Politics as Usual: Surviving the Political Side of Planning
A recently common trend throughout Canada has been poor voter turnout for municipal elections. It seems obvious on the surface – municipal politics doesn’t receive anything close to the coverage dedicated to national or provincial politics (alleged crack-smoking mayors aside). However, for all intents and purposes, municipally elected officials directly impact our lives on a day-to-day basis more than any other level of government. No more is this evident than when you open your tax bill, run over that pot-hole on your street, or attempt to build an extension on your house. And when it comes to development and getting your shovels in the ground, municipally elected officials hold the key to the garden shed.
Major applications submitted under the Planning Act (Official Plan amendments, Rezonings, Plans of Subdivision and Condominium) must be approved by municipal Council.* For example, if you applied to rezone your property from a residential zone to a commercial zone, your ultimate success is dependent on the ‘yea’ or ‘nay’ from the local politicians that you may or may not have voted for. Even if you submitted a complete and comprehensive application package with supporting technical documentation (that cost you thousands of dollars), the Members of Council have the power to shut your plans down swiftly, with a simple raise of the hand. Even if municipal staff gives you a positive recommendation, and your proposal makes sense from a planning and environmental aspect, Council can still vote your application down, notwithstanding the facts and opinions of experts.
In our experience, most municipal politicians would like to see sustainable development occur at a steady rate within their municipality**. In light of the more difficult economic landscape we currently face, municipal politicians welcome new development with open arms, particularly in the rural areas of Ontario where populations are declining and local economies are crumbling. Nevertheless, municipal politicians are, like any of us, concerned with keeping their job. And if a small group of their bosses show up to a Council meeting opposing a particular development, you can bet that the politician will listen, regardless of the legitimacy of the opposing group’s arguments. This is why it is important to understand the politicians and the politics of municipalities when submitting planning applications.
Get To Know Your Politicians
It is important to know who the local politicians are, how they tend to vote, and the type of questions they ask at meetings. A good way to obtain this information is to go to a planning committee or regular Council meeting, even if your application is not on the docket. Not only will you familiarize yourself with the procedure of the meetings, but you will also get a sense as to where each Member of Council stands on certain issues#. While attending the meeting, be cognizant of the types of questions that are asked and who is asking them. For example, does one of the Councillors ask the same type of question for each application? Also, pay attention to how each Member is voting. Do they tend to vote against anything in their ward? Understand the nuances and subtleties of the meeting and pay attention to issues that are being debated. All of this information will help you with presenting your application before Council. You will know what to expect, and will be able to anticipate possible concerns regarding your development.
Municipal politicians are also relatively accessible by phone or email. Talking or meeting with your local Councillor or mayor is a good way to not only gauge their opinions on topics that are important to your projects, but also to get to know them personally. People are more likely to have empathy for people that they know. This is no different for local politicians. Furthermore, it is likely that – particularly in smaller municipalities – the local “dust-kickers”^ are constantly talking and meeting with Councillors throughout the year, whether through appearances at Council or at places like the local watering hole. It is important that you, as the developer or applicant, get to know your Councillors as well, so as to not appear as an “outsider”, and to give yourself a human side. This is particularly important for applicants that do not live or work within the municipality in which their proposed project will occur.
Stay Informed on Local Issues
It is very important that you are aware of the hot topics in your municipality, especially the topics that pertain to land development. By observing how a Council typically handles other development applications, one can discern the tendencies of the Councillors. Do many developments in the municipality get quick and swift approval, or does the Council tend to defer decisions on more important or controversial applications? Also, are there ongoing issues within the municipality that are constantly brought up when a new application is brought forward? Have past experiences, good or bad, had a lasting impression on the Members of Council? For example, a Council may be vehemently opposed to trailer parks because one particular trailer park may have shut down and the municipality was forced to take over and be responsible for the private communal sewage system, which, in turn, cost the taxpayers millions of dollars.
A good way to stay informed of these local issues is to talk to local people, or read the local newspaper. One can quickly see that in most municipalities, there are controversial events or topics that are continually being discussed, even years after they have occurred.
The decisions of municipal politicians are an integral part of the planning process. It is vital that developers get to know and understand local Mayors, Reeves and Councillors, as they can be a developer’s greatest ally, or greatest enemy. One must be aware of the issues that are of the greatest importance to Council and the electorate. Anticipate opposition, and be prepared for Council’s questions by observing Members in debate and questioning periods in other sessions. While knowing and understanding the tendencies of local Councillors does not assure that your application will be passed, it will at least put you in a strong position when your application is up for discussion.
* – Other applications, such as Consents or minor variances, are either approved by municipal staff or a Committee of Adjustment (for consents and/or minor variances) or a Land Division Committee (for consents), made up of either municipal Councillors, appointed members of the community or a mix of both.
** – Although some may be content with nothing EVER changing in their cities and towns, most understand that some kind of development is necessary.
# – Where a Councillor stands, of course, is subject to change. “Waffling” is something that occurs with frequency. This is why it is important to pay attention to how certain members vote over a long period of time.
^ – A “Dust-kicker” is someone that tends to voice an opinion on any application that goes before Council. They are relentless in their obsession with local politics and over “goings-on”. They may be focused on pushing their agenda, or they may simply have nothing better to do.