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BOB’S BLOG Case Study of Long-Ago ‘Community Project’

By Bob Wood
July 29, 2014 - 0 comments

Last time I wondered aloud whether I was wasting my time on Twitter.

Now this today.  I opened my writing notebook and thought I’d get back to a project put to one side just a few weeks ago.

In my filing system, it is called “The Community Project.”

And when I looked at my notes, I see I had really done no work on The Community Project since May – that would be May 2013.

OK, I’ll admit I knew it was more than a few weeks since I looked at this.  But I’ve been thinking about it.  That’s for sure.  In fact, recently over a beer or two I confessed to another writer that I was bogged down on it.  That claim is a fib of Rob and Doug Ford magnitude as “bogged down” would imply one is actually working on the project.

Let’s face it I’m not working on it – until today.

That’s because on hearing my tale of woe my writer friend (my much more successful writer friend) suggested I blog about it.  That would help.  Couldn’t hurt anyway.

So here is the story – The Community Project, as I call it.

It goes back to 1975 in southeast Burlington.  That is where your blogger spent his formative years.  I’d moved away by then so was only vaguely aware of the details.

It is a David and Goliath story pitting a large corporation (McDonald’s, the fast food chain,) and their planning allies against a group of citizens.  Local resident Jim Ryan was one of the key citizen leaders.

McDonald’s wanted to put one of their restaurants into a small neighbourhood plaza.  While City Council didn’t want them, the giant hamburger chain apparently had planning arguments on their side.  In 1977 they did, anyway, as the Ontario Municipal Board (OMB) had given them the go-ahead. 

This 1977 OMB ruling probably came as a surprise.  That was because in 1973 this same planning body had expressed a different view.  Then they had approved the City of Burlington zoning which restricted restaurants in this plaza. Did I mention this was complex? 

Later in that year, the city appealed unsuccessfully to the Ontario Cabinet.

At this point the City pretty much gave up, officially at least, handicapped by the planning opinion of its own staff.

Enter the local citizens.  Yes, this is a NIMBY (Not in My Backyard) thing.  I call it good NIMBY, though.  Three different groups of residents all had good reasons to object. When residents purchased their properties in this new neighbourhood they had a reasonable expectation, based on planning regulations,  that something like a McDonald’s would not move in next door. A restaurant, particularly a fast-food restaurant, for this location was bad planning.  In addition, approval of such a restaurant would open up 150 or more small plazas in the city to the same type of use. 

The saga continued for another three years.  I have a file containing 155 clippings from stories from local and, even, national media.

Headlines from the three local papers of the day (Hamilton Spectator, Burlington Post and Burlington Gazette) tell the tale.  I’ve added some italicized sections for clarity.

Citizens Fight Back (January–June ‘78)

  1. Big Mac Fight May Go to Court
  2. Trial Best Bet: (Premier) Davis (tells east end residents)
  3. Town Gives in to Restaurant
  4. McDonalds Claims Harassment (as City won’t allow basement storage)
  5. Last Stand by Residents (They go to Divisional Court.)
  6. Judge (at Divisional Court)  Refuses Move to Stop McDonalds
  7. Mac Battle Still Rages (Residents file application to go to Ontario Supreme Court.)
  8. Cabinet keeps Big Mac Alive

It Costs Money to Fight City Planning Battles (January-October ‘79)

  1. Council Won’t Pay Big Mac Battle Costs
  2. Lottery May Help Fight Big Mac
  3. Province Reviewing Legality of (City Approved) Lottery
  4. Lottery Funds for Big Mac Fight Frozen
  5. Province Rules Lottery Illegal 
  6. Citizens Defy Lottery Ruling (won’t return funds raised)
  7. Garage Sale Helps Protestors

Back to the OMB for the Third Time (March ‘79)

  1. Restaurant Objectionable OMB is told
  2. City By-law is Unreasonable says Food Chain Lawyer
  3. Police called to (another Burlington) McDonalds 500 times
  4. Restaurant Noise in the Mind, Expert Testifies (Always some levity when paid experts testify.)
  5. OMB Takes Break from Big Mac Attack

OMB Back from Adjournment (April 1980 – the citizens win their case)

  1. OMB Backs City Stand
  2. Ronald and Helpers Out
  3. McDonald’s Decision has Taken Five Years

The Aftermath (October 80)

  1. Group Want Help to Pay Big Mac Bill
  2. Grant Served up to McDonald’s Foes ($12,000 for legal costs)
  3. Boosters Thanked

This story is almost 40 years old.  Like much local history there has been no real record kept of it.  (I’ve been fortunate to have access to the scrapbook kept by Jim and Judy Ryan.

But this story has much to tell us.  For example: What is the value of the OMB?   How much work and determination is required for citizen groups to fight against the property industry?  Can unfathomable municipal zoning regulations be made more understandable and transparent?   

I’m not doing this story any justice by summing it up with pithy, wisecracking newspaper headlines.  I know that.

It needs more work.  I’ll get going on it.

Thanks for listening.

Bob Wood is a housing and poverty advocate and former two-term Burlington City Councillor who has built a bed-and-breakfast with his wife on Lake Erie. He is on Twitter at @timberwood24.



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