Residents must be wary of developer's shell game

First published:
July 17, 2003

It is no wonder Chris Wong, of Royal Cobourg Centres Limited, rushed out of the council chamber Monday night visibly angry and frustrated. Not letting his temper get the best of him, Wong sternly said he was disappointed politicians deferred a decision on his company’s application for an official plan amendment and rezoning that would allow an additional 53,000-square-feet of retail and commercial space, plus an 80,000-square-foot supermarket located on DePalma Drive across from the new hospital.

The deferral was the work of four of the six councillors. Councillors Lloyd Williams, Gayle DeVeau, Pam Jackson and Deputy Mayor Bob Spooner defeated a motion to approve the plans. Williams, DeVeau and Jackson cited the need for more time to review the thick documentation.

The agenda was available to councillors Friday. There was an 10-page report from the planning department, 14-page updated expansion analysis from PricewaterhouseCoopers looking at the commercial impact, then a 15-page peer review of the impact study by Malone Given Parsons Ltd., along with many attachments, data tables and memos.

Mayor Peter Delanty and Planning co-ordinator Dean McCaughey both said in interviews following the meeting it took them a better part of the weekend to ingest the material.

Spooner raised concerns about several changes to the official plan that would allow the possibility of smaller retail units. He argued these units would create stores competing directly with downtown merchants. Three of these units already have approval, but Royal Cobourg wants to have the option to create one or two more.

Politicians are playing a dicey shell game. And it is disturbing on several levels.

On the surface, it is very legitimate to ask for more time to read the final report. It is weighty, laden with figures and certainly not the kind of document one takes to the beach for easy reading.

But most of the information is not new. Much of it has existed in one form or another for six months. And while some parts of the commercial impact study were tweaked, it is not substantially different.

The reports were also available on the Wednesday prior to council, for those anxious to get on top of the subject matter. It might be nitpicking to suggest councillors who were having last minute doubts about approving the proposal could have been proactive.

It might also be a bit unfair to suggest these councillors were sending a message to the public that they were not about to be steamrolled by Royal Cobourg. A one-month wait is nothing considering the company has been working to develop these lands for nearly a decade. Whether this was a conscious decision or not, don’t be surprised if any of this appears in campaign speeches and literature come the fall. But nah, that is just too cynical.

If there is one thing about the planning process, it is the inevitability of all of it. It is simply a set of hoops developers jump through. The public is invited to watch and comment. Yet as long as the players meet the requirements, there is not much that can be done to stop a development. And like it or not, council and town staff are there to make sure the rules are followed. So it makes sense by the end of such a lengthy process, there is little to grab on to for a fight.

Royal Cobourg has done it end by the book. As McCaughey pointed out Monday night, nothing will change over the next month to substantially alter what is proposed. In fact, if council tries to alter things come the August council meeting, Royal Cobourg could have grounds to go to the Ontario Municipal Board to appeal. And council will have given them the license to do it.

For taxpayers that means we will be paying through the nose, if that happens.

For opponents to the development the delay means another month to try and make their case. Four of them gave it a shot Monday night. But of all the effort made, little was said that would halt the process.

Of the four presentations, two points were made that deserve council’s attention.

Keith Oliver suggested council ask Wal-Mart to provide evidence its promise to attract customers from a regional market outside Cobourg. This is extremely valid and valuable. Too many times politicians and businesses make all kinds of claims regarding the benefits of new enterprises. A lot is riding on the assumption that the power centre on Strathy Road is not cannibalizing the local economy. For council to get this kind of follow up from Royal Cobourg is a form of accountability that must be part of any planning process. That should be done before August’s meeting.

Ben Burd also made a significant point that should not be lost on council. He called for a comprehensive study looking at the town’s overall capacity for commercial and retail development. The current study focuses only on Royal Cobourg’s proposal.  Burd’s suggested study would measure the capacity of the entire local market to sustain business. There are only so many dollars people have to spend. What council is doing now is looking at a single leaf on a tree rather than seeing the entire forest of commercial/retail.

In fact, Delanty said in an interview following the meeting that he liked Burd’s ideas. While not necessarily agreeing with him, he said it demonstrated a broader approach and thinking outside the box.

A comprehensive study of this kind would be expensive, said town planner Glenn McGlashon, the next day. Smaller and more limited versions have been done by the town, but not to the extent Burd is proposing.

A study of this kind should be started immediately in conjunction with the Chamber of Commerce and Downtown Business Improvement Area.

And so the various shells move before our eyes: Royal Cobourg, councillors, opponents and the rest.

Taxpayers and voters need to watch as things unfold over the next month. Looking underneath the shells of this political game leaves all of us asking: where is the pea? Council must be ready to show us and Royal Cobourg. If there is nothing, then we should be suspicious. Let us be vigilant of the game so we won’t be fooled.

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