One of the things we learned from all the COA and TLAB hearings we’ve been involved in is how to counter the arguments the builders’ planners use to suggest their clients’ proposals “fit” with neighbourhood character.
Our first exposure was one planner who regularly trotted out large colour-coded maps of the neighbourhood. The colours on his maps represented lot frontages and sometimes density (or FSI).
The idea is that if what the planner’s client is proposing is similar to a colour coded category that seems prominent, then it is a fit.
While we would have liked to replicate this kind of presentation, we didn’t know how to get the data that allowed these maps to be created.
Where to Find the Data
I asked the Secretary-Treasurer of the COA how I could go about obtaining property data and she referred me to someone in Planning who managed the data. The person I dealt with was very helpful, asking what kind of data I wanted and for which streets in the neighbourhood. She quoted me a price for the data I specified and I had an Excel spreadsheet in a couple of days.
The spreadsheet I received was a single file with the data sorted by street address, and it had not only frontage, but also lot depth, lot area, tax roll number and more.
Once data is in Excel, it can be sorted in many ways – by street, by lot frontage, FSI and combinations thereof.
Numbers vs. “Impression”
The first practical application of data analysis was in the case of 38 Thirty Sixth Street, the first Long Branch case to be heard by the TLAB.
In this hearing, the parties were the City and the Builder, who wanted to sever the property and build two oversized homes. The builder was appealing a decision by the COA to refuse his application and had retained a high-priced lawyer to represent him.
On the first day of the hearing, the builder’s lawyer took up most of the day with her expert planning witness, who brought up and read page after page of policies and regulations. I don’t recall seeing much data. After being cross-examined by the City, it was approaching 3:00 when the Chair announced there would be another day of hearings and sought agreement on the dates from the lawyers. When they decided upon a date, I raised my hand and indicated that I would be out of the country on business on the chosen date and asked if I could present before the hearing was adjourned for the day.
The Chair asked if I could present my evidence in a half-hour and I said I could.
I was sworn in and presented a series of PowerPoint slides that illustrated the analysis I had performed on the neighbourhood. Here’s an example of one of the slides.
The slides I presented completely undermined the case the builder’s planner had presented. She only asked me two questions in her cross-examination of me. “You’re not a professional planner, are you?” To which I replied, “No. I’m a professional engineer and an expert in analyzing data”.
The data analysis was cited as a factor in the TLAB decision refusing the application.
I don’t know what exactly transpired on the second day of that hearing, but the City would have presented their case and their planning witness, and I know several neighbours spoke on behalf of the residents.
Since then, we have used the same approach to analyzing property data in every TLAB case in which the LBNA was involved. When I have been a Participant, I’ve presented similar charts. Christine Mercado, our Chair, has presented graphics similar to what the builder’s planning witnesses have prepared. Here’s an example:
Amalgamation of Data
When we started out, we had to purchase property data piecemeal from the City, and we frequently saw overlaps where we had clusters of severance applications in certain pockets of Long Branch.
We felt it would be helpful to organize all the data we’d purchased into a single database and we set this up in a cloud-based database app called AirTable, so that we could share the data with others. We now have over 1800 properties in our database, covering most of Long Branch.
Are the Data Out of Date?
Something the builders’ Planners sought to do to discredit our data was to claim that the City’s property data are out of date. They claimed they had better quality data that they manually updated through building permits and minor variance applications.
The truth is, the Planners all had to start out by buying data from somewhere – namely the City. The City’s property data comes from MPAC, the provincial body that maintains records on property valuations that municipalities use as the basis for assessment for property taxes. It is highly unlikely the City would want to allow that data to become out of date because it would impact tax revenue.
In addition, the public can access applications for minor variances and the resulting decisions from what is called the Application Information Centre in the City’s website. So we were able to update our AirTable entries as such decisions were made. Similarly, building permit applications are also publicly accessible through the City’s website and, more importantly, we have residents on the ground who are aware of construction activity such as renovations and additions to help us keep our data as current as the Planners’.
Data are facts. Hard evidence. They are more than opinions or “overall impressions” And they allow ordinary residents to present compelling evidence that effectively counters the opinion evidence that professional planners are allowed to present.
They help level the playing field.
Admittedly, analyzing data can be tedious. But, if you are comfortable with Excel and PowerPoint, you can create some compelling charts that can effectively challenge what builders’ planners can present.
And the LBNA is here to help with advice.