Property Rights v. Community Interest: Glen Abbey golf course
Oakville is very proud of being one of the first planned communities in the world, laid out by William Chisholm, who designated land for residential, recreational, educational, spiritual and medical uses: planning for future Town needs.
We are not a change averse community. Some of these longstanding land uses, our original high school, our original Hospital, have been repurposed in the changing public interest.
Our Town Council, and potentially the Province, are faced with a very significant decision about a property that has always been designated as open space, is currently used, consistent with that designation, as a golf course, and which the property owner wishes largely to repurpose for residential uses.
It is obvious to everyone that Glen Abbey has become an integral part of Oakville’s identity and heritage. While it was a golf course before, its current incarnation as a Jack Nicklaus designed course has been a significant boon to the community, raising the profile of Oakville worldwide, serving as the setting for moments of drama seen by millions, and providing a spectacular amenity for the residents of the community, who regardless of whether they use it themselves, benefit from it in seen and unseen ways.
Clearly, if the golf course is closed, it will be a loss to the community: a loss of an amenity, a blow to its prestige, a loss of one of the elements which makes today’s Oakville, Oakville. Our heritage committee has recently recognized Glen Abbey as an integral part of Oakville’s history and character, and asked Council to protect the key features of the course (its hub and spoke layout and stadium design) against alterations that would alloy its character.
This issue and that of the development application are soon to be considered by Council. The heritage issue comes to Council on August 21st at 7:00 pm, and the application will be handled on September 26th at 7:00 pm. Councillors no doubt have personal views on these questions, but their role is to serve as judge and jury and to hear all sides of the issue before pronouncing. They will receive reports prepared by Town staff addressing the legal, planning and other aspects of the decisions. There will be delegations from the applicant and from the public. Considering all input, Councillors will vote on next steps.
In my experience as a Councillor, I listened to many delegations. Those that Council gives most weight to are best described as informed. That is, the speaker has read the staff report and listened to the applicant, and raises appropriate points or counterpoints for or against the applicant or the staff position. Speakers who make emotional appeals are considered, but these decisions are largely about fairness within the legal planning framework, balancing the rights of property owners and community benefits. In particular, when Council decisions are appealed to the Ontario Municipal Board, it is informed decisions addressing the rational arguments of the staff report and the application that will have weight there.
While the Province has recently moved to rein in the powers of the OMB, with a new body with a different mandate, this application will likely be appealed to the existing body, which is not referred to as “Owner May Build” for no reason. It is difficult to look at its decision-making track record without concluding that its prime purpose is to stop communities from impeding property owners repurposing property for greater profit.
Anyone can speak to Oakville Town Council by registering at email@example.com. The staff reports can be found online at Oakville.ca, Town Hall, Agendas, Minutes, Resolutions and Reports.
One point that has appeared in the press is that the applicant (Clublink) believes the heritage designation would impede the ability of the course to adapt to properly host the Canadian Open. Many buildings in Oakville are heritage designated, and the whole downtown business district is a heritage area. These designations protect the critical historic features, but do not restrict the changes necessary to maintain modern livability or economic viability: if they did, there would have been an enormous backlash against the whole heritage regime long ago.
With respect to both the heritage issues and the community impact of the application (which will be more of an issue when the development application itself is considered in September), there have been independent studies done on the economic impact of the golf course as compared to the proposed development, and a staff report. There are a couple of issues not addressed there that I would like to bring forward.
The first is, the reduction in relative value of the properties adjacent to the Glen Abbey golf course and thus their reduced share of the total town assessment. Houses on Golfview or Fairway Hills are obviously more valuable if they actually have a golf course next door.
Secondly, the prestige of Glen Abbey is a significant advantage to our community in two ways which are not mentioned in the reports.
One, Glen Abbey makes it possible to attract prospective customers to view Oakville companies’ facilities or attend business presentations because it is a very desirable place to play golf. For any golfer, the possibility of playing Glen Abbey is a big deal. It is worth arranging one’s business schedule around the opportunity. At my 200 employee Oakville company, we brought prospective customers out for demonstrations of our products and services, luring them here with the promise of a round at Glen Abbey afterwards. I am sure we were not alone in this. We also ran tournaments at Glen Abbey to thank our customers for their loyalty, and to reinforce it. Again, I know many other Oakville companies use Glen Abbey in this way, and this contributes to Oakville’s prosperity in ways the reports do not mention. Other golf courses would not have this impact. This may be difficult to quantify, but it is real and significant nonetheless.
Two, another example of the benefits of Glen Abbey’s prestige comes from my experience as Campaign Chair and as a Board Member for the United Way. Every year, the United Way runs the Mayor’s Invitational Golf Tournament at Glen Abbey. This tournament raises about $140,000 for the United Way, which helps contribute to our social fabric and to the livability of Oakville. As anyone who has run a charity golf tournament can tell you, $50,000 would be considered outstanding, and $30,000 very good. The appeal of Glen Abbey to golfers, its prestige and mystique, are why they are willing to pay $500 each to play in this tournament, and why it is always sold out. No other golf course in our region would have the same draw.
These comments of mine only serve to reinforce the contents of the reports before Council, which clearly indicate that the highest best use of the property, from the Town’s perspective, remains its current use. Further, the current use would likely remain the best use for the owner unless the zoning is changed.
With respect to the planning considerations which will be the key issues at the September meeting at which the development application is addressed, I do not blame any property owner for trying to maximize the value of his or her property. I am particularly opposed to municipalities doing any kind of downzoning. However, this owner purchased this property in full awareness that the Town has always intended it to remain private open space. *
It is nevertheless perfectly acceptable to apply for a planning change which will create a gain to the owner. If such a gain is in the public interest, the Town will support it, and the property owner will benefit from the change in community needs which has made his or her property more valuable. This is the decision Council will have to make about the Glen Abbey application.
If I complain that something I believe is incompatible is being built next to my home, I can legitimately be told that I should have reviewed the zoning before I bought. If I want to build a high-rise rental property in the middle of an area zoned for and occupied by single family homes, I may be able to do so if it is clearly a needed and wanted facility that cannot properly be accommodated elsewhere. Otherwise, I cannot expect to disrupt the growth patterns of my community for my personal benefit.
The question before Council is whether this proposal is in the public interest. From everything I have heard and read on this topic, the public has formed its view, and does not believe it is in its interest. However, Council has access to information regarding the planning and legal consequences that the public does not or would need to spend much greater time than they have available to access. For this reason we delegate these decisions to elected officials instead of having referenda on every topic. It is possible for a proposal to be in the public interest even if the public thinks it is not.
That said, the reports we have seen so far give substantial support to the argument that this development would reduce Oakville’s attractiveness and renown, and overall prosperity, result in a tax increase for current and new residents, and disrupt its balance of land uses.
Halton and Oakville have made provision for orderly population growth and for intensification that aligns with the Province’s objectives in the Provincial Policy Statement (PPS). Areas currently so designated would have to be revisited to replace the open space the proposed development would eliminate. Such open space as would remain within the Glen Abbey envelope would become a burden to the Town for ongoing maintenance, and would be somewhat landlocked and unlikely to be enjoyed by residents and tourists to anything like the extent that Glen Abbey currently is. It is difficult to imagine how the economic and land use benefits of Glen Abbey golf course could be replaced anywhere else within the community.
It is not difficult to see that if the proposed development proceeds, the property owner will become, at least temporarily, richer, and Oakville will become poorer. Had the property owner purchased the land with residential zoning, and used it as a golf course as an interim use to wait out the market, we would have no choice but to applaud his or her business acumen. However, that is not the current situation.
ClubLink knew what they were buying, paid a price consistent with the zoning, argued strenuously for tax rates compatible with that value, and have no automatic right to a windfall planning gain. What they propose is not a needed and wanted facility that cannot be accommodated elsewhere. There are many provisions in the current excellent Livable Oakville plan for the uses they propose. Their proposal unnecessarily disrupts the orderly planned growth of Oakville and brings with it lower economic and community benefits than the current use.
Official Plans and zoning are subject to application for change, because someone might have a better idea, and we want to remain open to such proposals. They should not be changed when it is not a better idea, when it is not in the public interest, when it goes against the planned orderly growth of the community, and when it is solely in the interest of a property owner who purchased the land knowingly encumbered with longstanding zoning provisions.
Council has at its disposal facts and advice which are not available to the public. These are part of their deliberations. Informed public input is another part. In writing this, I have hoped to provide some guidance as to how members of the public who wish to provide some input can most usefully do so.
*At one point the Town attempted to tax it otherwise. This was not based on an anticipated or desired zoning change but rather on what was the normal practice for golf courses at that time.