It is only on rare occasions that I experience the "Wow Factor" – that gut feeling you get upon meeting someone so passionate that you look at them and think, “this is a person I want to get to know”. I felt it when I met my wife Lisa, and again when I met Robert Brown. It was his compassion and knowledge about our city that moved me. My family moved to North America in 1729, his in 1746, so we both have a long-term perspective on the way things have evolved here and share a deep interest in how things continue to progress.
Robert was on the Toronto East York Committee of Adjustment for nine years (2007 – 2016). In that role he adjudicated over 5,000 Committee of Adjustment applications. He has been a member of the Annex Residence Association for 39 years and has been an advocate for reasonable development in Toronto for forty years. The Annex Residence Association was established in 1923 and is the oldest in the City. In Toronto he is considered by many to be something of a planning savant. I reached out to him to pick his brain about development trends in South Scarborough.
One thing I have been grappling with and writing about is that developers in South Scarborough seem to have more latitude than in other areas of the City. I have spoken for some time about the need for a South Scarborough Policy that could serve to dampen the large home development proposals we seem to be facing all the time. We discussed other parts of the City and the ability of citizens groups to negotiate with developers whereas here it seems that they hold sway and get more concessions and can disregard existing Official Plan and Zoning by-laws. He agreed and that took the conversation in an extremely specific direction - what are we doing wrong in South Scarborough? We spoke about that for the next half hour and came to some conclusions.
First and foremost is that we, the residents, haven’t been that well organized. Scarborough Southwest is largely defined as three distinct communities being Birchcliff, Cliffside and Cliffcrest, all bounded by Victoria Park and Markham Road south of Eglinton, but we don’t do a great job communicating with each other. By way of contrast, The Annex community is, as if not more, diverse but they have a well-structured community organization that has a direct relationship with City Council and City planners
Second, we have not been successful in dealing with the Scarborough Committee of Adjustment. And this is where Robert’s insight and experience were most helpful. In his opinion they, the Scarborough Committee of Adjustment, are not considered among the most effective members. There are committees that adjudicate in Toronto East York, Etobicoke York, North York and in Scarborough. The Scarborough Committee tends to “move things along” and have too much on the agenda and therefore have less time for thoughtful deliberation.
Finally, we haven’t been able to consistently articulate what we have. I and others have struggled to successfully characterize what it is that differentiates our community when faced with development proposals that seem to be over the top. Explaining why a proposed 8,000 square foot home with seven full bathrooms and four urinals in the basement is not in keeping with the community hasn’t been something that we have had much success with when facing the Scarborough Committee of Adjustment. His response was simple and elegant. “You do have a South Scarborough style. It’s one and a half to two story homes with generous side, front and rear yard setbacks. And anything that exceeds that by having a ten-foot basement or a two-foot set-back is not in keeping with the character of the community.”
In his view the Scarborough Committee of Adjustment has, from time to time, been usurping the role of City Council, by going beyond, “minor variances” to actually establishing City Policy. “These are appointed officials not elected and establishing policy is not their role.” As we concluded our conversation and before I took him on a brief tour of some properties in the area, he asked me if I knew the legal meaning of the word “Must”. I hadn’t really thought of it and so said “no”. He explained to me that “Must” means it is mandatory and in the Zoning By-law only if the word “unless” follows it there is no relief from that provision. There are 967 references to “Must” in Toronto’s harmonized zoning by-law 569-2013. Most have sub sections that outline relief provisions, but several do not. The next time I appear before the Scarborough Committee of Adjustment I will keep that in mind.