Minto endorses flexibility in planning policy while encouraging farmland preservation

MINTO – Town council has endorsed a consultant’s report calling for the municipality to “strongly support” flexibility around settlement area expansion and removing the mandated municipal comprehensive review process, while encouraging ongoing protection of prime agricultural lands through upcoming changes to provincial planning policy.

Triton engineering senior planner Bill White, appearing via video link from his home in Texas, presented council with a report on provincial policy and legislative changes and an update on the County of Wellington’s municipal comprehensive review (MCR) on May 23.

While County of Wellington and Wellington Federation of Agriculture officials have recently expressed alarm at the potential impact of some of the proposed changes on local planning control and the agricultural community, White, a former Minto CAO, told council the province’s planning policies are due for an update.

“The planning system in Ontario, about 25 years ago, it’s like we put a fresh coat of paint on a house,” said White.

“But since then, it’s been painted and patched and the colors don’t match anymore.

“And this last year or so the province has basically scraped all that paint off and they’re starting anew.”

White added, “When you do that to a house, there’s always some underlying flaws that you find –  and I think you’ll find as we go through this it’s not perfect – but it’s definitely a house that needed to be scraped back and painted again.”

White noted Town of Minto staff provided council with a report on the recommendations of Ontario’s Housing Task Force a year ago.

“Since then there was extensive change to planning legislation and policy, much of it occurring during the period between the municipal election and the 2022 holidays,” the White states in his report.

The report cites Bill 109 the More Homes for Everyone Act 2022, Bill 23 the More Homes Built Faster Act 2022, Bill 97 Helping Homebuyers, Protecting Tenants Act and the Draft Provincial Planning Statement 2023, as approved or pending provincial legislation that “alter land use planning in ways not seen for 25 years.”

White said the new provincial policy impacts Wellington County’s official plan review and how municipal land use planning occurs locally.

He noted Minto council’s decisions on planning applications must be consistent with new the provincial planning statement once it is approved this fall.

White recommended council submit comments to the Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing on the policy proposals before the June 5 deadline based on the following points:

  • strongly support flexibility around settlement area expansion, growth allocation between lower-tier municipalities and removing the mandated municipal comprehensive review process;
  • encourage ongoing protection of prime agricultural lands, focusing multi-lot rural residential development on rural housing clusters where infilling and rounding out can occur with minimal impact on the environment and rural services;
  • support the province modernizing and streamlining the Planning Act to make it more readable and practical once municipalities have adapted to the new planning policy;
  • suggest Ontario investigate incentives to owners of short-term or vacation rentals, and companies that book them, to make more units available for long-term attainable or affordable housing;
  • request the province increase direct unconditional grant transfers to municipalities committed to streamlined and responsive planning practices that increase housing supply and affordability;
  • encourage the federal government to match a provincial infrastructure transfer program to ensure property taxpayers’ contributions to infrastructure planning are fair and manageable; and
  • support Wellington County providing long-range planning services as the local approval authority.

On Minto’s request for flexibility in how growth is allocated between the town’s urban centres, and how growth is assigned between lower tiers in the county, White’s report states that eliminating the MCR process in the new provincial planning statement will allow the county to be flexible when assessing land needs in urban settlements.

“Growth could be moved from one lower tier to another if the market shows need and infrastructure is available,” he explained.

“The town could expand settlements in Palmerston, Harriston or Clifford to anticipate need, rather than being stuck with a boundary for 10 years without the ability to change.”

White told council he feels the elimination of the MCR process is “a really good thing.”

White said he found that during a county-wide meeting of local municipal planners, “pretty much everyone was happy that the municipal comprehensive review process would no longer need to be followed.”

Acknowledging concern about the impact of rural development policies on prime agricultural lands and rural areas, White noted Minto has previously supported flexibility when rounding out and infilling rural settlements and broader severance options on secondary agricultural land.

“Wellington County has been a leader in secondary housing options in prime agricultural and rural areas,” the report states.

“To date, staff are not aware of any serious issues with secondary housing being allowed in prime agricultural lands if proper rules are in place.  Provincial planning policy should protect prime agricultural uses.”

“I think the County of Wellington is certainly well positioned with its current policies to allow for some residential development in prime ag lands with some conditions, but only where it can meet the minimum distance separations, and some other information and requirements that are already in place,” said White.

However, he added, “the impact of allowing lots to be created in prime ag lands, that is a different story and I’m not 100% sure how that will work.”

Councillor Ron Elliott asked if municipalities would be losing the ability to levy development charges in new legislation.

“For what they’re defining as attainable or affordable housing, they’re restricting the increases. They’re requiring you to spend certain amounts of them. But you’re not losing them in their entirety,” White replied.

“And that’s part of the challenge here, because not only is the Planning Act being changed, but six or seven other pieces of legislation, including the Development Charges Act.”

He added Minto’s development charges bylaw will need to be amended to align with the coming changes.

White said he hoped the provincial and federal government would make “sustained infrastructure funding” available as a replacement for lost development charges.

Deputy mayor Jean Anderson said she was frustrated the lack of progress on creating affordable housing.

“We talk about affordable, we talk about attainable … we talk about we’re going to change the planning, but there’s nothing that’s compelling the developers to build us an affordable home,” said Anderson.

She noted local studies have shown a couple working full time at Minto’s largest employer can afford a $300,000 mortgage.

“There is no such property in Minto. The average mean cost as of last month’s report was $699,000 plus change. And in the county it was $839,000,” she stated.

Anderson said much of the development in local communities ends up being luxury housing snapped up by people selling their even more expensive city homes and pocketing the difference.

“There’s nothing compelling affordable housing at all. They’ve removed the definition, because it’s impossible to come up with one because it changes for every community,” said Anderson.

White replied, “One of the things in my mind I felt like might help is that those people are coming out of the GTA and KW anyway.

“And where they’re going now, because of supply, was they’re going into Palmerston, Harrison, and Clifford and paying top dollar for those places, because there were no estate homes available for them.

“So I think if, if this allows some of that market to be taken care of, maybe the urban areas could be retaining some more affordable, attainable housing.”

He added, “I’m not here to tell you that this is the only solution. And I share your concerns. I really do.

“But I do feel that it’s important that we scrape this planning system back down to its bare bones, and get it into a position where it can be more responsive.”

“This is all fine to encourage this development. But we do need the infrastructure,” said treasurer Gordon Duff.

He pointed out it’s a struggle to find ways to fund new infrastructure, even as costs of projects already in the planning stages keep rising.

“The estimates that we prepared five years ago, three years ago, are totally out of line, because municipal inflation is much higher than the CPI. And it’s astonishing how great that has become,” Duff said.

“So it’s great to have all these projections … but really you have to be cognizant of what servicing do we have and concentrate, again, where we do have capacity and we do have infill.”

Council accepted the report and directed town staff to continue to monitor provincial and county policy initiatives regarding land use planning.

Council also directed comments outlined in the report be sent to the Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing before the June 5 deadline.