The Committee of Adjustment just ‘cain’t say no’

321 Laird got a yes (?!) from the CofA. Photo Mitch Bubulj.
321 Laird got a yes (?!) from the CofA. Photo Mitch Bubulj.

While a song about a character’s inability to rebuff a “suitor” in the classic Broadway musical Oklahoma was vaguely comedic, Toronto’s Committee of Adjustment’s seeming indifference to the word “no” is nothing for Leasiders to laugh about.

Many of us don’t know the role the committee plays or even that it exists. According to the City of Toronto’s website, the Committee of Adjustment, or CofA, “is an independent quasi-judicial body administrative tribunal that makes decisions under the Planning Act on applications for minor variance, consent, and permissions to extend or enlarge legal non-conforming uses.” There are five members of the North York committee, the group that scrutinizes Leaside property owners’ requests for variances. All Ontario municipalities have CofAs, but Toronto’s are the busiest, with between 3,000 and 4,500 applications heard at 90 hearings a year.

It’s a good system…at least on paper. Say a homeowner asks for a dozen variances – one at the April hearing requested 15! – and plans on replacing a classic Leaside bungalow with a McMansion in the faux-Versailles or Malibu beach style; in the name of good governance and sensitivity to community identity, the CofA rejects the application, right?

Not always! Take a walk along Broadway, Rykert, Southvale or McRae and you’ll know what I mean. In fact, the committee can decide any one of three ways: accept, reject or defer, in other words yes, no or rain check. From participating in several hearings, I have heard “yes” far more than “no.”

To be fair, the CofA mostly considers the sheer number of variances being requested and the magnitude of the variances, i.e. minor or major. They do not consider aesthetics. How do you define “minor”? And how does the CofA define “minor”? That is an issue that frustrates participants. Another is that some applicants request 15 or more “minor” variances. But a proposed house that incorporates that many changes, albeit “minor” ones, will make for one very large house on a relatively small Leaside lot. Let’s be clear: this is not addressing the housing shortage but offering a family 4,000 or more square feet of living space where once there was 1,500.

The CofA’s need to make the right calls has never been more important. With the housing market heating up because of the projected interest rate reductions and “for sale” signs mushrooming on front lawns, Leaside’s built heritage and predominantly Tudor-revival streetscapes are at risk. Luckily, our robust Leaside Residents Association keeps a close eye on all applications. Consider joining if you have not done so already to support their good work. If you are a homeowner thinking of a renovation or demolition, consider reading the Leaside Character Preservation Guidelines first, found at leasideresidents.ca. Lastly, be aware and involved. All neighbours within a 60-metre radius of the subject property must receive written notification of the hearing 14 days before the meeting with details about the plan and ways to participate at the hearing.  Every subject property must also place a notice in a prominent spot for all passersby to read. Consider attending in person or via Zoom. Write a letter to voice your perspective on the project. Your views matter.

Proof that neighbourhood action is effective is the CofA’s denial, in April, of a builder’s requests for several variances. The verdict was as heartening as it was surprising. But ultimately it was a testament to the power of several letters and deputations made by neighbours at the hearing led by the young and articulate real estate lawyer, Alexander Surgenor, who grew up adjacent to the subject property. A united and robust front that advocates for good community development is key, and one at which Leaside excels.

About Mitch Bubulj 13 Articles
Mitch is a born and raised Leasider. He worked for many years in South East Asia but ended up back in South Leaside where he raised his family. A member of the North York Community Preservation Panel and a retired English and Social Science teacher, Mitch has a passion for neighbourhood, history and a good story.