County fee hike sparks discussion about hiring township planner

MAPLETON – Rising fees for county planning services sparked discussion among Mapleton councillors about hiring a township planner.

In 2019 Mapleton council endorsed a plan to develop a fee structure to cover all the associated costs for planning services by the year 2022.

In December, the County of Wellington, which provides planning services to the township, adopted and implemented “significant changes” to its billing structure for both site plan applications and rezoning application fees, notes a report from Mapleton finance director John Morrison.

“Given the size and significant impact of these changes, it became immediately apparent that our current fees are insufficient to cover the increase in charges from the County of Wellington,” Morrison explained in a report presented to council on Jan. 14.

Wellington County council supported new fees for rezoning and site plan applications of $6,580 and $2,280 respectively.

However, a proposed $4,900 minor variance application fee recommended by consultants Watson and Associates was reviewed and replaced with an hourly rate of $150 based on the level of county staff involvement in the application. If county planning staff are required or requested to attend committee of adjustment meetings, a meeting rate of $300 will apply.

Given the county’s move to hourly rates on minor variances, Mapleton staff recommended no changes to that application fee.

However, Morrison told council, “The county has made some very significant fee increases in two areas: zoning and site plan control. These flat fees are significantly a departure [from what] we had experienced in the past. In order for municipalities to continue to keep down our costs, we need to pass this on to applicants.”

The report explains staff initially proposed an increase in application fees for a zoning amendment over a three-year period, with the fee to be set at $3,500 in 2020, $4,655 in 2021 and $5,810 in 2022. An application for a garden suite renewal amendment would rise from $2,000 in 2020 to $2,660 the following year and $3,320 in 2022.

“Our fee structure was based on a combination of our costs for administration as well as the County of Wellington’s fee and other third-party expenses we incur,” the report explains.

However, in order to compensate for the county’s move to a $6,850 flat fee for zoning amendments and still achieve cost recovery, finance staff  revised its recommendations upward. The new fee proposal would see the township fee set at $9,150 in 2020, rising to $10,070 and $10,990 over the next two years.

With the county now billing $2,280 per site plan application and the township also responsible for engineering and courier fees from deposits collected, the report recommends revising the township’s holding deposit requirement, and also increasing fees.

The report recommends raising the deposit for new site plan control applications from $2,000 to $4,280, with the fee set at $2,500 for 2020 and rising to $3,325 and $4,150 in 2021 and 2022 respectively.

“I’m just looking at zoning amendments. And averaging at 15 zoning amendments a year over past three years, more or less, and this increase in fees, that’s over $100,000 in additional fees,” said councillor Paul Douglas.

“I’m just wondering if it’s worth having discussions at this point exploring more options for planning services. That’s pretty much a planner’s salary. I would expect we could get a planner on staff full time for just that increase in zoning amendments alone. Or exploring other consultants, or sharing resources with other municipalities, or sharing a planner with other municipalities.”

Douglas suggested staff bring back a report outlining options.

Morrison said that could be part of an ongoing review.

“We’re already making certain  changes in our accounting practices this year. One of the issues is we’d like to know what are the precise costs that we’re actually paying to the county for the services,” Morrison explained. “In the past, my predecessors were very efficient in the way they were accounting for it, but it also hides the cost.”

Morrison said another problem “is that given that increase … is that going to impact the number of applications coming forward? Will people be seeking other ways to avoid these zoning charges and we’d then be having to look at bylaw enforcement as an issue?”

Councillor Dennis Craven said,  “We don’t want to discourage people from coming in here and getting their minor variance application and site plan application and so on and so forth, but we have to make sure that the main ratepayers don’t subsidize these people – that’s important.”

Craven added, “But we have to make sure that they don’t come ask for forgiveness instead of permission. We’ve had some of that in the past.”

Morrison noted that for zoning applications “the fee will be the $9,000 and that’s the fee to cover our entire cost.

“At that point it is worthwhile for us to review the cost structure. We might be able to find we can deliver the same service at a cheaper price, depending on choices that would be made,” he explained.

“We could, as we continue to do our service review, look at other options,” agreed Mayor Gregg Davidson.

Craven suggested, “That could be a time to address Paul’s concern that we should have our own planner instead of the county planner.”

“We’re going to be looking at making a north-end economic development program,” said Davidson. “We can look at the same kind of idea, if there’s going to be cost savings doing it a certain way.”

Craven said, “Maybe there would be an opportunity for the three of us (Mapleton, Minto and Wellington North) to get together and have a planner for just the three of us, instead of using the county planner. But that’s down the road quite a piece, actually.”

Council received the report for information. A revised fees and charges bylaw will be considered at the Jan. 28 meeting.

North Wellington Community News