Pembroke – There were more than a few sighs of relief at the County of Renfrew last week when the County of Renfrew Official Plan Amendment 31 (OPA 31) was returned to the county with no appeals from the province.
“I think when you look at the Amendment 31 there were changes made which reflect the municipalities of the County of Renfrew,”
An Official Plan is a policy document that guides the short-term and long-term development of a community and affects all lands within a municipal boundary (with some exceptions, such as Federal lands). All municipalities in Ontario are required to have an Official Plan that reflect provincial interests and integrate planning for matters that affect land-use decisions.
It has been a long haul for the county since the Official Plan review began with public consultations several years ago and the subsequent plan was created with careful wording allowing growth yet abiding by provincial regulations. However, a snag occurred when the plan was returned to the county by the province with unwanted changes most county residents, mayors and reeves felt would stifle any possibility of growth. As a result of those changes, the county appealed and then sought to pass an amendment which would enable more growth and make development easier. The county had been promised the amendment would pass with no opposition, but until the document was back at the county there had been no final assurance this would be the case. Last week the appeal period ended and the amendment became the official document.
“With OPA 31 now in place, the County of Renfrew has a foundational document that will assist our communities manage the expected growth across the region over the next several years," the warden said.
The new plan gives Renfrew County the flexibility to grow but also abides by the Provincial Policy Statement guidelines, she said.
“We want to grow,” she said. “We will never be metropolitan Toronto, but we need to increase our tax base.”
The county and the municipalities want to see new development, new building and growth in their communities, she stressed. The changes in Amendment 31 make it easier to develop than what the province was asking for two years ago, she said.
The warden also said under the Service Delivery Review the county carried out earlier they saw a need to improve the planning department services.
“There is a more streamlined process now,” she said.
At the same time, the warden said she is cognizant of frustration in the county about development and growth.
“We want to hear from developers with their concerns,” she said.
While there is desire for greater freedom in development, the warden pointed out even with the amendment and the power to the county to make more planning decisions, there are still provincial rules which must be abided by.
“The Provincial Policy Statement is not something we can ignore,” she said.
While some municipalities in the county have their own plan these cannot contradict the county official plan as well, she said.
In the future Warden Robinson said she hopes to see more growth and development throughout the county. This is important for the taxpayer and making sure there is not too great a burden on property taxes.
“The population base is not growing but all the costs are going up,” she said. “If you don’t have more of an assessment base the costs will go up or you will have to give up services and no one wants to see that.”
Help from MPP
The warden also paid tribute to Renfrew-Nipissing-Pembroke MPP John Yakabuski who worked tirelessly with the county on making sure the amendment passed with no challenge and ensuring the county had more autonomy over planning. She said he worked with all his provincial colleagues, especially Minister of Municipal Affairs and Housing Minister Steve Clarke “to espouse the virtues of an Official Plan with Renfrew County context.”
The warden recalled the county had the Official Plan 25 at the provincial level for review when the pandemic hit.
“We had asked for concessions and we were told all our requests were denied – deer yards, agricultural lands, growth projections and others,” she said.
That is when Mr. Yakabuski stepped in to intercede for the county, she noted.
“John lives here and understands we are not at risk of losing our agricultural land if we have some flexibility,” she said.
The county was able to have numerous conversations with Mr. Yakabuski and Minister Clarke to point out the need for flexibility and greater local control. In the end, the province agreed to allow the county to have more control over planning and promised there would not be a challenge to the amendment.
“That would not have happened if John Yakabuski was not our MPP,” Warden Robinson said. “He is so well respected at Queen’s Park. He was there for us every step of the way.”
The county sent back the amendment to the province for final comments and throughout this time Mr. Yakabuski continued his involvement to ensure there would be no snags, she said.
“The 14th of September was the last day of the appeal process and John was on the phone with me that morning,” she said. “He assured us there would not be an appeal.”
The warden said she is grateful for his intervention at Queen’s Park on this issue.
“He did everything possible to make sure this plan was ours,” she said.
The Provincial Government under Premier Doug Ford has consistently shared the message that Ontario is open for business.
“With the approval of this Official Plan Amendment, the County of Renfrew now has a locally created planning document with a clear set of expectations that will assist those in our community who want to invest and develop in the County,” Mr. Yakabuski said.
Busy Planning Year
Bruce Howarth, the newly appointed manager of planning services who replaced Charles Cheeseman on his retirement, said the new amendment reverts most of the official policies back to Official Plan 25 language which is what the county initially sent to the province.
“A lot of it dealt with flexibility,” he said.
One of the important issues was population allocations which the province wanted to cap growth in areas.
“No one saw the growth coming we have seen through COVID,” he added.
Under the amendment there are population projections of growth, not allocations.
“So, it won’t hold up development,” he said.
Flexibility is the key word and can be adapted to various things including studies which “may” be required instead of “will” be required, he explained. One example would be Karst land. Instead of automatically requiring an engineering study for development on Karst land the homeowner can drill their own holes and have the local building inspector check to make sure it is okay to build. This makes development easier and cheaper for the applicant.
While development in the county is much more open than it would have been without the amendment, things did not revert back to the previous 2003 policies, he noted.
Having the approval of the amendment has been very important for the county in moving forward. The planning department has been incredibly busy this year with applications, Mr. Howarth said.
“This is the busiest I have ever seen here,” he said. “We have had over 180 general inquiries this year. At this point they are backlogged about four months.”
The general inquires are a free service people can avail themselves of before they go to pay for an application, he explained.
Staff have been working had to keep up with submitted applications because they are time sensitive and the applicant has paid a fee, he added.
Debbi Christinck, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Eganville Leader