The Town’s new Official Plan, sent to the Region for approval in January, has been sent back to local planning staff for more work to be done before the Region can consider it for approval.
Council knew when it approved the OP at a special council meeting in October that it did not conform to all regional and provincial policies, and understands it will now take time, and more public meetings, to bring the new plan into conformity with those policies, says Lord Mayor Betty Disero.
In the meantime, the Town’s 1994 plan remains in effect, and with the amended legislation that allows for compatible development with surrounding neighbourhoods as outlined in the new OP, “there is no need to rush,” she says.
One of the main discrepancies between the new OP and provincial policies concerns the way ditches are treated, of great concern to the agricultural community which relies on them for irrigation.
During discussions leading up to the approval of the OP, Disero says, the agriculture committee expressed concern about the provincial policy that treats ditches as part of the “natural heritage system.”
The agricultural community was concerned about the impact on specialty crops, with provincial policy limiting what can be done when drains and ditches used for irrigation overlap with protected natural heritage areas.
Councillors were warned by the consultants there might be problems finalizing the plan, with ongoing changes at both the provincial and regional levels resulting in planning policies that conflict with the Town’s, especially on the issue of natural heritage features.
Council approved the new OP knowing it wouldn’t meet regional and provincial policies in that area, hoping, for the benefit of the agricultural community, to open a discussion that might allow for some exceptions for NOTL’s unique situation.
She says she hopes in the coming months the discussions of the OP with the Region will include irrigation ditches and changes to the mapping of natural heritage, but if the Town’s man-made ditches are not recognized as distinct from natural heritage features, the Province will at least be aware of the unique situation in NOTL.
In addition to the natural heritage system, other areas identified in the Town’s OP that don’t conform to regional and provincial policies include (but are not limited to, the report says) permitted uses within agricultural lands, growth management, and proposed employment land conversions to allow for residential development.
The Town’s new OP has some issues with land use for wineries that have to be addressed, and it doesn’t deal with conversion from commercial to residential development, which is not a common occurrence, says Disero.
Referring to growth management, she explained numbers regarding future housing units were omitted, since regional and provincial growth policies were unknown when the Town’s OP was under consideration. The Region was expected to fill in the numbers once they were available, Disero says, but likely decided not to when it realized there were other issues that meant sending the plan back to the Town for further changes.
A Regional report regarding the non-conformity of the Town’s OP to regional and provincial policies, presented to its planning and development committee last Wednesday, was accepted without discussion.
The report said the Region has met with Town staff and councillors about bringing the plan into conformity, so that regional council can consider it for approval.
Developer Rainer Hummel says a delay of the plan’s regional approval doesn’t impact developers, with the possible exception of the conversions from employment lands to residential land use.
His question is why this town council was in a hurry to have the new OP completed and approved, with the time and cost of town staff and consultants, when councillors knew it was a document that could not be adopted by the Region.
In addition to the agricultural issues, the Town knew a revised provincial policy statement would be announced by a newly-elected provincial government, and taxpayers’ money could have been saved if it had waited for that news, says Hummel.
“They didn’t know what the policy would say, and they couldn’t just guess at it,” he says.
Although the Region listed four main areas of non-conformity, he believes there are many more issues, “an entire host of things,” that will have to be revised, likely requiring hiring a consultant again, in order for the document to be approved by the Region.
The whole process to rush for approval was unnecessary, he says, “and unfair to the taxpayers.”
There have been many changes to provincial policies over the years, right up until the new provincial government proposed changes in 2019, the report says. Regional and Town staff met on several occasions to discuss conformity matters between the Town’s draft OP before it was approved by council. Regional staff also noted in the report that the Region is currently preparing a new regional Official Plan — it was discussed at length at Wednesday’s meeting.
Niagara Region has 120 days to review the Town’s new Official Plan for conformity and consistency and for regional council to either approve, modify and approve, or refuse it. But a “temporary pause” is permitted when the plan does not conform to the upper-tier municipality’s Official Plan, and once the Town’s OP conforms with regional policy and is again presented to the Region for approval, the 120-day countdown is reset.
Disero says public meetings will be required, but she doesn’t see any need for consultants or any extra cost — the Town has the original consultants’ report, which for the most part will conform to Regional policies. The exception would be the numbers for growth, which need to be added.
Although she was concerned about the provincial threat of amalgamation at the time of the OP approval, it wasn’t rushed, she says. “We had the consultants’ report, and we had made the changes we wanted, so we approved it.”