The City of Ottawa’s Auditor General presented a report to the Audit Committee Monday, Nov. 27, outlining her findings that city staff inappropriately endorsed a proposal for the Caivan development in the southwest corner of Barrhaven.
Auditor General Nathalie Gougeon began the investigation after a tip was given to the city’s Fraud and Waste Hotline regarding Caivan’s master planned community, The Conservancy.
The land for the Conservancy sits on the Jock River floodplain. In April, 2018, it was determined that the floodplain would be reviewed and updated. Gougeon’s investigation found that the floodplain review was never completed.
The Conservancy is a 140-acre residential development community located in Barrhaven with over 3 km of river frontage, connecting to the Rideau River. The site is located in Barrhaven, south of Strandherd Drive and north of the Jock River. To the north are retail and employment areas along Strandherd Drive/McKenna Casey Drive and residential neighbourhoods. To the east is the Barrhaven Town Centre. To the south is the Jock River and on the south side of the Jock River are residential neighbourhoods. To the west is Highway 416 and the urban boundary.
On April 25, 2018, City Council approved an official plan amendment to change the Secondary Plan designation of the specific land in this area from “commercial recreation” to “residential” to enable the development of this land for residential purposes.
A portion of this land had also been designated as Conservation as it represents a floodplain. No development is allowed on a floodplain.
It was indicated that the City and Rideau Valley Conservation Authority (RVCA) would be undertaking a review of the Jock River floodplain mapping. Without council and Mayor Jim Watson knowing, the floodplain review was bypassed.
“Despite the initiation of this process in 2018, we understand that this mapping was not completed at this time because it was believed by both parties that the results would not differ from the existing mapping at the time (last updated in 2005) and this would not be appropriate value for money,” Gougeon said in her report.
Caivan initiated a cut and fill application, which involves filling a certain volume in the floodplain and then excavating volume from the floodplain. This plan had the potential to allow development on the previously designated conservancy lands. Gougeon stated that the cut and fill application was significant – 407,000 cubic meters – the largest that the organization had ever considered.
Gougeon sated that once approved, the cut and fill essentially resulted in moving the floodplain line so that development could proceed in line with the OPA. The cut and fill was approved by the RVCA with specific conditions including the design and implementation of a monitoring plan over a 10-year period for any potential adverse conditions and erosion as a result of the cut and fill.
On March 13, 2019, a letter co-signed by Mayor Jim Watson and then General Manager, Planning, Infrastructure and Economic Development Department (PIED) was sent to the RVCA in an effort to “reemphasize the importance of completing the Barrhaven community” and to “reinforce the Floodplain mapping update with priority”. Gougeon stated that this letter further references previous work produced by consultants on behalf of the developer.
“Such a letter attempting to convince the RVCA to proceed with an updated floodplain mapping was in misalignment with conclusions made by City staff and the RVCA based on independent analysis. Further, we understand that, despite the request for the updated floodplain mapping coming from Council, the decision to not proceed with the floodplain mapping at the time and the associated rationale was not brought back to City Council,” the report said.
Due to the significance of the cut and fill application, the application was subject to a hearing before the RVCA’s Executive Committee in accordance with their policies for applications that cannot be approved at the staff level. The RVCA requested a letter of endorsement by the City for this cut and fill application.
In Nov. 2019, Lee Ann Snedden, who was the city’s Director of Planning, wrote to the RVCA endorsing Caivan’s application to fill in part of the flood plain with hundreds of thousands of cubic metres of soil. Her letter claimed that council supported the file, even though Gougeon’s investigation found most councillors had no knowledge of that application.
“On November 7, 2019, a letter was written by the Director of Planning Services within PIED to the RVCA confirming the City’s support for the approval of the cut and fill application. Further, the letter stated, ‘we want to reinforce the support Council has expressed for this file….’.
“While management has indicated that the use of this Investigation of Allegations Related to Planning Activities for the statement was referring to Council’s approval of OPA 212 in 2018, the letter in question is responding to the placement of fill in sections of the Jock River floodplain. It is our understanding that most members of Council were not even aware that there was a cut and fill application being considered and still expected a floodplain mapping to be completed. The cut and fill permit was approved by RVCA’s Executive Committee on November 8, 2019.”
Gougeon concluded her report with three recommendations.
The first is for the general manager of the planning, real estate and economic development department should ensure that key decisions and/or results associated with directions from City Council are communicated back to Council in a timely manner..
The second recommendation calls on the general manager of the planning, real estate and economic development department to should establish a formal policy outlining that the City does not take an advocacy or endorsement position for any developer or development as input into a third-party’s decision making.
The third recommendation involves cases where a consultant is hired to conduct a peer review. It calls on the general manager of the planning, real estate and economic development department to establish a formal role for City subject matter experts to ensure the impact on City infrastructure is fully evaluated.
The Conservancy is a Caivan community in the south and southwestern area of Barrhaven. (Caivan image)