Democratic Abuse

By Bruce Firestone | Uncategorized

Oct 13

City Planners, Developers and Community Activists—

The Growing Imbalance, Democratic Abuse, and Re-Engineering Approvals


Once upon a time, town government or city-state government was based on the Athenian model of participatory democracy. Citizens and land owners met with town elders to plan the development of their communities—who lives where, what type of activities would be next to each other, where the town markets would be, places of worship, fortifications, tanneries, milliners, coopers, blacksmiths, artisans, guild workers, merchants, nobles, and so forth.

Problems between neighbors arose from time to time. “Mary’s goat is eating my vegetable patch and it should be staked,” says Tom. “He should fence his garden—my goat, Mabel, needs to be free to forage for food,” replies Mary.

The town elders would meet with Tom and Mary, hear both sides and then render a decision (Mary’s goat shall be free to wander—but she shall pay half the cost of fencing in Tom’s garden).

Speedy resolution of such issues stopped them from festering and making enemies amongst neighbors. Once you start arguing with your neighbor, one of you has got to move. Nothing is worse than coming home from a workday and not being able to look your neighbor in the eye, wave ‘hello’ or stop and have a chat.

It’s worse than this though. Municipalities today rely on 1-800 snitch lines to spot bylaw infractions—neighbors are encouraged to rat on each other. This is not Greek city-state participatory democracy; it is Democratic Abuse.

One backyard in Kanata backs onto the Kanata Lakes Golf Course. It is surrounded by a four foot retaining wall topped by a six foot high wooden fence. You would need to be 10 and a half feet tall to see in the rear yard. Yet within three days of erecting a clothesline there, a bylaw enforcement officer was at the front door with a fine and a warning. (At that time, clotheslines were not allowed in Kanata—they were said to detract from property values.)

It was never determined who reported the By-Law infraction but the clothesline was not removed until the family’s last baby was out of diapers—the smell of sun dried diapers not to mention the environmental benefits of not running a clothes dryer six hours a day outweighed the threat of By-Law fines.

When the West Terrace development around what was then called the Palladium (now the Corel Centre) was being considered, many meetings were held with local planners about the concept design.

Along Palladium Drive, nightclubs, cafés, shops and other services fronting on the street were shown. “But where are the six metre landscape buffer strips, the double loaded parking aisles, the side yard requirements?” they asked.

The plan called for a mixed use place—somewhere that people could shop, work, live and play … a walk about place. But it wasn’t in the zoning codes so it couldn’t be allowed.



West Terrace—Circa 1989 Mixed Use Plan

Happily, 15 years or so after the original concept was proposed, West Terrace morphed into the Kanata West Concept Plan involving nearly 2,000 acres of new development around the Corel Centre which embraced the principles of neo-urbanism and, this time, it was approved.


Kanata West Concept Plan, Circa 2002

Having said this, James Howard Kunstler in his influential works on neo-urbanism (The Geography of Nowhere and Home From Nowhere) recommends that cities “burn all their zoning codes.”

Let cities develop organically; let them grow like seeds out of the ground. The world’s great cities like Paris, London, San Francisco, Sydney, Tokyo and Toronto all have uses mixed together. It isn’t unusual to find along a boulevard in Paris a patisserie, a corner store, a print shop, a legal office, a café, an apartment block, a butcher shop, a print shop, an internet café, an artist colony, an office building, a plaza, a small park, town homes, even the occasional magnificent single family home.

What are the constraints to growth? There are many; the most significant of which is nimbyitis, government interference and intervention, bureaucracy growth, special interests, pseudo environmentalism and democratic abuse together with rule of the mob. These impose constraints on greenfield projects and constraints on creativity.

Democratic Abuse—Some Examples

Carp Water and Sewer

Dr. Roland (Roly) Armitage is a war hero and former Mayor of the former Township of West Carleton. When the Mayor heard that wells in the Village of Carp were polluted and could pose a health hazard to the residents there, he worked with Ontario’s Ministry of the Environment (MOE) to replace the wells with piped water from the City of Ottawa. To retrofit the Village of Carp required the ripping up of all the streets and not only installing piped water but sewer lines as well. Hence, the Village of Carp, it was proposed, would get piped sewer and water plus all new roads.

What is a home worth with no access to clean water? Probably, it has a negative value.

The cost of this retrofit was in the order of $35,000 per home but, fortunately, the Mayor had negotiated an arrangement with the MOE to pay for 90% of this. Homeowners would pay the balance and, even better for them, they could elect to pay this in equal installments over ten years with no interest.

At a public meeting attended by several hundred people, the arrangement was explained but found wanting by some of the residents of the Village—they seemed to want 100% of the costs covered by someone else. After hours of often angry debate, the Mayor banged his (large) fist down and said: “That’s it, Carp gets water and sewer.” The debate was over, the work got done and Carp residents have benefited financially and health-wise for years. But a handful of residents warned the mayor that they would ‘get him’ and in the next election, they did. A majority of Carp residents voted against Dr. Armitage and he was defeated.

In municipal elections, often less than 30% of eligible voters actually vote. Thus, a small, dedicated special interest group can wield a disproportionate power in a Ward. If the Ward has 20,000 residents, for example, and, say, 40% of them are under 18, then there are 12,000 potential voters. If 30% of those vote and if there are three candidates, then it is theoretically possible to get elected with 1,201 votes. So a few hundred angry residents can make a huge difference to the outcome.

That is why in some cities, there are local Councillors that represent Wards and then there are Councillors who are elected at large to represent the interests of the whole City and who presumably are not subject to the influence of special interest groups.

Arrowhead Springs

In 1999, two CarletonUniversity graduates were looking for a site to start a small amusement park—go-karts, sports games and other attractions similar to the existing facility in the west end of Ottawa in Stittsville.

They were encouraged by the former Mayor of Cumberland to look east for a site since the west end of the City of Ottawa was getting most of the attention (technology jobs, entertainment facilities (e.g., the Corel Centre) at that time. They found a 50+ acre site on the Ottawa River that was affordable and the right size for their proposed park—Arrowhead Springs.

Best of all, the Official Plan (OP) of the City of Cumberland permitted just these types of uses even including a specific mention of “Go-Karts” as a permitted use. However, the local planner indicated that the Zoning code was not in conformity with the OP and thus a rezoning would be required.


After briefing City Council and the then current Mayor and all of their next door neighbours, the two men and their consultants appeared at a Public Meeting where they were greeted by over 200 angry residents from a community more than a kilometre away. These people claimed that the Go-Karts would create undue noise, that the Go-Karts would kill their children, that the park would create traffic issues and so forth. They accused Council and the Mayor of immoral behaviour.

The Consultants presented their evidence that local Highway traffic was many, many times louder than Go-Karts, that Arrowhead Springs could not possibly be seen from the community more than a kilometre away, that the traffic volumes represented something like less than half a percent of the local traffic, etc. Out of three hours of ‘discussion’, less than 20 minutes was spent on the project.

Even though the OP permitted such uses, the project was essentially dead. A developer simply can not have hundreds of dedicated, angry residents opposing a project. If they had forced a vote, there seems little doubt that Council would have turned them down even though they are bound by Provincial Statute to have their zoning By-Laws conform to their Official Plan (not the other way round). The project would have surely gone to an expensive OMB Hearing and, even if they had won, there could have been expensive conditions imposed on the project by the Ontario Municipal Board and, on opening day, they could have faced picketing by angry people.

This is not the way to start an amusement park. The project was withdrawn and the lands are now used for five homes on 10 acre lots—a gross underutilization of a precious community resource—land and there are still few jobs in that area for teenagers and not enough for them to do. NIMBY’ism wins again. Now that is Democratic Abuse.

Remember, an appeal to the OMB costs the appellant practically nothing. Some appellants have come to hearings with no evidence and no prepatory work and won. One would think that in the British system of justice, no evidence would automatically mean no case. However, they simply cross-examine the proponent’s experts and try to pick holes in their evidence.

The proponent, on the other hand, is held to a much higher standard and must hire and file expensive reports from consultants—legal, planning, traffic, soils, archaeological, geo-technical, engineering, servicing, economic and others. Then these experts must attend the, often lengthy, hearing and present their evidence and respond to cross examination. This is a major expense for the proponent. The appellants need not hire anyone—they may represent themselves. It is an unequal battle—costly for one side and practically free for the other. Perhaps the most important ally of appellants is delay; they realize they can use the appeals process to create undue delay, which can ultimately defeat many projects by causing such huge increases in costs for proponents that they drop the project.

The worst of it is that if many of these projects were to actually go ahead, property values would usually increase. More employment in an area and more density usually mean that property values go up not down because demand in that area for housing increases and so do prices. Thus, the primary fear of most NIMBY activity—that property values will fall—is false.

99 Town Houses

In 2005, a proposal by Minto to re-zone an old school site from institutional use to residential use suitable for 99 town homes was turned down by City of Ottawa Council. Instead, the site was down-zoned to permit 55 single family homes in the face of heated opposition by nearby residents. This decision by Council was in not in conformity with the recommendations of the City’s own staff and will have the unfortunate (but not rare) effect of the City’s staff supporting the developer at an OMB Hearing in opposition to its own Council.

Yet the City’s new OP calls for the densification of the city—both up-zoning development land to permit more housing to be built on the same amount of land and more development within the existing urban region. This is a laudable goal.

However, if a dedicated group of concerned citizens show up at a public meeting, as happened with the Minto proposal, out goes City policy and in comes the Not-In-My-Back-Yard philosophy.

Densification and Intensification of the City of Ottawa

The City’s new Official Plan (adopted by City Council in 2004 but not yet having come into full force and effect since there are numerous objections filed with the OMB that have yet to be dealt with) seeks to densify and intensify the urban fabric. Essentially, the new OP identifies a fundamental problem—Ottawa suffers from a density deficit.

For years, City Council and their Staff have viewed developers’ plans with an eye to increasing public space, increasing park land, increasing set backs and decreasing the number of residential units or the built-up area of commercial space. Developers, with a concern for their bottom line, wanted more density and City Councillors and Staff felt it was their job to mitigate this.

However, the new OP focuses on the idea that the City might be able to generate urban spaces that are more interesting, more diversified, more sustainable and also make best use of a scarce resource—land by embracing higher densities and greater intensity of use. The latter refers to the idea that Ottawa not only suffers from a density deficit but also a lack of streetscapes that reflect a multitude of uses. Why is it that new suburbs can’t have a corner store that residents could actually walk to? What prevents new suburbs from having a small office building inside the community that might provide critical services like doctors’ offices, legal offices, tax preparation offices (ugh) and so forth?

Everything old is new again—suddenly the idea that mixed use communities, walk-about types of places that were constructed in the 1930s might be a good idea for cities like Ottawa. And higher density cities are also less expensive to service with things like sewers, water mains, public transit (the O-Train!), natural gas, roads, high speed internet, cable, what have you…

Could it be that developers’ goals and the City’s goals are coming into alignment? Certainly, the recent condo boom in downtown Ottawa and the Byward Market and the coming boom in places like Westboro suggest that this is so.

What about existing residents, how do they feel about densification and intensification of their neighborhoods? Well, many of them feel threatened. They are concerned that more density and a mixing together of commercial and residential uses could lower their property values. Hence, there can be a strong not-in-my-back-yard reaction to new proposals in existing urban areas.

What can developers do about that? Certainly, one way to deal with NIMBY concerns is to educate folks—meeting with them and explaining the proposal in detail tends to work well. It is a process of education. It doesn’t hurt to point out that one of the most pleasant places in all of Ottawa to live (the Glebe) has things like: gas stations, corner stores, offices, shops, metal bashing places (auto body repair), granny flats, rooming houses, in-home apartments, etc and property values there have gone nowhere but up for the last 80 years. In fact, million dollar homes stand next to ‘cottages’; student inhabited homes are close to executive homes owned by sharp legal minds (i.e., lawyers) … And yet no one seems to mind.

The Greeks said it best—everything in moderation. The reason density is so feared is not just a concern that property values may fall but there is a cultural memory of ghettoes in places like New York City (and, yes, Ottawa too) dating back to the 19th Century and the beginning and middle of the 20th—places full of disease, slum landlords, crime, poverty, lack of sun, lack of parks, lack of schools, lack of proper services.

That is not something City of Ottawa citizens need to be concerned with at this stage. Before the City was amalgamated, Glen Shortliffe said something like this to the media: ‘I have lived in Tokyo, Sao Paulo, New York… and let me tell you, Ottawa is no mega city.’ How true—Ottawa is still just a big town—11 municipalities came together and the total population is only about 785,000 spread out over a huge geographical area. Not one minute south of Arnprior and you are already in the City of Ottawa!

Developers, the City and residents need to work together to find the right balance. At this time, the City needs to address the density deficit and bring back a better type of urban design that allows people to work, shop, live and entertain themselves within their own neighborhoods. It’s better for their physical health (the average American walks just 350 yards a day and Canadians aren’t much better), better for the environment, better for the fiscal budget of the City and better for developers’ bottom lines too.

Challenges Ahead

There are many challenges ahead for our city-states. It should be clear from this discussion today that city-states are pretty important to the economic and socio-political future of nation-states.

Let’s have a look at some of the biggest challenges ahead.


When systems become too large and too complex, they have a tendency to break down. Even before the events of September 11th, 2001, the hub and spoke system of US airlines was becoming too complex and was operating too close to capacity. It became inherently unstable and could be easily disrupted.

Cities must operate within the limits of complexity of large systems. The diagram below shows what happens as systems become larger.



As the number of components increases, complexity probably increase linearly. After a certain threshold complexity increases non linearly. Entrepreneurs can successfully operate in the range from n(1) to n(2). As the number of components increases, however, and complexity accelerates, you need large bureaucracies and a great deal of system and process to be able to cope.

Entrepreneurs often assume that they can scale up their enterprise with more of the same seat-of-the-pants management style (Mitel’s SX 2000 comes to mind). This is not so.

NASA’s moon shot and the early years of the US nuclear missile program are examples of this. Critical Path Scheduling techniques were invented to assist the latter, which was mind bogglingly complex.

Once you get beyond what one person or a very small group can hold in their minds, you get into a no go realm, where catastrophic failure can occur.

Calcutta comes to mind.


Wherever large groups of people congregate, there is the possibility of terrorism.

There may be pressure to disperse activities—downtowns may suffer, suburbs may flourish. There will be a tendency to build at lower densities and lower building heights.

There is no doubt that dispersed populations are harder to hit with conventional or biological weapons. It would be too bad if we can’t build great cities which require density to achieve the kinds of synergy that we talked about above.


Cities are a key to environmental protection. By putting people in vertical cities, there is a chance to control their emissions.

The emptying out of the capital city of Cambodia by the Khmer Rouge showed what happens when more than two million people are loosed on the countryside. Every woodland is destroyed and countries that deforest themselves are economically ruined.


Cities need energy to work, clean, dependable energy. This is probably the biggest challenge ahead for cities.

Languages change very rapidly and there is no way to reliable communicate with people who may live here 500 or 5,000 years from now. It is an intractable problem so it is very difficult to store nuclear wastes for 100,000 years in a safe manner—people have short attention spans. Energy solutions are needed that don’t require this kind of persistent attention. Energy that doesn’t cause climate change either is also required.


City-building is an exercise in optimism. The NIMBY crowd hate change—they are motivated by fear and greed: fear of change and greedy to protect their property values.

Dennis Miller defined an environmentalist as someone who has a cabin in the woods and a developer as someone who would like to have a cabin in the woods.

Anytime you freeze the city’s boundaries and resist change you get the bubble economy of Japan circa the 1980s. You limit the creativity of folks and damage your economy.

Private property rights and a financial system of unlocking real capital values underpins our city-state economies and are the best sources of protection for the environment. The former Soviet Union was one of the worst environmental offenders and third world economies have no way of placing home and land mortgages which is the primary source of entrepreneurial micro capital.

Political Structure

In Canada, there are only two levels of government under the BNA Act—federal and provincial. Municipal governments are wholly creatures of the provinces and have no independent constitutional existence.

Their sources of finance are largely tied to property taxes which limits their scope of action.

Public Transport

Without light rail or subways, cities will suffer. Cities can’t finance these pieces of infrastructure and they don’t push high enough densities to make them work properly.


Democratic abuse is rampant at the local level—politicians are afraid to make decisions because a very small number of upset voters can change election results since so few people bother to vote in municipal elections.

Zoning Codes

James Howard Kunstler said if you want to build Livable Cities like your parents and grandparents did, you first have to burn your zoning codes.

Urban design is too important to leave to urban planners.


Many cities and towns are involved in the process of re-engineering the way they serve their clients and their residents. Their efforts are directed at:

  1. Making sure that their staff are working smarter not necessarily harder;
  2. Making sure that they are able to give their clients, service levels that are comparable to the ‘best of breed’ for cities or towns of comparable size or cities and towns that are in competition with them;
  3. Making sure that they are making wise use of ratepayer taxes.


Essentially then, these re-engineering efforts have three stakeholder groups—a) city staff and city contractors who actually do the city’s work, b) clients such as homebuilders, home renovators, developers, persons who require services (everything from getting a dog license to collecting their garbage or paying their property tax bills) and c) ratepayers. The idea behind re-engineering city processes is not to make city staff or city contractors somehow work harder but to assist them in working smarter.

To that end, it is incumbent on City Managers and City Councillors to take the view that the fundamental way the City works needs to be looked at from time to time—no business or institution can remain unchanged over long periods of time. Every organization needs to overhaul the way it does things—it isn’t good enough to simply say: ‘Can we work more hours doing the same things over and over again?’ Instead, re-engineering means we have to ask three important questions for everything we do as an organization:

  1. Are our existing systems or processes the best way to fulfill our goals and objectives?
  2. Are our goals and objectives the right ones for us at this time?
  3. Is there another way to fulfill our goals and objectives?


Re-engineering is one way for cities to escape the trap imposed on them by limits on how fast they can in crease their revenues and how well they can contain rising costs. The old responses—cutting services, reducing service levels, raising taxes, trying to get staff to work longer hours—are often self-defeating leading to city decay and negative growth.

Building Permits

The issuance of building permits is an important job for cities and towns. It leads to an increase in the town’s or city’s assessment base. It is important to understand that increases in property tax revenues for towns and cities derive from increases in both the tax rate and the assessment base. What this means is that even if a city can’t increase its tax rate (because of opposition from its residents and businesses or because the city would then become uncompetitive with neighboring towns or other cities with which it competes), its property tax revenues will grow if its assessment base grows because of new construction.

Consequently, timely issuance of building permits is a key mission objective for cities and towns.

Building permits are the economic backbone of any city or town. Being able to process these efficiently and effectively is important in terms of providing competitive service levels to clients (builders and renovators) while at the same time making sure that public and private safety are ensured.

But the building permit process is probably one of the areas that cities and towns could best look at to streamline and re-engineer.

Let’s ask the three questions for the City of Ottawa.

  • Are our existing systems or processes the best way to fulfill our goals and objectives? From a macro point of view, the City of Ottawa has seen its building permit applications grow from $1.2 billion per annum to $2 billion in the last decade but staffing levels remain essentially flat. That means that two things can happen—either staff have to work harder and longer to maintain the same service levels of a decade ago or wait times have to increase. Evidence suggests that wait times for building permits have greatly increased in the City of Ottawa—a simple permit for a medium sized home can now take 12 weeks to as much as 20+ weeks in some areas of the City. Staff are stressed and beleaguered by their clients; economic growth is curtailed; competitor cities and towns like Arnprior, Brockville and Carleton Place are reaping the benefits by having both lower costs and faster turn around times; the City’s property assessment base (and hence its property tax revenues) are not growing as fast as they should.
  • Are our goals and objectives the right ones for us at this time? Well, we still need to ensure public and private safety levels so the building permit review and issuance per se is not going to go away. So we need to see if we can re-engineer the process.
  • Is there another way to fulfill our goals and objectives? Maybe there is. Read on …


An Alternative

Rather than asking City staff to work longer hours or to somehow work faster, or simply throwing more money and resources at doing more of the same (i.e., hiring more staff or upgrading computer systems, say) maybe we should be looking at redesigning how we approach building permit issuance?

One of the ideas that comes to mind is to stream building permit applications. Does a building permit application for a residential addition really have to go through the same process as a major commercial project? Do we really need 45 copies of those plans and 45 separate approvals too? Probably not.

So this suggests that we might have three different queues for building permit applications:

a)     one for large, complex projects;

b)     one for small, straight forward projects and other projects;

c)     one for highly rated builders.

The first service channel would use the existing permitting system—all the myriad government agency review and approvals would have to proceed.

The second service channel would have its own dedicated staff who would effectively be helpers for relatively unsophisticated applicants (largely homeowners)—they would be part of a more effective process of getting approvals by being involved earlier in the process, by becoming consultants, if you will, to clients.

The third service channel requires a bit more explanation. Does it make sense to require home builders who construct a lot of homes to apply for 300, 1000, 1,500, whatever number of building permits and go through the same process as the smaller home builder who completes 5 or 10 homes a year. Is the 300th building permit for their tract houses really that much different than the 50th?

Perhaps it would make sense to take these permits out of the system entirely? Why not allow home builders with a high rating to self certify? Their Architects and Engineers are covered by Errors and Omissions Insurance in any event. Let their Architects and Engineers certify and sign and issue their own building permits. Taking 1,000s of permits out of the system—now that is re-engineering in a big way.

Builders would be rated by the City and if they somehow abused this privilege, their rating would drop and they would have to go back in the queue along with the small builders and wait their turn—a heck of a punishment in terms of its economic impact on their organization. They would think twice before doing anything that would negatively affect their rating.

The City would still have inspectors do their job on all projects and the high rated home builders would still be required to pay for this and their building permits.

Ontario currently allows Registered Code Agents (RCA) to be employed by cities in the Province to review building permit applications. Engineers and architects should be encouraged to take the required courses and add the RCA designation to their credentials and become Certified Building Officials. This would be a great additional service (and fee) for their clients and speed up the building permit process—and nothing has a greater impact on the real estate industry than time.

Australia has gone further and privatized building permit issuance. Markham (Ontario) has started rating builders on the completeness of their building permit applications. How can cities expect that their clients to get better if there is no feedback from the city?

Think about the Internet auction site, EBay, for a minute. Someone in Ottawa can purchase classic Barbie Dolls for their child from a vendor in California, pay for it using their credit card or Pay Pal account, and have a very high degree of confidence that they will actually receive the purchased goods from someone they have never met and never will meet.

EBay achieves this level of trust in their community through their rating system—buyers rate sellers and vice versa. Cities need to embrace these kinds of feedback systems to improve through the use of calibrated measurements not only their performance but all those they deal with—municipal clients and suppliers alike.

It wasn’t that long ago that cities felt that they should provide all the services themselves; for example, they used to pick up garbage with city workers. What many cities have found is that they are going at setting public policy, good at regulating quality and service levels but bad at operating or maintaining or constructing things. What re-engineering suggests is that we all should focus on what we do best and the ‘doing of things’ may not be what a city is best at; so they should stop doing ‘it’.

This is just one example of re-engineering but imagine what the results could be:

  • faster service times for large, complex projects because 1,000s of conventional permits have effectively been removed from the system;
  • lower costs for high rated builders and much faster building permit issuance, the latter probably being more important to their economic well being than the former—time is everything in the construction business;
  • less confrontation between stakeholders, less stress on staff and higher levels of service for all including small builders and the home renovator, for example;
  • the City of Ottawa better able to compete with surrounding municipalities and international competitors too.


Conclusion and Recommendations

How can the imbalance between local concerns and development of the City be redressed?

Here are a few recommendations:

  1. Education. It is essential that developers and City staff as well as City Council educate the public about the benefits of densification and intensification, not only to the City as a whole but to the local area. Residents need to know that their property values go up not down when their neighborhoods become denser and more of a mixed use community (i.e., more intense) as well.
  2. Evidence. Appellants should be required to present expert evidence to City Council and Committees of Council, failing which they should not be permitted to appeal Council decisions.
  3. Bond. Appellants should be required to post a refundable bond upon launch of an appeal. If their appeal is found frivolous and made only for the purpose of delay, and costs are awarded to the proponent, they would forfeit all or part of the bond.
  4. At Large Councillors. Currently, only the Mayor is elected by a City-wide vote. In the next realignment of the Ward system, consideration should be given to electing some Councillors at Large.
  5. Timelines and Consultants. The City and Province have established timelines for planning processes through the Planning Act. These timelines are often frustrated by a call for further study and reports. The City itself hires an inordinate number of consultants, often because the City staff either do not have the time to do the work, do not wish to do it or because they do not wish to take responsibility for controversial issues. The City should adhere to these timelines, take responsibility for decision-making and reduce funds expended on consultants.
  6. Negative Property Taxes. If Appellants can demonstrate that their property values are actually negatively affected, it is possible to redress this through SAZs (Special Assessment Zones) whereby the proponent’s property taxes are increased and the increase is redistributed to adjacent properties. This is revenue neutral to the City but will cause adjacent property values to increase since they now pay less realty taxes.
  7. Re-engineering. The example of re-engineering of the Building Permit Process should also be applied to rezonings and official plan amendments. Not only should minor variances and severances be sent to the City’s Committee of Adjustment (COA) or Land Division Committee but minor rezonings and even minor OPs should be sent to there as well. The COA is more like old fashioned town meetings where neighbours can get together in expedited proceedings in front of wise, local personages to resolve matters. A greatly expanded role for the Committee of Adjustment would reduce costs for all, result in faster decision making, allow our cities to develop in a more organic way and be fairer to all parties.


Copyright, Bruce M Firestone, Ottawa, Canada 2014


It was the summer of 1999 and the new millennium was on the horizon.  Arrow Head Springs was set to revolutionize the amusement/entertainment market in Ottawa/Gatineau.  It was designed to be a park where people do things, as opposed to most other entertainment in Ottawa that has things being done to people.  The park was to incorporate many seasonal activities.  The main attractions to the site included several mini-golf courses with various themes (family, recreational, “pro”), a go-kart track similar in style to many found in the US market with longer tracks, faster cars and many additional track features not found in this area (bridges, overpasses, underpasses, etc), a large bumper boat pond with dozens of boats including several double riders, interactive and instructional nature trails winding through the site with several themes (palaeontology walks, local geography trails, history of the Ottawa River, etc).  Also onsite we were to have several tenants who were to cohabitate the site including a flagship building for Little Ray’s Reptile Adventure (LRRA) that would have complemented the site.  The site was also to have had a snack bar with refreshments for the guests.

This project was undertaken by Manchester Development Corporation (MDC) with the key players being Dr Bruce Firestone, Fred Carmosino and myself.  We understood the need for family-oriented activities in Ottawa and more importantly in the city’s east.  This project was to be a destination location in and would be a draw for the entire Ottawa region and beyond. 

AHS was to be situated on a 50-acre parcel of land on Hwy 174 (Old Hwy 17)/Tran Canada Highway) at the far-eastern edge of the former Region of Ottawa Carleton in the Township of Cumberland.  This route is the scenic eastern access to the Nation’s Capital from Montreal (only 150 kms east).  After extensive research this site was chosen for a number of reasons.  First, it was important to have a water feature and/or water access to the site in order to expand with future recreation-tourism activities.  This site was the largest privately held parcel with water frontage on any of the local waterways (Rideau and OttawaRivers).  Because of Ottawa’s stature as the Nation’s Capital, much of the waterfront is owned or controlled by the National Capital Commission or the Federal Government who prefer to run roadways along the water than to properly develop them to a higher and better use.  The balance of the waterfront has already been developed through the years for non-congruent waterfront communities with private access and ownership.  We viewed the rivers as great community assets and this project would have provided a quasi-public access to the river frontage for recreational purposes.  


Another reason for choosing this location was the demographics of this area.  The eastern portion of the City is essentially a bedroom community for the federal public service.  There are several key reasons why this is important.  This area has the highest per capita disposable income in the region.  Also, much of this population is families with children.  When this project was proposed (and to this day), the area is underserved with family-oriented activities.  It became clear to us however, why that is the case.

The former Region of Ottawa Carleton Official Plan identified this site as a location that fit the description of the uses we were intending.  In fact, the OP designation included references to mini-golf and go-karts as potential uses for the site.  The Vendor had earlier attempted to have a subdivision approved on this site.  His application had been rejected based on the lack of good quality drinking water.  The existing zoning was residential.  In order to have the project approved for our use, it required an amendment to the zoning by-law.  Before commencing the technical process, we solicited the feedback of the local political players. 


The local MPP at the time was former long-time mayor of CumberlandTownship, Brian Coburn.  For many years preceding our project, Mr Coburn had encouraged Mr Firestone to bring some of his development projects to the eastern portion of the Region.  It was obvious to Mr Coburn that his constituency needed more complimentary uses for the large residential community.  Mr. Coburn was very much in favour of our project and believed it would be a major asset for his riding and that the Official Plan had intended a project of this nature for the site.  He recommended that we also speak with the mayor at the time, Jerry Lalonde.  Mr. Lalonde was a long-time councillor for this Township and an area businessman with a large horse ranch just a few kilometres south of the proposed site location.  Being an area businessman and a local politician, Mr Lalonde saw AHS as a great opportunity to give his area a more positive reputation than simply a bedroom community.  Mr. Carmosino, Mr. Firestone and I met Mayor Lalonde at his ranch and presented the concept of the project to him.  His response was mixed.  As an area entrepreneur, he believed the project to be viable and exciting.  As a local political figure, he had a few reservations about the sentiment of the area residents.  Immediately adjacent to the site on the west is a small incongruous middle to low-income community of early 1980s homes: LeVillage Boise.  Mr Lalonde recommended that we do our due diligence and speak to the residents of this community and present our concept plan to them.  He believed that any opposition to this project would likely originate there.  This was outside of the requirements for public consultation as set out in the Planning Act but we understood the importance and took his advice.  It took one week of evenings but Mr Carmosino and I went door-to-door to every home and spoke with the residents and presented our concept plan to them.  Many of the residents had similar concerns regarding noise and trespassing.  These concerns were easily overcome with changes to the proposal that included significant natural buffering and a fenced perimeter.  Many of the residents with young children (approx 70%) saw the project as a potential part-time seasonal employer for their children and as such saw great value in having the project there.  In an attempt to meet all challenges and opposition head-on in advance, we took it upon ourselves to meet and greet the residents immediately across the highway.  There were a few scattered homes and the overwhelming majority saw our project as a welcome neighbour.  They were not very concerned with noise as they were accustomed to the significant traffic flow on the highway primarily from large transport trucks that use the old two-lane highway as a short cut to Montreal and points east.  Upon completion of this work, we were convinced that there would be very little to no opposition from our neighbours, as they had appreciated our open and up-front manner for presenting the project.  We expected them to follow our project with interest through the planning process to ensure that it evolved as promised. 

At this point, we met with the local planning staff.  The director of planning for the eastern portion of the former region was Steve Cunliffe.  Mr Cunliffe had been involved in the planning department at the City of Cumberland for a number of years and was very familiar with the eastern portion of the Region.  His reception to our proposed project was the expected response from a career bureaucrat.  Provided that the technical aspects of the project met with those in place, he had no objections.  He did however mention the Not In My Back Yard (NIMBY) factor and warned us to be prepared for the area residents.  He was impressed with the amount of work we had already completed in that area however. 

From that point on, we were directed to deal directly with the head of planning for the City of Cumberland, Karen Currie.  Ms Currie had a level of enthusiasm for our project that is rarely seen in a bureaucrat and particularly in a planner.  Ms Currie’s enthusiasm may have been derived from a couple of sources.  As a parent living in the east end of the Region, she saw the value this project would have on the quality of life of area residents, herself included.  The vision of AHS also assisted her in resolving a challenge she and the by-law staff were experiencing with a resident the City of Cumberland.  Once she saw our concept she mentioned to us that she had a great accessory use for our site and likely a tenant who would be interested in co-habitating with us.  The people she was referring to were Paul and Sheri Goulet, the passionate couple behind Little Ray’s Reptile Adventure (LRRA).  At that time, the Goulet’s were operating their unique reptile and insectarium out of the basement of their home in an urban area of Cumberland.  The great majority of their business at the time was in transporting these reptiles, including Burmese Pythons, crocodiles and many other exotic reptiles, to local schools, fairs and residences for children’s birthday parties.  They had no intention of continuing their operation in their home and Ms Currie and the by-law enforcement staff had no interest in allowing them to remain there.  The Goulets had yet to find a proper setting for their permanent location and the by-law staff had no interest in evicting the reptiles from the home because they really had no intention of taking the reptiles in their custody.  The Goulets were very interested in our project as they saw the potential of being part of a project of this size and we were excited as their participation added an off-season use for our site that would dramatically improve our cash flows and provide good diversification of activities on the site.  While the inclusion of LRRA to our site was not a condition for approval, Ms Currie did appreciate the efforts we were making to incorporate them.  She also saw the technical value of this project as the highest and best use for the site under the OP designation.  We then were passed to Chris Brouwer who was a planner with the City of Cumberland for a number of years.  With instruction from Ms Currie, Mr Brouwer was set to facilitate our journey through the rezoning and site plan approval process.  In spite of being a resident of the Region’s west end, as a father of two Mr Brouwer saw the value of the project and the need it would fulfill in the Region. 

With the approval in principal of the key local political players in place and the support of the planning staff to facilitate us through the process, we undertook to complete the necessary due diligence including soil and transportation engineering studies as well as a more detailed site plan in order to proceed with the formal public consultation portion of the process.  Our initial public consultation was held at a local hockey arena in a meeting room.  Mr Carmosino and I attended this meeting with a large-scale, colour site plan of the project as well as several of the technical studies we had prepared.  Also in attendance were a number of our technical consultants and our designer along with Paul Goulet.  Notice of the public meeting was sent to any and all residences within 2 kilometres of the site.  Several residents of the Le Village Boise came out to the meeting to monitor our progress and ensure that we were sticking to our original plan.  They were not disappointed.  Also in attendance was a small group of residents from a community approximately two kilometres to the south of our site called Cumberland Estates.  These people had some valid and pertinent questions in particular regarding noise from the go-karts and traffic impact on area streets.  Mr. Carmosino and I, along with the planning staff and our technical consultants handled those questions and concerns.  These responses, although technically accurate and correct, did not appear to be recognized by this group.  It was only after several minutes of their questioning did it become apparent as to what was occurring.  We were being ambushed. 

It was clear that this group had no interest in seeing this project continue on to completion and no amount of rational, technical argument could be made to distract them.  This meeting marked a significant point in the timeline of the project.  When questioned as to what particular reason they had for not seeing the project continue a resident responded to me that it was nothing personal against us, in fact he found us very cordial and professional.  It was nothing against the concept of the project, in fact he found it to be very well thought out and it satisfied a great need in the community and that it should be built just “not in my backyard.”  There it was, at last the one objection we could not overcome with technical reports, market studies or even the explicit wording of the Official Plan that called for this use to be on this site long before Cumberland Estates existed.  We had encountered the dreaded “Not In My Backyard” syndrome (NIMBY). 

Before proceeding any further, it is important to first clearly identify these people in order to provide some context.  During our preparation of the proposal, we had travelled extensively in the area to better learn who our neighbours would be and who would have an interest in the project.  We had travelled as far as Cumberland Estates and there we found a subdivision of large, custom homes which was situated on a hill overlooking the highway, the Ottawa River and our site approximately two kilometres away.  We discounted this development as a point of concern because of its distance from our site as the main concern was the sound of the go-karts (calculated to be a fraction of the decibel levels created by the transport trucks on the highway!).  The residents of this subdivision were for the most part a very similar group in that they were typically all in their late 30s or early 40s and had families.  Many of them were public servants while a few were professionals.  As with almost any situation in life, a leader can be born from a void and for a need.  In this case, the leader of this group was a vocal and vociferous stay at home mom, Mallory Anderson (not her real name).  Ms Anderson’s complete skill set was never truly identified however her passion and focus, if applied in the proper manner, could no doubt be used to solve any of the various challenges that face the World today.  Instead, Ms Anderson chose to focus her energies on our project and its defeat.  In comparison to our neighbours in Le Village Boise, the residents of Cumberland Estates were seen to be better off financially and their yards were a sharp shade of green with pristine cut lawns while homes in Le Village Boise certainly showed their age and were for the most part not well kept.  Image was more important to some than others.  The view of the residents in the Estates was that having a project such as AHS in the community would have a negative impact on the value of their lands.  They believed that homogeneity is the spice of life.  Notwithstanding these views, we resolved to soldier on in our aim to build this much-needed project.

Given the results of the public consultation and the new information that we had received, we prepared to meet the challenge where it mattered most: in the Council Chambers.  It was obvious that no matter the technical merit of our project, it would require the support of the Cumberland Council to get approval.  At the end of the day it would be the politicians who would be responsible for approving the zoning by-law amendment.  Mr Carmosino and I spent the next period of time lobbying the local councillors for their support with the technical merit and value-added arguments for the project.  While we were endeavouring to complete the lobbying process, our opponents had taken a very different direction in their approach.  They went to the media with tales of a “Disney-StyleTheme Park” being proposed for their backyard.  In its typical lazy fashion, the local media continued to fan the flames of dissent by presenting the story as a battle of the big developer vs. the locals in an unwanted project of inappropriate scale.  There on the dinner-hour news we would see Ms Anderson spewing her vitriolic babble about the “roar” of the go-karts and what they would do to her quality of life.  She also warned that there would be a breakout at LRRA and that the reptiles would escape resulting in untold turmoil and tragedy.

While the confidence of staff had changed slightly over the following weeks, their report to council for the rezoning proposal was favourable and they endorsed the application and recommended that council do the same.  Through our lobbying, we discovered that the majority of councillors saw the objections as frivolous and petty and that the technical merit of our proposal outweighed the emotional arguments against.  The matter would go to council on September 27, 1999.

That night we arrived at the Council Chambers with every member of the staff of MDC in attendance except for Mr Firestone (given his past experiences, his presence at public meetings rarely brings out the best in others).  The Council Chambers soon filled with over 50 angry residents led by the “Queen NIMBY”, Ms Anderson.  When Council reached our application on the agenda they asked for comments from the floor.  What took place at this time was truly a depiction of how cold, uncalculated and ignorant a group of human beings can be.  One after another, many of these highly educated residents stood and made passionate pleas against the approval of the project on grounds ranging from the danger that go-karts provide to its users to the “hundreds” of people who would surely be killed in traffic accidents while accessing our site from the highway.  This continued for the next 2.5 hrs.  It went on so long and the arguments were so illogical that one of the residents from Le Village Boise who came out to see what was all the fuss left half-way through and before leaving expressed to us his disappointment with the narrow vision of those residents.  Unfortunately, when time did come for us to make our statements to Council, they appeared weary and exhausted, as did staff.  We made brief statements to them and the few hardcore opponents who remained.  Council voted to defer their decision.  We had been publicly lynched. 

Following the meeting, we gathered for a brief meeting and agreed to spend the overnight pondering our position and our strategy.  On one hand, Council could vote down our proposal and we could challenge it at the Ontario Municipal Board (OMB) level.  A costly and time-consuming process but would likely side in our favour.  On the other had, Council could vote to support our proposal and the NIMBYs could take us to the OMB to continue their fight to the bitter end.  We would likely receive approval in either case but the process just became much longer and dramatically more expensive for a group of bootstrap entrepreneurs.

The morning of September 28th we met and discussed the above options.  Despite being the targets of the anger and hostility of the previous evening, we were confident that if looked at objectively (the role of the OMB) we would eventually get approval.  The male ego in our minds stated that we should summon our own convictions and beliefs and fight this project to the end because it was the right thing to do.  While that was indeed a strong argument, it was the experience of Dr Firestone that reminded us that this project was for the community.  He stated, “Zoning amendments require the support of the neighbours.  While it is not always possible to have everyone agree to a project, it is a desirable goal.”  We agreed and later that day we sent a letter to Mr Brouwer withdrawing our application.  AHS was dead.

While it was a devastating blow to us personally and financially, it was ultimately a blow to the entire community.  Today, just over 4 years later, this site remains undeveloped.  Approval has been granted for five 10-acre residential lots.  That water access to the river will likely be lost to private hands forever.  This site remains a void in the community that does nothing to increase property values; in fact it effectively decreases them because of the massive gap it leaves.  NIMBYs do not see this.  They have their “victory”.  They also have a void in their community (geographically and socially) and continue to rely on the rest of the City to provide them with recreation and entertainment activities. 

The stupidity and hypocrisy that mobilized dozens to oppose our project and then celebrate its defeat can only be properly understood through the following anecdote.  It was just after the Council meeting and our subsequent application withdrawal that Mr Firestone was at a dance class for one of his daughters at a facility in Kanata.  In the waiting area where the parents sat while the children practiced, Mr Firestone was submerged in a local newspaper reading about the defeat of AHS when another father, Maurice (not his real name), spoke up in an attempt to gain Mr Firestone’s support and said “I was at that meeting.  It was great, we yelled and shouted and made sure that they wouldn’t build that project in our community!”  Mr Firestone kept his association out of the discussion and he asked “Maurice don’t you live in Cumberland?”  Maurice answered yes, to which Mr Firestone inquired as to how long it takes Maurice to travel to Kanata for these dance lessons.  Maurice replied: “Almost one hour each way.  Twice a week that’s about four hours a week for her to take dance lessons!”  Mr Firestone asked why Maurice would drive all the way from Cumberland to Kanata for dance lessons.  “There’s nothing for kids to do in the east end” he stated, “Kanata gets everything!”

The defeat of Arrow Head Springs is an example of NIMBY syndrome at its strongest.  The reality is that those who were in opposition to the project were rejecting a better quality of life for their families and the generations to come after them.  This is of course not how the NIMBY sees this situation.  They believe that it is better to have no development as opposed to development they do not fully understand the value of.  Satirist Dennis Miller once stated that “A developer is someone who wants to build a home in the woods.  An environmentalist is someone who already owns a house in the woods.”  In this case, the parallels to NIMBY are remarkable.  Going forward, the challenge will no doubt be to push on in our development and our culture but we must have the strength and budget the energy required to drag the reluctant NIMBYs forward for their own good.

Copyright. Matt Nesrallah, Ottawa, Canada. October 2003

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About the Author

Bruce is an entrepreneur/real estate broker/developer/coach/urban guru/keynote speaker/Sens founder/novelist/columnist/peerless husband/dad.