FOI Requests - Results May Vary T-C Feb 16, 2019

You can read the original article here. The District of Oak Bay takes months to reply to FOI requests, as does BC Housing. Is it time they lifted they complied with the spirit of the law?


With the campaign for open government focused on vows to peel the curtain back at the legislature, it would be easy to miss the small victory celebrated by environmentalists in Parksville last week.
There was a fuss in the mid-Island community over access to an environmental assessment filed by the developer of land by the French Creek estuary.
A residents group, worried about the impact on a salmon-bearing creek, wanted the Regional District of Nanaimo to give them a copy of the assessment. No, they were told, professional reports submitted as part of an application could not be copied without the permission of the applicant. The documents could be viewed at the regional district office, but that’s it.
Backed by Emilie Benoit, of UVic’s Environmental Law Centre, the residents pushed back. How are scientific and legal experts, many of them in far-flung locations, supposed to evaluate a single document that may only be seen in a Nanaimo office during business hours? They argued that the province’s freedom-of-information law requires the immediate disclosure of such info.
The regional district relented. The RDN’s general manager of strategic and community development, Geoff Garbutt, readily acknowledges the initial decision was wrong. When the mistake was pointed out, they fixed it. The regional district takes pride in being open to the public, he says.
Ah, but that’s not always the case elsewhere. In fact, the UVic centre’s legal director, Calvin Sandborn, finds it frustrating to keep Groundhog Day-ing this story all over B.C., going over the same territory time and again.
Too often, he says, government bodies are reluctant to make readily available information that should be public. It frequently takes a drawn-out freedom-of-information application to extract environmental reports that people like Sandborn argue should be posted online as a matter of routine. Too often, agencies refuse to release third-party reports filed with government, treating them as private property, none of your business.
At the heart of the matter is a section of B.C. law that says government is supposed to proactively release — without requiring an official FOI request — information that is in the public interest. The problem, critics say, is that “public interest” was long defined so narrowly that much information is routinely withheld. Even after B.C.’s Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner provided a broader interpretation, agencies stuck to the old ways.
The environmental law centre has fought to change the landscape. After several Oliver-area houses were destroyed by a mudslide in 2010, the UVic-based body — one of those outfits fuelled by young, idealistic law students — successfully complained to the information commissioner that the government should have disclosed reports warning of the danger. After 2014’s Mount Polley Mine disaster, another complaint forced the release of dam-inspection reports the government had balked at giving up.
Similar intervention in 2016 resulted in a knuckle-rapping for the Environment Ministry, which, instead of simply handing over test results related to contaminated drinking water near Armstrong, had demanded an FOI process (complete with fee) that took months to complete. (Sandborn says that when the law centre asked the Oregon government for the same sort of information, the public servant who answered the phone replied: “Tomorrow’s a holiday. Is the day after soon enough?”)
In December, the information commissioner’s office released guidelines clarifying what “in the public interest” is supposed to mean. That’s fine, but there’s often a gap between what that office says should happen and what actually takes place on the front lines. Note that in an op-ed in the Feb. 14 Times Colonist, Larry Pynn wrote about being blocked by a municipal staffer recently when looking for Cowichan Valley logging plans.
It’s great that, in the wake of the uproar unleashed by Speaker Darryl Plecas, the legislature is finally being dragged under the umbrella of B.C.’s information rules. It will be even better if the keepers of the information make it available proactively, without needing a nudge.
It shouldn’t take prodding and coaxing to get public bodies to disclose the kind of information that allows people to make educated decisions and question the actions government takes in their name.

The start of a new era

Congratulations to the winning candidates in yesterday’s local elections. Although results won’t be officially confirmed until October 24, we extend a happy welcome to the Mayor-elect Kevin Murcoch and the councillors.

The new line up for the District of Oak Bay:

Mayor: Kevin Murdoch
Andrew Appleton
Hazel Braithwaite
Cairine Greene
Tara Ney
Esther Paterson
Eric Zhelka

Read the coverage by the Oak Bay News here or click on the photo below.

What we had hoped for


Listen to the community.  We're here to provide good, useful advice on how to make the project fit into the neighbourhood.

This report from the CBC Ottawa is what we hoped would happen in Oak Bay.

Developer's approach a model for others, neighbours say

Chenier Group consulted the community, stuck to height limit laid out in design plan

Laurie Fagan · CBC News · Posted: Aug 25, 2018 5:00 AM ET [Link here]

Peter Ferguson, chair of the Lowertown Community Association's planning committee, praises Gaetan Chenier for preserving elements of the old house at the corner of Rideau and CoBourg streets. (Laurie Fagan/CBC)

Peter Ferguson, chair of the Lowertown Community Association's planning committee, praises Gaetan Chenier for preserving elements of the old house at the corner of Rideau and CoBourg streets. (Laurie Fagan/CBC)

Peter Ferguson and his comrades with the Lowertown Community Association have fought countless battles with developers over infill projects in their downtown neighbourhood. 

Sometimes they win, but often they lose. Whatever the outcome, the combatants always seem to emerge bloodied and battered.

Imagine Ferguson's relief when they came up against Chenier Group.

It’s a model for public consultation around the development process, and there’s no reason why others can’t be doing the same thing.
— Peter Ferguson, Lowertown  Community Association

The builder wants to construct a nine-storey apartment building at 541-545 Rideau St., a deep lot at the corner of Cobourg Street that's currently occupied by a 150-year-old red brick dwelling.

Chenier Group's proposal conforms to the Uptown Rideau community design plan (CDP), a council-approved document that's meant to guide growth, but which developers ignore more often than not.

The building would also add much-needed rental units at a time when the city — and this neighbourhood in particular — are grappling with record-low vacancy rates.

Collaborative approach

"The nine-storey ceiling was particularly important to us," Ferguson said. "[Company president] Gaetan [Chenier] was determined that he was going to stay within the limits of the [community] design plan, and good for him, he did." 

The Lowertown Community Association has opposed several developments along Rideau Street for exceeding height limits set out in the CDP. Those include The Charlotte, a condo tower proposed for a vacant lot across Rideau Street from Chenier's site.

Shortly after buying the property, Chenier, acting on the advice of Ottawa architect Barry Padolsk, approached the community association to discuss his plans and ask for feedback from residents.

"My approach has always been a collaborative one," Chenier said. "I recognize this is a community development process, so get the community involved so they can give input."

Praise from councillor

The community did offer its input, and compromises were made on both sides, Ferguson said.

"[Chenier] was very forthcoming," he said. "In our minds, it's a model for public consultation around the development process, and there's no reason why others can't be doing the same thing." 

Chenier's approach also won praise from Rideau-Vanier Coun. Mathieu Fleury, who submitted comments to the planning committee. 

"There has been a conscious effort on the part of the applicant to engage the community in all aspects of this project," Fleury wrote. "This can be seen in the number of times the applicant has reached out to the community stakeholders to gain feedback since the initial submission of the project."

But it's what the developer has planned for the original building, constructed shortly after Confederation, that's winning him special praise for going above and beyond the city's requirements.

Brick by brick

Built in 1870 as a single-family home, the building that now occupies the property was converted to apartments after the First World War. Until a few years ago the ground floor served as a coffee house and catering business.  

The building, which has undergone extensive renovations and additions over the decades, doesn't have official heritage designation, but the city hoped to see some part of it preserved nonetheless.

Chenier first proposed incorporating the red brick facade into the new apartment building. When he discovered that plan wasn't viable, he hired engineers to determine whether the original building could be moved. That, too, was a no-go.

Instead, Chenier now plans to dismantle the dilapidated structure brick by brick, using the materials to construct a duplex that will replicate the French Second Empire architectural style of the original building, complete with a concave mansard roof and dormer windows.

The new duplex will retain significant architectural features of the original building. (Chenier Group )

The new duplex will retain significant architectural features of the original building. (Chenier Group )

Fits in 'beautifully'

The duplex is designed by Padolsk, who specializes in heritage projects, and will sit next to the apartment building, facing Cobourg Street.

Ferguson said the duplex will fit in "beautifully."

"We're happy with this," he said. "This is something that he did not have to do, and he's volunteered to preserve the building." 

Chenier, who moved to Ottawa from Cornwall, Ont., eight years ago, plans to move his office into one half of the newly built duplex. The other half will be rented out. 

"The house is a costly endeavour, and there may not be a lot of profit in that," Chenier said. "But overall in the long term, the house will be highlighted as a separate structure, and it will stand out on its own." 

Advice for developers

Chenier hopes the duplex will be finished by the end of 2019, and the apartment building ready for tenants by the following spring.

A rezoning application is scheduled to go before the city's planning committee Aug. 28. It's expected to pass.

Chenier's advice to other developers is simple: "Whatever the community had planned, just go for that," he said.

Ferguson believes other builders could learn a lot from Chenier's approach.

"Listen to the community." he advised developers. "We're not there to pick fights. We're there to provide good, useful advice on how to make the project fit into the community."