County municipalities alarmed by proposed provincial policy changes

GUELPH – Urban planners, the women and men who shape the communities we live in, see the world a little differently than most.

Many are policy wonks and care deeply about the communities they serve, asking how best to serve the public by planning complete communities, while protecting what needs to be protected, such as the natural environment.

It’s about ensuring elements such as adequate buffering, enough parking, or sufficient greenspace needs are met – things we all take for granted, but which form the building blocks required for development to function and be compatible with life.

Much of what planners can do at the municipal level is guided by provincial planning policy, which has changed a lot over recent years.

Recently proposed changes to policy by the province mean local planners are having to adjust how they view local planning though the lens of a new and forthcoming Provincial Policy Statement.

For most county residents, the effects won’t be immediately recognized.

Wellington County policy planning manager Sarah Wilhelm says it’s likely there will be more people moving into the county sooner than previously thought, and residents may see more residential development on agricultural land.

Some of the proposed changes by the provincial government include:

  • eliminating intensification and density targets (previously 40 people and jobs per hectare);
  • repealing A Place to Grow: Growth plan for the Greater Golden Horseshoe;
  • disposing of the municipal comprehensive review process to establish settlement areas and employment area conversions;
  • removing a focus on, and definition of, affordable housing;
  • softening of climate change policy;
  • stating employment lands are only for industrial uses such as manufacturing and warehousing; and
  • requiring municipalities to plan ahead by a minimum of 25 years for future land needs to accommodate growth.

All of it is part of the provincial government’s push to create “housing-supportive” policy and an aim to build 1.5 million new homes by 2031.

County senior policy planner Jameson Pickard summarized the proposed changes at a May 11 county committee meeting, telling members the province’s proposals, as written, will have “fairly significant implications on the land-use planning framework in the county.”

Local politicians and planners are worried over a key change Pickard described as a “reversal on the protection of agricultural land and farming.” He said the changes would be “an overall weakening of agricultural protection, in favour of housing development and non-agricultural uses.”

Pickard also highlighted a “lack of policy direction” related to affordable and attainable housing.

There’s “uncertainty” around natural heritage protection policies, Pickard noted — the province is still figuring those out.

“Not having that is kind of a big hole in understanding the actual full implications of the [policy],” Pickard said.

And then there’s a softening of policy related to the effects of climate change.

“It seems like they’re stepping back when they should be stepping However, not all changes are bad, the senior planner assured the committee.

For one, there will be less duplication and more streamlining by combining the Provincial Policy Statement and A Place to Grow into a single document.

The province is also shifting the responsibility back to municipalities to determine future population and employment numbers.

That’s seen as a positive among local mayors, and a welcome reversal of current policy whereby the province dictates growth numbers to the county, and the county allots that growth to the seven municipalities within.

The province indicates the proposed updates are being reviewed and will be finalized for a fall rollout.

The province is also indicating that municipalities won’t have much leeway time to transition and put policy into practice.

Residential development on prime agricultural land

The most “electric change” being proposed, according to Pickard, is a change in the province’s attitude toward allowing residential development in prime agricultural areas.

Prime agricultural, secondary agricultural, and rural land on the edge of urban boundaries has broad support for residential development in the proposed changes, the committee was told.

On a parcel of land where agriculture is the primary use, Pickard explained, the province is proposing to allow up to three severances for houses.

To provide a rough idea of the effect of such a change in policy, the county took stock of lots over 10 acres in size and subtracted a percentage to account for minimum distance separation (MDS) requirements between developments, another percentage for land which may not be used for farming, and came up with the potential for 12,000 lots that could be created.

“That’s a reduced number, but it’s still quite substantial,” Pickard said.

The response among the planning members was one of indignation.

Warden Andy Lennox decried the government’s “short-sighted” ideas.

“Agriculture is our number one industry,” the warden said. “We have some of the very best farmland [and] microclimate anywhere in the world.”

He scoffed at the idea of residential development adjacent to farm operations with noise, dust, odour, lights and flies.

And what of the limitations to water and wastewater servicing, the warden asked. What about the cost of roads to handle increased traffic, or the economic implications of the livestock operations? How would land values change? Lennox challenged.

“We are a major livestock producer in Ontario,” Lennox said of the Wellington area. He suggested urban development in the countryside would “sanitize” agricultural activity thanks to land-use conflicts.

Lennox asserted the proposed policy is the “wrong direction for a place like Wellington County.”

“We have a duty, an obligation to ourselves … to preserve what we have,” he said, going as far to suggest the changes will affect the long-term viability of Wellington’s communities.

Pickard cautioned the county is unsure exactly how to interpret the proposed policy for now.

“There’s some nuances there about how these severances are going to unroll,” he said.

On existing agricultural land, the province’s proposed policy changes would allow two residential units to be created on severed lots in addition to an existing dwelling, for a total of three residential lots, but they must be near a principal dwelling and have “appropriate” water and wastewater servicing.

Another paragraph states up to three residential lots would be permitted on existing prime agriculture land, but they cannot be located in specialty crop areas, existing access to a public road is required, lots must have proper frontages, and they cannot be adjacent to land being used for agriculture.

Erin county councillor Jeff Duncan called the province’s proposal “a real attack” on the county and land use planning in the past three decades.

He suggested the changes are “politically-motivated,” saying the provincial government was pandering.

“It’s a bad land use planning strategy, but it’s probably a brilliant political strategy because up to now all the growth has been focused in the urban areas,” Duncan said.

He added he fears rural land owners and farmers will be divided on whether to protect agricultural land or reap the financial benefit of development.

Centre Wellington Mayor and acting planning committee chair Shawn Watters agreed with Duncan’s sentiment, saying the proposed policy will “start pitting people against each other.”

Watters said he understands there are challenges in addressing housing, but local and provincial levels need to work together.

“You need to be listening to us and working with us,” Watters remarked, addressing the proverbial provincial government, missing from the table.

Lennox said he would be sounding the alarm with the Western Ontario Wardens Caucus, an organization that represents 15 upper- and single-tier municipalities in the province.

“We have to take control of what we can, and do what we can to influence the province to make better, long-term decisions,” the warden said.

County planning and development director Aldo Salis said if the province was after a reaction from the community, “they’ve done a great job.”

Salis suggested the Doug Ford administration would be hearing from organizations such as the Ontario Professional Planners Institute, Association of Municipalities of Ontario, and regional planning commissions.

“We’re not alone,” Salis said. “They’ll hear from the broader community, and hopefully they will listen.”

The county’s report is being circulated among local municipalities for discussion with feedback and comments due back to the province by June 5.

The county’s submissions will largely reflect discussion heard at the May planning committee meeting.