The message was clear from residents who were able to participate in Monday's virtual public planning meeting, focused on a proposal for a new long-term care centre mixed with retirement housing on the former Meaford Community School property on Cook Street – the proposed development is supported in principle, but the six-storey height of the building is out of the question.
Had this planning meeting been held in normal times, it would have been held in the council chamber, and very likely we would have seen the gallery packed with residents seeking more information and to share their views on the proposal, however the COVID-19 pandemic drags on, and as a result the continued restrictions on public gatherings meant that the meeting was held virtually, potentially limiting the number of residents who would otherwise have participated in the meeting.
In spite of the less than desirable meeting format, a baker's dozen of residents submitted written comments for consideration, and another ten had registered in advance to offer their comments live during the virtual meeting via the Zoom application that Meaford's council has used for their meetings during the now more than three month state of emergency. Three of those registered experienced technical difficulties when it was their turn to speak, causing them to lose their opportunity to publicly offer their thoughts.
It was perhaps disappointing given the circumstances that the written submissions from residents were not publicly read into the record during the meeting, as I suspect that many of those written comments might have been delivered in person during normal times. Staff indicated that all of those written submissions would be provided to Council, but in a public meeting, the public wants their comments to be heard – publicly.
Planning staff indicated that the written submissions largely mirrored the comments of those who were able to participate in the virtual public meeting, which I don't doubt based on the many comments I have heard from residents in recent weeks. It's true that written submissions aren't typically read aloud at public planning meetings, but given the extraordinary and unprecedented times, and given the compromise of hosting a virtual public meeting, on this occasion I think the written submissions could have been read into the public record.
The less than desirable meeting format was acknowledged by all, from staff to members of Council, to the proponent, and of course the public, and while the planning meeting process, which is provincially legislated, only calls for one such public meeting to be held, a number of residents have been calling on Council to do more. Given the proponent's desire to take some time in order to provide comprehensive answers to the many questions at a later date, a second meeting of some sort appears to be deemed necessary by all involved.
The big question of course is whether Meaford should grant an exception to the maximum building height in order to allow the proponent to build a six-storey structure on the property. Every resident that Council heard from during the virtual planning meeting largely expressed the same position – they take no issue with the facility itself, and in fact some expressed strong support for the development in principle. But a six-storey structure would be the tallest in the municipality, and it would be in the middle of a residential neighbourhood of one- and two-storey homes, and that concerns many.
Neighbouring residents are right to be concerned, for obvious reasons. Such a tall structure would be an imposing sight in a residential neighbourhood, and the resulting concerns are many. For the community at large the proposed height of the building should also be a concern in a rural town in which even a four-storey structure would stand out.
I have spent some time parked in front of the property trying to imagine a structure of the size and height proposed, and I agree with neighbouring property owners that it would dwarf their single- and two-storey homes. I also agree with the suggestion that a height concession for this particular project would set a precedent that the community might regret down the road, as other developers might make requests for similar height exceptions.
That said, there is a widely recognized lack of attainable housing in this municipality; seniors are among those who experience challenges in finding housing, and such a development would certainly help. As much as this municipality has been openly courting developers to build attainable housing in this community, a developer would argue that a project needs to be of a certain size in order to make it profitable and worthwhile. Six stories is a tough sell in a municipality in which Meaford Hall has long been the tallest, most imposing structure. Add a couple of floors to Meaford Hall, and plunk it in the midst of residential homes, and I think we'd all agree it wouldn't fit into the neighbourhood.
The question of course is, if six stories is too high, what should be the maximum allowed? I have heard many suggest three stories, while I've heard from a roughly equal number of residents that four stories would be acceptable.
Nobody I have spoken to or heard from by email has expressed support for anything taller than four stories, and I think the proponent will need to spend some time considering alternate designs that might make neighbouring residents (all of which have expressed support for the proposal in principle save for the proposed height) feel more comfortable.