Best laid plans may go to waste

Carrie Debrone

Regional officials are meeting with local developers in an attempt to resolve their differences over how much agricultural land needs to be set aside for suburban development in the Region of Waterloo in the next 20 years.

The amount and location of land the Region thinks will be needed for development was laid out in its Official Plan completed in 2010. That plan was appealed to the Ontario Municipal Board (OMB) in January 2011 by several groups of local developers.

On Jan. 21, two OMB members sided with the developers who asked for ten times more agricultural land for development than what has been set aside in the Official Plan. But in case negotiations with the developers do not resolve the dispute, regional council voted unanimously Jan. 29 to proceed with two appeals of the OMB decision.

The Region is asking for a rehearing on the grounds that OMB members have misinterpreted the region’s mandate to adhere to the provincial Places to Grow Act. Councillors also voted to appeal to the Divisional Court for its case to be heard based on the legal interpretations of the decision. Divisional Court is a branch of the Superior Court of Justice on Ontario that hears appeals and applications for judicial review.

The Ontario Municipal Board ruled in favour of the developers’ request to allow an additional 1,053 hectares (2,593 acres) of agricultural land to be used for development — an amount over and above the 25,000 buildable units of land (mostly infill lots in already developed areas but also 80 hectares of agricultural land for subdivision housing) set aside in the plan by the region for development.

“The ROP is the region’s primary tool for shaping the community well into the future,” said Rob Horne, the region’s Commissioner of Planning, Housing and Community Services. “The OMB decision could have far reaching implications to the community’s well defined vision in accommodating growth and change.”

“All of the region’s planning since 1976 has been towards the development of a central transit corridor,” Horne added. “We don’t want outward expansion that takes up valuable agricultural land.”
Every five years, by law, all Ontario municipalities must update their official plans (which set out where development will occur for about 20 years). Municipalities in south central Ontario had until 2009 to update their plans and make them comply with the new provincial Places to Grow Act, which was adopted in 2006 — the first provincial legislation that attempted to curb urban sprawl.

The Act requires that, by 2015, 40 per cent of all new housing be within built up areas. In keeping with the Act’s requirements, the Region developed its Official Plan with an aggressive growth management strategy adopting intensification and increased housing density as a responsible, environmentally sensitive direction for the future. It encouraged the use of infill lots and upward growth supported by good transit, more sidewalks and cycling lanes, instead of the traditional outward growth of single-family home subdivision development, which consumes the local supply of agricultural land and generally means people must rely on cars for transportation.

“It’s perplexing, to say the least,” Horne said. The developers argued that more agricultural land than what’s contained in the plan will be needed to serve the region’s forecasted population growth.

The OMB agreed with the developers and noted that the Act does not set out any specific dates by which growth intensification targets have to be completed. Horne said it might be well into next year before any decision is made. He said he could not estimate how much the Region has paid to defend the developer’s appeal at the OMB or how much it will cost for the two new appeals, but he said, “It will be expensive.”

The recent OMB decision also places another appeal by the developer’s in jeopardy. Waterloo Region has adopted what has been dubbed as ‘countryside line’ boundary in its Official Plan — a line where all development in the region would stop. It is the only municipality in the province to have adopted such a boundary and this, too, has been appealed to the OMB by developers.

Horne said it is now unclear if the ‘countryside line’ appeal can move forward until a decision is made on the region’s request for a rehearing and the divisional court deals with the matter.