CBC: Councillor 'wholly unsatisfied' with answers to inquiry on Jock River file

By Joanne Chianello

The Ottawa city councillor who demanded answers about alterations to the Jock River flood plain says the responses have only raised further questions, which are

expected to be discussed at Thursday's planning committee meeting.

Coun. Catherine McKenney submitted a formal inquiry to the city's planning staff last month about the removal of 291,000 cubic metres of watershed storage north of the Jock River, between Highway 416 and Greenbank Road.

"I am wholly unsatisfied with the answers," McKenney said after receiving the city's official response, which is attached to the agenda for Thursday's meeting.

The councillor said there were no answers to questions about why a senior staff member told a provincial regulator that council supported a plan to move huge amounts of soil within the Jock River flood plain, nor whether the city followed its own official plan when staff supported the alteration.

Mapping wasn't updated

Behind McKenney's concerns is a complex, multi-year effort by developer Caivan Communities to alter 100 hectares of the Jock River flood plain.

In 2018, Caivan applied to the city for an official plan amendment — considered a significant change to the city's long-term land-use blueprint — to allow future residential development on what was designated as a flood plain.

Caivan and its engineering experts, J.F. Sabourin and Assoc., said there were "inaccuracies" in the current 100-year flood line that was last revised in 2005, according to a city staff report.

Based on city staff's recommendation, council agreed to allow future residential development in the area, with the understanding that a new flood plain mapping exercise would be undertaken.

Indeed, the actual bylaw for this specific official plan amendment — it's known as OPA 212 — states that "the City of Ottawa and the Rideau Valley Conservation Authority (RVCA) will be undertaking a review of the Jock River flood plain mapping."

Furthermore, the city staff report to council stated: "If the updated mapping reduces the flood plain as predicted by the applicant, the City will update the Official Plan and zoning overlays as appropriate."

But that mapping was never updated. The RVCA concluded that the existing 2005 map was still valid, and so did the city. 

According to the staff response to McKenney, the city's own engineering consultants, EWRG, determined "that a reduction in the flow used for the 2005 flood risk study was not warranted."

To be clear, council never explicitly directed staff to report back about the mapping exercise. Still, when there was no update, "the assumption would be that nothing is moving ahead," McKenney said. 

Contentious letter

Instead, Caivan applied to the RVCA for a "cut and fill" permit, which the conservation authority's executive board approved last November after RVCA staff ultimately said they were "comfortable" with the application.

Since then, the developer has removed, or cut, 116,000 cubic metres of soil near the river and built up, or filled, the more northerly areas of the flood plain with 407,000 cubic metres of soil. 

The RVCA has said it was one of the most significant files it's ever dealt with.

The same day the RVCA's executive board was voting on Caivan's application, Lee Ann Snedden, the city's director of planning services, wrote to the RVCA "expressing the City of Ottawa's support for the approval of the application."

She went on to say: "We want to reinforce the support Council has expressed for this file, founded on the comprehensive work completed by the applicant and its consulting team ..."

McKenney has balked at Snedden's representation of council in this letter. One of the key questions of the councillor's inquiry asks under whose authority the letter was sent.

The answer? Because council had agreed to change the official plan for future development of the area, "the letter reflects official plan policies" and hence "no further council instruction was required."

On the one hand, the OPA 212 bylaw clearly approves the land be designated as residential. But the bylaw also states that a flood plain mapping review would be undertaken; the approval was not based on the premise of a major cut-and-fill operation.

McKenney contends that the city was not adhering to the official plan amendment by supporting Caivan's application, and certainly misrepresented council.

"As a city councillor, I have never given my approval in any way that allows for the fill of a flood plain that isn't balanced and doesn't have flood plain mapping alongside of it," said the councillor.

Water levels to remain stable: engineer

Caivan has said it worked diligently with engineers and the RVCA for years to ensure that its development would have no impact either upstream or downstream.

The developer's own engineering reports by J.F. Sabourin were reviewed by yet another consultant, GHD, whose reports were posted publicly to city's website as part of McKenney's inquiry.

There shall be no water level increases upstream or downstream of the project.- J.F. Sabourin, engineering consultant

The GHD report dated Oct.7, 2019 that conducted the technical review of Caivan's cut-and-fill application, the firm noted that J.F. Sabourin's "hydraulic study concludes that there is a 0.01-0.06 metre increase in peak water levels … due to the proposed cut and fill activities. The report also shows an increase in flood extent from the proposed site alteration activities."

This concerned McKenney, when they read it last week.

But since CBC reported this story on Monday, Caivan and J.F. Sabourin have stated that the modelling was revised after the GHD report, so that there would be virtually no increase in the water level of the Jock River.

"The final report included refinements to the cut and fill design that then produced results with a maximum water level difference of 2 millimetres," according to a statement from J.F. Sabourin.

"There shall be no water level increases upstream or downstream of the project."

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