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Richmond Hill pushes through development without height limit despite public outcry

'It’s no longer a planning issue; it’s abuse of power,' resident John Li says.
May 15, 2020
Sheila Wang

A controversial development plan that has been disputed for years in Richmond Hill got the green light, with an unexpected twist that residents believe makes the plan even worse than feared.

After years of debate and millions of dollars spent, the intensification plan for the future of Yonge and Bernard key development area received the ultimate seal of approval from council at the May 13 electronic meeting, which spanned more than six hours.

A staff report shows the plan has not only increased density, reduced parkland and lowered parking standards, but also removed the cap on building heights in the community.

Council initially turned down the plan that was recommended by city staff after eight electronic delegations spoke strongly against it during the live session, along with 60 written submissions in opposition.

Five councillors -- David West, Karen Cilevitz, Godwin Chan, Castro Liu and Tom Muench -- voted down the original motion, though for different reasons, sparking apparent tensions among some council members and resulting in reconsideration of the motion later.

At one point, Mayor Dave Barrow, who made the original motion, said to Kelvin Kwan, commissioner of planning and regulatory services, "Commissioner, you’re going to have nothing to take to (the Local Planning Appeal Tribunal)".

The disputed key development area plan is scheduled for a hearing at LPAT July 2, when the city is expected to defend against appeals made by several developers who sought to exceed the 15-storey height limit set by the 2017 version of the plan.

There is no maximum height limit in the new plan.

Chan said he was "troubled" by the "precedent-setting" way of planning and worried it may open a "floodgate".

A few councillors refused to move on from the motion, saying council direction was needed before going to LPAT, after the mayor declared it was "dead".
When council revisited the motion, Muench, who was previously against it, immediately offered an amendment intended to remove the planned local roads east of Yonge Street, delete a ring road system, and further reduce parking space in the development area.

The planning commissioner requested to speak during the discussion, but Regional Coun. Carmine Perrelli shut him out.

"It's made loud and clear that nobody has confidence in our staff," Perrelli said when the original motion was turned down, facetiously suggesting "cancelling the planning department" after proposing to "remove the Yonge and Bernard KDA".

Muench eventually garnered support from Barrow, Perrelli and Regional Coun. Joe DiPaola to get the amended motion passed.

It might have been an emotional roller-coaster for those who watched the decision-making process live, but it came as no surprise to resident John Li, for the most part.

What he didn’t expect was the "carefully orchestrated" turn of events in which he says Muench initially rejected the plan to achieve his own goals in the end.

"Developers speak through him," Li said.

Li has fought against what he calls overdevelopment in the community for years and formed a nonprofit organization, known as Yonge Bernard Residents Association, about a year ago.

An engineer by profession, Li has attempted to call the city's attention to the "planning errors" that have been made in the new report numerous times over the past month.

"It’s no longer a planning issue; it’s abuse of power,” Li said after the meeting.

Since the new plan allows higher density and height than what the developers wish to achieve, Li said he had no doubt the appeals at LPAT would be resolved.

The height limit has been one of the focal points in the debate on the plan for years.

The cap on building heights had gone from 15 storeys to 37, then back to 15, before the city decided to revamp the entire plan last December.

In the new plan, staff eliminated the cap on the building heights and instead adopted a "policy-led height regime" for the purpose of providing design flexibility and accommodating an "eclectic mix of build form", the report says.

Alex Wong, a 20-year Richmond Hill resident, said the meeting confirmed what he expected of council.

Wong is the registered director of the Bay Mills Ratepayer Association, which has had more than 1,000 members but is currently dormant.

He was among hundreds of Richmond Hill residents who joined Li in the fight against what they called overintensification over the past year, while acknowledging there wasn't much more the public could do.

"We'll have to wait for the next election," he said.