Into the muck

Posted: February 24, 2017 at 8:55 am   /   by   /   comments (0)

More than 100 people filled the lunchroom at CML Snider Elementary School in Wellington in late March 2010—nearly seven years ago now. Over the following three hours they answered questions, posed suggestions and offered their ideas and opinions about the village. What was it? Literally and figuratively. Good points and bad. What did they value about Wellington and what did they aspire for its future?

It was the first of a series of public meetings that year—part of a years-long process to rewrite Wellington’s Secondary Plan, a guide to future development. Such plans are meant to be revised every five years or so. Wellington’s Secondary Plan hadn’t been revisited for nearly two decades. This meant plenty of community meetings and consultation.

At each of these sessions, a broad cross-section of the community provided input, opinions and their sense of how the village should grow and what form that should take. Trees were a big part of the discussion— the need to preserve and replace the village’s glorious green canopy. Parks and green space figured prominently. So too did the harbour and waterfront. Waterworks. Commercial districts. The meat plant property in the middle of town. Parking.

So did proposed residential development. Plans proposing as many as 700 new homes in Wellington were making their way through Shire Hall. Some worried about the scale of the projects. Others wanted to ensure that the look and design of these new neighbourhoods would mirror the village.

Most said they didn’t want to see a separate community develop north of the Millennium Trail—apart from the village and its commercial core. They wanted one community. They wanted strong interconnections— roads, walkways and green spaces weaving through the new and old. They didn’t want a wall—literally or figuratively—at the Millennium Trail. They did not want to create two solitudes.

This is what they told the writers of the Secondary Plan. Those ideas and aspirations became part of the document. After many drafts and revisions, Wellington’s Secondary Plan was finally submitted early in 2014. It was approved by the province and put into effect in 2015.

Now some council members want to open it up again. More accurately, they believe—naively— they can simply zip in, rewrite a couple of lines and get out just as quickly. It is a symptom of our Judge Judy form of municipal governance that they wander into complex issues with so little background, insight or basic memory of what has happened before—or understanding how bad this can get. Like newborns, everything is new, and every decision seems to be made by what feels good rather than whether it is right, reasonable or fair. Or whether it is defensible.

As Wellington grew, commercial, industrial and manufacturing businesses developed along the railway line—then the northern edge of the community. When the railway was removed and sold these lands became isolated—surrounded by residential neighbourhoods and farm fields. Some were still being used for machine shops, lumber yard, aggregate supply. Some had remained vacant.

The new Wellington Secondary Plan reflected the community’s stated desire to establish strong links between any development north of the former rail line—now the Millennium Trail—and the village. To do this, the Secondary Plan prescribed rezoning some of the former manufacturing lands to residential to enable the developing community to forge these links. Other land would be rezoned to encourage and promote industrial and manufacturing.

Late last year, council put a freeze on development on these lands after one landowner submitted plans to develop his vacant property. His proposed commercial development was in conflict with the newly minted secondary plan.

The landowner doesn’t want his zoning changed. He wants council to undo the freeze and permit him to build according to the rules governing the property before the revision of Wellington’s Secondary Plan.

Leaving aside the landowner’s specific grievances— there are matters of process that could have been done and explained better—he is asking council to wander into a thick, dark swamp, with little hope of a positive resolution. He is asking them to unravel a five-year process of community engagement that was open and well publicized—a process in which a great many residents participated. And did so in good faith.

Disappointingly a portion of council seems more than willing to undo all this—without context, without historic background, without legal grounding. Too often this group ventures recklessly, unbound by rules, process or precedent. All the while ignoring caution flags from their staff.

County managers have made it plain that such an adventure would be a severe mistake.

“It is not appropriate for council to approve development that is inconsistent with the Secondary Plan,” explained Works commissioner Robert McAuley.

Yet, these words had barely left his mouth, and council members were clamouring over one another to do just that. He reminded them that this plan was the product of years of community engagement.

It made no difference.

These council members were saved from themselves, temporarily, by procedural rules meant to enable orderly meetings.

The issue will be back on council table in a month. Along with a report. Council members are encouraged to read it.