At a special council meeting called last Thursday, consultants working on the new draft Official Plan gave councillors an opportunity to see some of the most recent revisions.
With the Province looking at amalgamation, council made the decision in July to move ahead quickly and have an approved OP to protect planning decisions locally.
Rick Hunter of Planscape said there have been many comments and lots of interest from the public in the process, with some issues of concern that have been addressed in revisions.
He told councillors Planscape would have additional homework after Thursday’s meeting, to deal with councillors’ comments before having an OP ready for approval by Aug. 15.
Presenting some difficulty with finalizing the plan, he said, are the ongoing changes at both the provincial and regional levels of planning policies that conflict.
“It’s almost a pig in a poke,” he said, but added Planscape would continue doing what’s best for Niagara-on-the-Lake. He also warned councillors final approval of the draft OP has to come from both upper levels of government.
“We’re trying to do a balancing act, and hopefully we’ll do it successfully.”
About 125 submissions have been received from the public, he said. In addition, discussions have occurred with the Agricultural Advisory Committee, Grape Growers of Ontario, Wine Council, Ontario Craft Wineries, Winery and Grower Alliance and others, along with submissions from councillors.
Also complicating the issue of approving the draft plan is a request for a moratorium on changing official plans from the provincial government, he said, with no ability at this point for receiving comments from the Region or the Province until that is lifted.
One of the issues addressed by Hunter is that of secondary plans. Work has begun on one for Glendale, but St. Davids, Virgil, Queenston and the Old Town all need studies and revisions. That work is not within the scope of the consultants’ task of completing the updated OP, he said.
Secondary plans offer the “nuts and bolts,” of details, whereas the OP is intended to be more broad in its approach, he explained.
When future studies will be undertaken, he said, “is a question of cost and time.”
Any existing secondary plans will be included in the appendices of the OP, he told councillors.
When asked if NOTL is on the right track with its plan, given regional and provincial changes, Hunter said the existing plan dates from 1994, with 78 amendments since then. The Town has been working on a review since 2002, Planscape since 2015, and there is “no question the plan needed updating.”
Hunter said he is satisfied with the direction of the OP, and a policy framework is “pretty well ready to go,” but added growth management is a sticking point, because “the OP will not conform to the regional plan because the regional plan has not been updated to meet the provincial plan.”
He called it a “chicken and egg” situation, with the Town trying to have an OP that works for the municipality and meets regional and provincial requirements.
Hunter told councillors they would see a red-line version in advance with updated mapping, before having it before them for approval Aug. 15.
Margaret Walton, speaking to agricultural policies in the revised OP, also talked of ongoing provincial changes that protect natural heritage. That has been a concern of the agricultural community, which fears an impact on specialty crops, limiting what can be done when drains and ditches used for irrigation overlap with protected natural heritage areas.
“I know your agricultural community is somewhat mistrustful,” said Walton, adding she has done her best, “and we’ll have to wait to see how that works out.”
The drainage and irrigation system mapping continues to be a concern, with a need to distinguish between it and natural heritage elements.
Walton said she had differentiated between the two on mapping, to show what was originally part of that system — anything that was built under the NOTL Act and Drainage Act, and emphasizes the importance of the system.
She will be checking with the agricultural community to be sure the mapping is correct, but she cautioned the natural heritage system is defined by the Province.
As an example, parts of the irrigation system have become a fish habitat, she said, “and that’s what the Province says it is.”
She addressed the concern of the impact of what farmers consider to be incorrect information on the part of the Province. “The Province should keep their fish out of our ditches,” said Coun. Erwin Wiens. But Walton explained it is a “very, very small portion that has become a natural heritage system and is protected. The Province has made that decision.”
She said the consultants will do as much as they can to protect those areas for farmers, “but I can’t as a professional recommend you do something that I know is not going to be permitted.”
Dealing with cannabis production in the OP, she said, presents a balance between giving farmers the ability to determine what crops they choose to grow, and protecting specialty crops. She is proposing to exclude any crops that require licensing by the federal government.
Regarding estate and farm wineries, OP policies have been revised to be in sync with provincial policies, she said, and new distilleries and breweries are recommended to be in industrial areas.
“You’re not going to have breweries and distilleries out there everywhere, on agricultural land,” Walton said. She agreed with Lord Mayor Betty Disero that “they’re running amuck a little,” and shouldn’t be on agricultural land unless they have a specific reason to be there.
Going over revisions to the draft OP regarding heritage policies, Hunter said they are still looking at them, with regard to growth management and infilling. There are policies in place that currently protect heritage attributes, he said, but there are “character areas” that need to be defined and further studied for possible amendments in the future.
He referred specifically to flag lots — lots behind lots, shaped like a flag in the back, and a flag-pole shaped property to street, with the large portion typically behind another house — with character areas providing an extra layer of protection, he said.
He suggested the draft OP doesn’t need to specifically address such lots, that they would be handled as they come up through planning applications.
But councillors expressed some discomfort about approving an OP that doesn’t specifically prohibit flag lots, although Hunter said in each case an application would be necessary and an evaluation would be made to determine whether it would be appropriate or not.
Lord Mayor Betty Disero, who lives on a flag lot, said she fears “a whole lot of houses” would end up in people’s back yards. “Because we have big back yards we could end up with a lot of houses behind houses.”
Despite Hunter’s assurances, councillors approved a motion to put the policy to prohibit such lots back in the plan.
After extensive discussion about the St. Davids Golf Course property along York Road and whether it should be open for residential development, councillors approved a motion that the property would have a special provision in the new OP, limiting it to use as a golf course or open space. An OP amendment will be required to allow residential development.
“Somebody at some point is going to want to buy that property and put up housing,” said Disero. Without making changes to the draft OP, if an amendment is requested in the future, there won’t be the opportunity for future councils to say they want to keep it for recreational use or green space, she said.
A special council meeting has been called for Aug. 15 at 4 p.m. at the community centre to go over the revisions, with the expectation of approving the OP.
“We’ll have a party after that,” Disero said. “Hopefully it will be approved.”