Developer “hijacks” public consultation, makes legal threats against elected officials: North Van Councilors speak out

City Hall

Over the past two years, a proposed development in the heart of North Vancouver has severely divided public opinion. This conflict came to its apex last week when the developer, Onni, announced in a letter that it intends to quit the project at 1308 Lonsdale, on 13th Avenue. The letter came after North Vancouver council voted 4 to 3 in favor of postponing the decision and holding another public hearing in the New Year. Councillors argued that another meeting was necessary because not all interested parties were able to speak at the November 19th hearing.

Onni first brought their proposal to city hall in 2011 prior to the election, where the council at that time voted against it 7 to 0. The vote did not kill the project but instead prompted Onni to revise its proposal, scaling back the height of the project and moving from three towers to two towers. It also prompted Onni to seek better links with city councilors. In the lead-up to the November 2011 election, current mayor Darrell Mussatto received a $5000 donation from RMPG Holdings Ltd, a parent company of Onni, and $5,000 from Pinnacle International, which is owned by the De Cotiis family. Councillor Linda Buchanan also received $1,500.

This is something which councillor Rod Clark feels has overshadowed the process. While it did not amount to a legal conflict of interest, Clark says, “morally and ethically? It stinks.” In response to council’s decision to hold another hearing in the New Year, Onni is blaming Clark and fellow councilor Pam Bookham for holding back the approval.

On the 4th of December, Rossano De Cottiis, president of Onni Development, sent a letter to North Vancouver Mayor Darrell Mussato expressing that Onni is planning to quit the project. The letter specifically names comments made by councilors Rod Clark and Pam Bookham as the reason for withdrawal. De Cottiis states in the letter that Clark and Bookham’s public comments were “unprofessional and undemocratic,” and even “defamatory.” According to the indignant letter, “We [Onni] are no longer able to tolerate public abuse from these colleagues of yours.”

This has resulted in some backlash against the two councilors, who are being blamed for driving away the development and its proposed public amenities, such as a daycare and 10-15 units of affordable housing. In an interview with the Early Edition, fellow councilor Craig Keating commented on the actions of his colleagues: “It’s easy politics to get out there and beat up developers, it’s easy, I understand that, everybody gets it, but it’s not good public policy, and I think politics have trumped good public policy in this case.”

What has often been omitted in coverage of these recent developments, however, is a more in-depth look at what the councilors had actually spoken out against, and why.

Councillor Clark had previously been on the record as saying that a public hearing held on November 19th had been “hijacked” by the development company. He explains that Onni had signed up four pages of supporters when the sign-up sheet came out at 4:30pm. “So obviously we didn’t get a correct impression, at least for the first three or four pages of what the community had to say,” he says.

According to Councillor Bookham, the city website had stated that the sign-up time for the public hearing was at 5:00pm, but that in fact the city had posted the sign-up sheet half an hour earlier without changing the website instructions. This meant that the supporters rounded up by Onni were given an additional half-hour to put their names down, or have their names put down by Onni from a “pre-arranged list,” according to Toni Bolton of North Van City Voices.

Bookham states that Onni’s actions have not been explicitly identified as being against the rules, which the developer has also used in its defense. However, Bookham says that she feels that in this case Onni was taking advantage of relaxed procedures. “There’s a difference between encouraging [supporters] and signing up on their behalf.”

With many community members signing up to speak, the hearing ran until 12:45 am. Towards the end, it became clear that many who had signed up were unable to speak. “I know for a fact that at least 22 names were called from the list and the person did not respond,” Bookham says. According to the North Shore Outlook, the meeting ultimately saw 65 speakers in support of the development and 21 against.

When the meeting hit 10:00pm, Bookham attempted to adjourn the hearing to a later date, so that all were able to speak. However, other councilors voted to continue the hearing. In reference to Bookham’s desire to adjourn the meeting and later reconvene, De Cottiis’ letter on behalf of Onni makes the following accusation: “It was not Onni who continually tried to shut down the public hearing early and deny people the opportunity to speak”

On the other hand, Clark says that, “You know, people who have to get up to work, or who maybe are elderly, or whatever, go home. For Onni to claim that that was a proper and due process was totally incorrect, as far as I’m concerned”.

Ultimately a majority of city councilors voted to hold another meeting in the New Year, which seems to have triggered Onni’s letter of withdrawal. Bookham has responded that multiple public hearings can be the norm for large projects. “[T]his is not unprecedented,” Bookham says, referring to a development at 612 Chesterfield where the developer had to go through a second hearing before choosing to scale back the project, rather than go through a third public hearing.

What comes through resoundingly in the letter is that De Cottiis is tired of all the public consultation, and that he is “unwilling to continue to go to endless rounds of public hearings until Councillors Bookham and Clark get their way.” In fact, the hearing on November 19th has been the only official city-run public hearing, preceded by one town hall meeting in July. The rest have been developer-hosted public engagement events, including meetings with business associations and residents of The Grande, a residential building nearby.

The Onni development currently proposed has had its fair share of controversy. The North Vancouver Official Community Plan (OCP) has a density limit of 2.6, whereas the proposed project would double that density. The highest tower of the two currently planned by the proposal measures 240 feet, 60 feet higher than the OCP limit, according to Bookham. She also claims that the OCP encourages pedestrian-friendly design, where buildings are generally set back from the property line to maximize space for pedestrians, which is not the case with this development.

Other issues concern the traffic brought on by added density, as the proposed development is already located between two major routes for emergency vehicles, and would put pressure on 14th street, which is currently pedestrian-oriented. This is further complicated by the presence of delivery vehicles to the Safeway on the ground level of the development. Community members are also concerned that nearby park, Stella Jo Dean Plaza, will be obscured by the towers’ shadow, and that the green space included in the proposal is only intended for private use.

Many of these concerns were linked to a 2,000 name petition against the project, says Clark. This is part of the reason that Bookham says that further changes must be made to the proposal. “Quite frankly, they have not won over the majority of people who have spoken out, whether in the form of a petition, or writing to council in advance of the hearing, or submitting written statements at the hearing,” she says. De Cottiis has spoken of the public support behind the project, but Bookham feels that this is not representative of the bigger picture: “He has been talking about the majority of support that was at that public hearing.”

The loss of amenities potentially provided by the development have been a major point of discussion, over which De Cottiis expresses regret in his letter. These include a direct contribution to the city amenity fund of one million, a 37 spot daycare facility with an estimated value of 5.3 million, and 10,000 square feet of affordable housing which could range from 10-15 units depending on their size. Some residents, however, such as Ms. Nichol and Ms. McEwan, expressed in the public hearing that the spaces provided for affordable housing and a 37 spot daycare are not enough to fit the community’s needs.

Bookham says that she feels that the city could make more use of the amenities. “It would be better to take the cash and locate [them] off the site, where we can actually secure more units and more daycare space,” she says. Instead of having the affordable housing in the development, for instance, the money could be used to purchase space in wood frame buildings, which are less expensive, or to purchase a building outright. “I want to make sure that we’re going to get the best benefit in those areas, if that’s what we want to target as the aim of the additional density, then lets make sure we make an arrangement that will give us the best return for the density that we are accommodating,” Bookham says.

Bookham doesn’t think the developer has responded adequately to requests to modify the project. “The developer does not want to make further reductions in density; he needed to do that in order to get majority support on council.”

Ironically, Onni has now sent another letter to Mayor Mussatto accusing Clark of a “conflict of interest,” because Clark is employed by Whitewater Concrete, a concrete services construction company currently subcontracted by an Onni job site. Onni spokesperson Beau Jarvis told CKNW on Monday that, when in doubt, members of council should “err on the side of caution and declare any real or perceived conflict of interest.” Yet, it seems this principle has not been applied to the campaign donations given to city councilors and mayor.

Further, Bookham believes that Onni’s withdrawal is more complicated than it appears, suggesting that they may be trying to “save face,” by blaming comments of councilors for the withdrawal. The reasons for withdrawal may be partially financial. “It may not be in their best interests right now to see this project through,” she says.

Bookham notes that Onni has still not officially withdrawn their application, as they said they would do within 72 hours. This leaves council in a tough place, waiting for a definite answer from Onni, who may use their current position as a bargaining tool.