A controversial highrise proposal has been approved by the city’s planning and housing committee for the second time, but federal officials are threatening to pursue legal action over the proposal’s impact on the neighbouring Central Experimental Farm.
Proposed by Taggart Realty Management, the plan involves the construction of two residential towers of 16 and 27 storeys at 1081 Carling Ave. near the Civic Hospital Campus.
Originally approved by the planning and housing committee in August, the proposal was sent back to committee by council after it was determined that Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada (AAFC) and the National Capital Commission weren’t given enough notice to appear at the meeting.
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Committee members voted nine to three on Wednesday to once again approve the proposed development, which will now go to city council for final approval Sept. 27.
The project has been contentious, receiving significant pushback from community groups, as well as from advocates concerned that shadows cast by the towers will affect research at the experimental farm.
“Our researchers need to work in a controlled environment,” said Stefanie Beck, deputy minister of AAFC. “This requires predictable levels of sunlight, moisture, climate and soil. The research projects on this site cannot be easily moved elsewhere. If you do allow this development or go ahead as is, you should know that millions of dollars and decades of research will be compromised.”
Thirteen hectares of land on the site will potentially be unusable for research purposes, according to AAFC representatives.
Beck said in her delegation that the AAFC is prepared to take legal action over their concerns.
“Our concerns today should also be understood to extend to future development plans around the farm,” said Beck. “We are hoping not to have to take any such action, but we are losing access to research facilities that cost millions of dollars. If we’re being asked to mitigate, there’s a cost to that.”
Tim Marc, senior legal counsel for the city, said liability should not be a major concern in the committee’s decision-making.
“Agriculture Canada would have the possibility of appealing it to the (Ontario Lands) Tribunal if they do not support council’s decision, as would the applicant,” he said. “The position advanced by AAFC is a novel position. I didn’t find anything in the case law that would support it.”
The area surrounding the experimental farm was identified in the city’s Official Plan as a prime location for intensification. Other proposals with similar impacts on the farm, including a highrise project on Baseline Road at Fisher Avenue, will go before committee in the coming months.
Councillors raised concerns that Wednesday’s decision could be precedent-setting.
“The city took two years to develop an Official Plan and intensification on Carling (Avenue) was part of that plan, so it feels like we’re playing catch-up here,” said Somerset Coun. Ariel Troster.
She added that the challenge is in balancing the need for more new housing to address the city’s ongoing crisis with the need to protect the experimental farm’s research into food security and climate change.
“We need stronger guidelines and I think we need to know very clearly what heights would be considered acceptable,” Troster said. “Then, as a city, we need to decide if it’s acceptable to us in terms of our growth needs. This feels very piecemeal. There are many developments in the process right now. Developers need to know now if they need to revise their plans.”
Despite concerns, the Taggart proposal will go to full council unamended. A directive from River Ward Coun. Riley Brockington will ensure that city staff work with AAFC and the NCC to assess how future developments could impact the experimental farm. His motion to limit the height of the towers to 14 storeys, however, was defeated in an eight to four vote.
Coun. Jeff Leiper, the committee chair, said that, ultimately, the proposal meets all the guidelines set out by the city.
“I’m going to caution that this committee’s job has been very strictly given to it under the Planning Act, which is to consider the merits of a rezoning application under the policies and guidelines that guide development in Ontario,” he said.
“The federal minister may speak to us … about the impact that our planning decision might have on their farm, but it doesn’t affect the decision that we, nonetheless, need to make, which is on the planning merits of the file.”
Taggart vice-president of development Derek Howe told reporters he was happy with the committee’s decision but declined to comment further.
During the meeting, Howe said that Taggart has complied with all policy procedures throughout the process.
Another representative added the company has spent 24 months on the project to date, which included four rounds of technical comments with staff.
“While we didn’t meet directly with AAFC, we had the benefit of their written comments and exchanges between them and staff,” the representative said. “All of those rounds yielded changes to the building design. Even though we didn’t meet directly, we were aware of their concerns and Taggart and the design team have taken steps to mitigate those concerns directly.”