from what I gathered it amounted to the following situation:

Currently, there are no restrictions on drive-throughs anywhere in the City. The City has an Official Plan which has a policy prohibiting drive-throughs in the downtown core, and one of the things the new zoning by-law would do would be to cast this prohibition into law. Further, drive-throughs, now identified as a specific land use, would be restricted to certain zones (C2 and C5 zones) whereas now they are able to locate just about anywhere. Also, there would be queuing requirements for the first time, meaning that new drive-throughs would need enough space on the ground for 13 vehicles to line up. And new setbacks from residential uses were also proposed: 15 metres from queuing lines to residential lot lines, and 30 metres from order boxes.

After almost 6 months of public consultation, ORHMA wrote a letter to the City, received on the day of the final public meeting. ORHMA took issue with just about everything proposed by the City. Up until that point, a local citizen's organization (of which I am a member) called The Coalition for a Livable Sudbury was the only person or public body to be on record about drive-throughs (The Coalition essentially said, “That's a good start, but really you should be regulating drive-throughs in certain identified high-traffic pedestrian, cycling and transit areas of the city, as drive-throughs have an impact on the pedestrians and cyclists and buses trying to get to where they are going due to vehicles queuing onto streets).

After listening to ORHMA's presentation at the June 1st meeting, I couldn't help but jumping up and speaking about this issue, as it was apparent to me that ORHMA's request for change was going to be taken seriously. A number of local fast food restaurant owners also spoke in favour of the changes requested. I didn't want Planning Committee to hear only one side of the issue, so I opened my big mouth and stepped right into it.

Interestingly, I had written a letter to the Sudbury Star just a few days before, based on a report prepared by Statistics Canada which arrived at the conclusion that Sudbury is the second dirtiest city in Canada when it comes to greenhouse gas emissions from personal vehicles. I posted this letter to my blogsite on May 26th, a couple of days before the meeting, so some of the numbers were fresh in my mind when I gave my off-the-cuff presentation. The Sudbury Star published my letter a week and a half ago (under the better and more concise headline: Sudbury second dirtiest city in Canada), which was timely, because I was urging people to come out and support the Sustainable Mobility Plan, prepared by Rainbow Routes. Council accepted this Plan last Wednesday night, June 16th. The plan calls for the City to make a priority of establishing more pedestrian and cycling infrastructure, and improvements to transit.

Back to June 1st. I talked a lot about climate change and how personal vehicle use contributes. I told Planning Committee that we can't stop vehicles from idling in many circumstances, such as when they are stuck in traffic or at rail crossings; decisions to idle or not are really up to the owner of the vehicles. What we can do, however, is create fewer opportunities for idling vehicles. Drive-throughs are a convenience, and one we now know we can live without. This convenience is needlessly contributing to our greenhouse gas emissions. It doesn't matter if cars become more fuel efficient, the fact is that vehicles cued in lines at drivethroughs almost invariably emit greenhouse gases when there is no good reason for it.

I indicated that I supported somewhat what the City appeared to be trying to do, by providing regulations which would make it a little more difficult for new drive-throughs to locate. A step in the right direction, if a very small one. Ultimately, Planning Committee deferred making a decision on this matter, and directed staff to meet with both ORHMA and the Coalition for a Livable Sudbury. Those meetings took place, and each side was able to expand on their issues and identify possible solutions.

City staff appear to have worked with ORHMA to address many of their issues, and proposed changes were provided to the public through a staff report released late on Friday afternoon (Planning Committee confirmed that they received the report at the same time). Gone was the approach of identifying drive-throughs as a specific use, and adopted was ORHMA's call to treat them as accessories. This seems a small change, but what it does is opens up all sorts of locations where drive-throughs can now choose to locate as-of-right, without going through a rezoning process. All commercial and industrial zones are now in play, whereas for 6 months up until last Friday, anyone picking up the draft zoning by-law would have seen these uses restricted to only C2 and C5 zones.

Setbacks were reduced to only 15 metres from residential lot lines. Queuing lines were down to 8 vehicles. Agreed, that this is still better than what we have today (no regulation), but it falls short of what Sudburians might have expected had they been reading the draft by-law.

What all of this means is that the City will accomplish its goals regarding drive-throughs by using a process called “Site Plan Control”. This is not a public process. There is no opportunity for meaningful public input. It's a discussion between the City and a developer, which, if the developer does not like, they can bump up to the Ontario Municipal Board, where it remains a process which provides no opportunity for meaningful input by the public. Had the starting point been an application to rezone, it would have been a public process. For all drive-throughs proposed outside of C2 and C5 zones, the public would have had an opportunity to be engaged under the original draft by-law; under the new proposal, too bad so sad, the door is closed and the public is being kept out.

A number of speakers identified this approach as a significant change from what was originally proposed. I was one of them. I suggested that it was incumbent on Planning Committee to take this back to the public. It was not right for this change to go forward now because ORHMA showed up at the last minute, and worked with staff to achieve just about everything that they wanted. And, having only a weekend to notify the public through the internet about this issue, it was simply unreasonable and undemocratic to move forward.

I didn't think that Planning Committee was going to be swayed by this argument, because they have other timelines to keep. So despite the fact that the draft by-law was experiencing this comprehensive change with extremely limited input from the public and at the very last possible moment in the public consultation process, it was not enough to sway 3 of 5 councillors from voting to accept the new changes and put an end to this process.

Councillors Calderelli and Berthiaume, at least, were not in favour of moving ahead at this time. Councillor Calderellli went so far as to suggest that she did not support the proposed changes, that they did not represent the values of our community as they relate to building sustainable, healthy communities. But Councillors Craig, Rivest and Dutrisac (who had been wavering) ultimately voted to accept the changes.

Now, the truth is, I doubt very much that I would have been satisfied with any outcome here, short of outlawing all new drive-throughs in the City, and that just wasn't in the cards. What I at least thought that Planning Committee might do is take this issue back to the public, in a similar manner in which the Rooming House issue played itself out. Given that the expression of concern from ORHMA arrived at the 11th hour of the public consultation process, and given that staff's proposed changes had been available for public consumption for 3 days, two of which were on the weekend, it seemed sensible to me that Planning Committee go and solicit more public input on the significant changes proposed. But was more expedient to simply move ahead. They didn't even want to hear any other voices.

This was a very sad night for local democracy, no matter what your feelings about drive-throughs. When our elected officials shut the door on a severely flawed public process, the interests of the community are not served. I'm not naive enough to think that the ultimate resolution of this issue might have been any different than the one arrived at tonight, but without the benefit of hearing from the voices of the public who have been engaged in the public zoning process, the interests of our community can not have been served. You can't bait and switch at the last minute, substituting one approach for another at the very last minute, and say that the public had an opportunity to voice their opinion. There simply was not enough time.

What I hope to take away from this is that the City is at least taking some very modest steps to further regulate drive-throughs. The existing prohibition on drive-throughs in the City's downtown core was a positive start, and now some very small restrictions related to setbacks and queuing requirements are beginning to create a body of policy and regulation in this City which is moving this issue in a particular direction. The 5 year review of the City's Official Plan will be starting in just a few years. Time enough for those of us concerned about climate change to get out act together. I have no doubt that the Ontario Restaurant Hotel and Motel Association will be lobbying the City to remove the prohibition, and maybe even making an argument that drive-throughs are actually good for lowering emissions (I understand that they have the studies!). We will be ready to take them on, and we will be ready to tell our Council that combating climate change has to occur at all levels of decision making, including the municipal level. Drive-throughs are a part of the culture of convenience which we can no longer afford to indulge. Their time has come and gone.

We will be ready in 2012 for the 5 year Official Plan review. Game on.

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