John Hawley is a developer who has worked with the Town of Niagara-on-the-Lake for 25 years.
At a recent Town meeting that introduced the concept of the Community Planning Permit System, Hawley and other developers applauded the introduction of the CPPS to NOTL.
The word “certainty” was used often during the discussion, by Hawley and others, as the chief benefit of the system for both developers and residents.
At this early stage in the process, the Town is looking at an amendment to the Official Plan that gives staff the ability to move forward and create the policies of a CPPS, which would set out a permitted land-use framework, development standards for a site or area, and set conditions, that would include design, said town planner Jesse Auspitz.
It would allow a development permit to be issued as a planning approval, providing an alternative to zoning bylaw amendments, site plan bylaws and minor variances.
A CPPS sets out clear guidelines for developers to follow at the front end of the development process, rather than having them go through an extensive and expensive process, only to be turned down by staff, council or over community opposition, explained Auspitz at last week’s meeting.
The value to a developer, he said, is that the rules will be known upfront.
The goal in creating the system for NOTL, “is to preserve the small town character of this town,” he said.
Other objectives include conserving heritage resources; ensuring new or redevelopment is in keeping with the community; protecting the natural environment; supporting agriculture; and streaming the development approval process while providing certainty with respect to land uses and built form.
Residents will have an opportunity for input both at the policy development stage and before bylaw approval of the permit system, and anyone who comments during the process can appeal it, Auspitz said.
Once the CPPS is approved and in effect, residents lose their right to appeal, on the assumption there shouldn’t be any reason to — they will have had the opportunity to ensure the guidelines for their neighbourhood represent what they consider to be appropriate, good planning, and under the permit system, those guidelines will be upheld by staff and applicants.
Developers can appeal if their application is denied, however, as pointed out by Coun. Norm Arsenault, “if they’re playing by the rules upfront, they shouldn’t have to appeal.”
While there were several positive comments from developers, Lord Mayor Betty Disero said not all in the industry would necessarily be in favour of the permit system, and stressed they would have the right to appeal. She was just “managing expectations,” by noting the appeal process, she said.
Although this might seem new to some residents unfamiliar with the system, it isn’t, said Arsenault, who was at the meeting along with Disero and Coun. Stuart McCormack. Arsenault and and other successful candidates spoke of it during the 2018 election campaign.
Before the election, Arsenault said he studied its use in other communities, and thought it might be helpful in NOTL. He sees it as an opportunity to eliminate the expensive, drawn-out development appeals that have occurred in recent years. At Tuesday’s meeting, he mentioned Gananoque, a quaint town on the St. Lawrence River which also has a tourism industry. Its population is about one/third the size of NOTL, with its own development pressures, and a significant waterfront, which is specifically addressed in its CPPS.
The ability to institute a development permit system has been part of provincial legislation since 2006.
A CPPS speeds up the development application process compared to a zoning amendment, requiring permit approval from the Town in 45 days rather than the 90-day deadline, said Auspitz, but will take longer than the current 30-day approval for a site plan or minor variance.
Once the bylaw itself is approved, it can’t be appealed for five years, without a resolution from council.
While at this point the planning department is considering a CPPS to cover all areas of the town, as policies are developed, it could be used for certain character areas, such specific neighbourhoods or the waterfront, said Auspitz.
It allows for more flexibility, as built into the policies, he said, using the example of setbacks in the Old Town. Under a CPPS, not every building would necessarily have to be the same, but would have to be appropriate for the neighbourhood and streetscape.
The first step was the open house Tuesday, followed by a public meeting March 9. The second stage will be an open house and public meeting to discuss policies, leading to the approval of a bylaw, and the final stage, the ability to issue planning permits.
Mary Lou Tanner, at the meeting with former NOTL town planner John Henricks, both representing Niagara Planning Group, spoke of other municipalities that have gone through this process, and urged Auspitz to have a look at other systems. They are complicated to create, she said, “and it’s really important the public and developers are part of the conversation,” when policies are developed. She also suggested a built-in “checkpoint or review” three years into the process would be helpful.
Jolanta Janny Kudlats recommended council look in particular at the Old Town as a whole, commending the design codes of The Village. “I like the look of The Village, and how everything fits, and looks like it belongs,” she said. “I hope you’ll look at Old Town as a whole, not certain character areas. For me, the Old Town is the Old Town.”
As an example, she said, there are certain restrictions for those who want to develop in the heritage district, while a few blocks away on Anne Street, developers can do whatever they want to. “This should be for all streets, not just certain streets.”
Speaking to The Local after the meeting, Hawley compared a development permit system to the architectural codes which have protected The Village from the beginning. In 1995, the Town had been immersed in an Ontario Municipal Board fight over the development that would become the entrance to the Old Town.
Council and residents were pushing back on what they feared would become suburban sprawl with a strip mall, and Hawley was brought in by then property-owner Bud Wright.
Rather than giving a decision, the OMB chair sent everyone back to the drawing board, and Hawley invited new urbanism architect and planner Andres Duany to “master plan” what became The Village, through a week-long charrette, a planning process that involved all stakeholders.
The result was an architectural code that still exists in The Village, even down to colours, and a pedestrian-friendly, new urbanism development that was approved by council and the OMB, and widely accepted by the community.
It was a very different process and result from other developments of the day, Hawley said, recalling King’s Point, with drawn-out legal battles and decisions ultimately made by the OMB, at great cost to the developer, residents in opposition, and the Town.
The Town would do well to hire a consultant such as Duany who understands the level of detail needed to be incorporated into the development permit policies, he suggested.
The approval process will no longer be just about land use, zoning, mass, height, density and other basic policies in the Official Plan — it will become about the overall design and architecture detail that make for a much more appropriate, high-quality development.
And developers will know exactly what they’re getting into when they decide to build in NOTL, he added.
“If enough resources and time are spent early on to strengthen these prescriptive design elements, and they’re clear enough, everyone saves time and money on appeals down the road,” says Hawley.
With the current process, “the Town is always reacting to an application. They don’t know what they’re going to get until they see it. There’s too much ambiguity. Developers often interpret zoning and other elements in a way that isn’t approved at the end,” he said.
Although some developers may see the permit system as overly-strict control, restricting their rights and limiting their ability to appeal, which would be based on a difference in interpreting planning policies, Hawley says the trade-off is not only less costly, but a less stressful, less antagonistic process, with fewer conflicts than what is so common now, as well as better quality designs.
“This is going to be a lot of work. I commend the town for taking it on, but at the end, I hope everyone will recognize it’s worth it, for the sake of the town.”