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Vaughan low-rise residential policies – Limits for townhouses

June 17, 2015
By Edward LaRusic

Shortly on the heels of an OMB decision approving its low-rise residential policies, Vaughan is proposing changes to those policies aimed at placing limits on townhouse development. Critics say the low-rise policies haven’t been tested and the proposed changes would prevent reasonable redevelopment along the city’s main arterial roads.

Ward 1 councillor Marilyn Iafrate said she has been hearing complaints from residents about townhouses proposals in their neighbourhoods. The problem is the Vaughan official plan allows townhouse units in its stable neighbourhoods without giving proper direction as to where they are appropriate. She said Vaughan’s neighbourhoods are not intensification areas and the townhouse densities being proposed are not compatible with existing neighbourhoods.

“There’s just been a flurry of [townhouse] applications form developments that may meet the intent of the official plan language, but do not respect the existing neighbourhoods. … [Vaughan’s official plan doesn’t] take into account some of these unique areas where you have a community core that’s still predominately residential. [They have] established, long-term single-family homes.”

The city retained Urban Strategies to review the citywide official plan low-rise residential policies and the Keele Street interim control by-law, enacted to stop townhouse development in the Maple community until the matter could be studied. The intent of the review is to determine whether the official plan policies provide sufficient guidance to ensure compatibility with established neighbourhoods and whether the townhouse development proposals on Keele Street are compatible with the neighbourhood.

Solicitor Quinto Annibale (Loopstra Nixon LLP), who represents two parties who have appealed the Keele Street interim control by-law to the OMB said that the current low-rise policies haven’t been properly tested. He noted that the city’s low-rise residential policies were approved at the OMB in February, 2014. The request to review the policies came about a month later, at the March 18, 2014 council meeting. Subsequently, council enacted an interim control by-law for Keele Street between Church Street and Fieldgate Drive.

He said these changes are not being pushed from an objective planning point of view.

“It seems to me that they’re trying to achieve a political objective of removing townhouses... The fact of the matter is, the townhouse developments that have developed up and down Keele [Street] or elsewhere in the municipality, they work well. They fit in. A key concept of planning is: What is the adverse impact of what you’re proposing? I would say that the adverse impact of townhouses has been nil. I would say that the impact of townhouses has been quite positive.”

“You’ve got to ask yourself: what radically changed in those 25 days that warranted a [policy] review and the draconian measure of an interim control by-law. That’s a bit of a rhetorical question, because the obvious answer is ‘not much could have changed in 25 days.’

Planning commissioner John MacKenzie agrees. He told NRU that the existing policies are sufficient, but “like anything, we’re always in a process of continuous improvement.”

Urban Strategies concluded that the citywide low-rise residential policies should be strengthened and clarified, based on the number of townhouse proposals it felt were not properly respecting the physical character of the surrounding neighbourhoods. It recommended changes such as setting a density threshold of 35 units per hectare, orientating all new development to a public street and discouraging private lanes. It further recommended that the townhouse developments should have the same or similar lot widths, building heights and setbacks as the surrounding residential areas.

The consultants concluded the proposals for townhouses in Maple do not respect the existing village character. It recommended that townhouses not be allowed in historical communities such as Maple, Thornhill and Woodbridge.

MacKenzie said that one of staff ’s questions based on Urban Strategies’ work is ‘when would an official plan amendment be required?’. While the official plan permits townhouses in low-rise neighbourhoods, staff has been requiring an official plan amendment with respect to design and compatibility when townhouses are proposed in areas where they currently don’t exist. This practice has been questioned by the developers.

“If it clarifies when an official plan amendment is required or not required, I think that’s helpful. It provides more certainty for development proponents.”

Annibale called the proposed policy changes “enormous overkill.”

“I think the existing policies in the official plan that was approved in 2014 are sufficient to protect low-density residential areas. And in fact, they conform with the [Growth Plan for the Greater Golden Horseshoe] and the Provincial Policy Statement. If you look at what [Urban Strategies is] proposing, it goes way beyond what the upper-tier policy regime [York Region] says is necessary.”

He said the changes will severely limit the amount of infill development that can occur on main arterial roads that run through community areas, such as Keele Street. Townhouse developments can fit harmoniously with existing development in the interior of neighbourhoods without having to look like them.

“[Urban Strategies] is saying that townhouses have to be compatible with the existing streetscape, scale, scale, massing and orientation of the existing homes in the area. Well many of these homes were built in the post-war era. Many of them are on estate lots. When you say that, you’re effectively saying ‘we don’t want townhouses here.’ Well that’s not the direction that the Provincial Policy Statement leads you to. The provincial policy says that you should have a mix of housing, transit supportive housing.”

Solicitor John Alati (Davies Howe Partners LLP) agrees with Annibale that these proposed changes go too far. Alati represents a developer who is also appealing the interim control by-law.

“[Vaughan] can’t expect that [development proposals on arterial roads are] going to be similar to internal residential subdivisions,” he told NRU. “From my perspective, ‘respect and reinforce’ doesn’t mean ‘be the same as or be similar to,’ which is what the city planners seem to think it’s synonymous with.”

Alati said that if the proposed changes are approved, it would cause numerous appeals from landowners, particularly on arterial roads.

Iafrate disagrees and says these would be good changes that would help protect neighbourhoods like Maple.

“Every developer will throw at you ‘it’s the Places to Grow Act. You have to do this.’ Well no you don’t. It’s where it’s appropriate. That’s what we really need to be taking stock of. Where is it appropriate?” she said. “It has to be properly planned out.”

MacKenzie said that staff is interested in how intensification can better accommodated.

“We’re always trying to find a compromise between developers and residents of these stable residential neighbourhoods. If we can get some policies and some design standards out of this study that help us achieve that compromise between the different stakeholders, then I’m going to be happier.”

Yesterday evening, the city held a public meeting on the consultant’s proposed recommendations for the Vaughan official plan and the interim control by-law for Keele Street. There have been five appeals by Keele landowners in response to the interim control by-law.