County ponders position in wake of province’s Greenbelt reversal

GUELPH – With the province reversing course on removal of lands from the Greenbelt amidst controversy over accusations of favouritism benefiting certain developers, Wellington County councillors pondered the possibility of advocating for changes to the government’s arbitrary addition of farmland to urban boundaries within the county.

In April the provincial government made unilateral changes to an amendment to Wellington County’s Official Plan, adding more than 1,000 acres of mostly agricultural land to urban boundaries including:

  • just over 1,000 acres around Fergus and Elora in Centre Wellington;
  • 37 acres adjacent to Rockwood in Guelph/Eramosa; and
  • about 15 acres on the southwest corner of Clifford in the Town of Minto.

“Perhaps at some point we can send a letter to the province or something, get some clarity?” ” said councillor Chris White during discussion on a September planning committee report at the Sept. 28 county council meeting.

“Because when they did the changes to the Greenbelt, they indicated that process was a little bit rushed? Well, this happened at the same time.”

White added, “I think the county had a good long-term plan around housing and where we’re going to put it and what lands we’re going to come in (to the urban boundary) and which weren’t.

“This occurred rather abruptly without municipal input or the county, so if they’re having second thoughts about some of that legislation, is time to gently just say ‘Hey, maybe some of this stuff … should be a little different?’ … I believe some of these OP changes were rather arbitrary, and didn’t fit some of the longer term plans,” he continued.

Councillor James Seeley, who chairs the planning committee, suggested the county collect input from member municipalities such as Centre Wellington, which felt the greatest impact from the OP changes, before making any requests of the province.

“I would like to see some correspondence coming from a member municipality, just to ensure that we’re advocating for the proper (measures), he explained.

Councillor Jeff Duncan suggested the county also consider approaching the province for further clarity on the status of 7,000 acres of land in the Town of Erin which was moved into the Greenbelt at the same time as the since-reversed removal of 7,400 acres around the GTA.

“My understanding is that additional land does not follow the watercourse, or stream area, or valley corridor, does not follow the watershed boundary,” said Duncan.

Duncan noted owners of lands within the Greenbelt are prohibited from having accessory housing units “and it seems to go counter to what the province is doing” in efforts to combat the housing crisis.

“My guess would be the province’s addition of those 7,000 acres may have been as hasty as the removal part,” Duncan suggested.

“And if that’s the case, we should probably ask the province to refine that so that there’s actually some sort of sensible corridor or natural system with the watershed boundary or something.”

Warden Andy Lennox pointed out there are measures the county can take on its own to control development within its borders.

“We’ve talked a lot about provincial policy – which we have very little direct control over – and we can take on the advocacy work and that would be probably very appropriate,” said Lennox.

“But to some of the comments made earlier around the changes to the official plan … well, I think what we have to consider too is, even if the province isn’t willing to move on that, that we have to make sure that our planning policies are as strong as possible to encourage that we have development in places where servicing is possible. Not just possible, but practical.”

Lennox contiued, “We do have the ability to designate those lands as future development and not proceed immediately with development on them.

“I think advocacy is absolutely something we need to continue to do. We also need to keep doing the best we can with the tools we have.”

County planning policy manager Sarah Wilhelm told council her department is continuing to work with member municipalities through the official plan process to ensure appropriate lands are available for development, despite the province’s intervention.

“About 1,000 acres of prime agricultural land were added to settlement boundaries in Fergus, Elora, Rockwood and Clifford and that was through official plan amendment 119,” she explained.

“The province is the official authority for that type of an amendment, so we have no right to appeal.”

Wilhelm added, “With the timing around the Greenbelt and the questions around the process that followed and the speed at which it happened, I haven’t heard anything yet about reviewing these additions that have happened, not only here, but Waterloo Region, Halton Region, Hamilton.

“We’re continuing to work on settlement boundary expansions and we’re following the process that we have available. We’re working with Centre Wellington and the other municipalities that have a need for expansion.

“So we’re going to stay the course and, I guess, wait and watch and see what follows.”