HC Council calls provincial planning changes a 'recipe for disaster'
BY SHAWN LOUGHLIN
Some drastic changes proposed to the Provincial Policy Statement have Huron County planners and councillors concerned about the future of prime agricultural land and rural neighbourhoods if they come to pass this fall.
Director of Planning Sandra Weber and Manager of Planning Denise Van Amersfoort spoke to council on the issue at its May 3 meeting.
“The most significant change for Huron County proposed under the new [Provincial Policy Statement, 2023] is new policies for residential lot creation in prime agricultural areas. The current Provincial Policy Statement discourages residential lot creation in prime agricultural areas, with the exception of surplus farm residence severances. The changes would allow additional permanent residences and the severance of the additional residences, and the creation of new residential lots in the agricultural area...” the pair said in their report to council.
The units would need to be in close proximity to the principal dwelling, comply with minimum distance separation, not hinder surrounding agricultural operations and have appropriate water and sewer services provided. Furthermore, the lots in question can only be severed from the lot with the principal dwelling.
The new regulation states that agriculture would need to remain the principal use of the existing lot, the number of lots created cannot exceed three, the residential units would have to be compatible with agriculture and not hinder it, and have access to a public road.
Weber and Van Amersfoort also noted that, in regards to this specific change, official plans or zoning bylaws will not be permitted to be more restrictive than the new policies, unless to address public safety or health. That is another change, they said, as the provincial government had, for years, allowed local governments to be more restrictive if they felt it made sense in their communities.
“Residential lot creation in prime agricultural areas has been discouraged since the Countryside Planning/Foodland Guidelines were issued by the Province of Ontario in the 1970s. The purpose of this provincial-wide planning document was to ensure the protection of prime agricultural land for food production,” the pair stated in their report. “Huron County is a prime agricultural area and agriculture is extremely important to the economy and the production of food. For over 50 years, Huron County has had strong official plan policies protecting this agricultural resource and directing non-agricultural-related development to settlement areas.
“Staff and council recognize the need for housing in the agricultural area and, in response, have updated zoning bylaws to allow for additional residential units in the AG1 and AG4 zones and expanded permissions for on-farm housing for farm labour. This allows for additional housing related to agriculture, but does not fragment the land base. The province’s proposal to allow for scattered residential development through lot creation does not further the interests of the agricultural industry.”
The pair suggested that the change may increase conflict with modern farming practices; increase minimum distance separation restrictions on the placement of new barns; reduce the number of units being built in settlement areas where municipalities have invested substantial funds on services; lost opportunities for infrastructure efficiency in settlement areas; increase the demand on municipalities to provide enhanced rural services, such as more frequent snow plowing, road maintenance, garbage collection, emergency services, etc., and ring serviced settlement areas with unserviced residential development, making it more difficult and costly for future settlement area expansions and extension of services.
“If the province’s intention is to permit three residential lots from every farm parcel, this has the potential to result in thousands of non-farm-related lots in the agricultural area across the county,” Weber and Van Amersfoort said in their report. “The province should reconsider this substantial policy direction change and the long-term effects it will have on the protection of prime agricultural lands and maintaining the ability for farmers to farm. In addition, there may be other unintended consequences, such as the effect of additional residences and the potential for future aggregate extraction.”
After an analysis of agricultural lots in Huron County that could take on new residential lots under the new Provincial Policy Statement, the Planning and Development Department found 8,304 potential lots across eight municipalities (excluding Goderich). If three new lots were to be created on every parcel, that would mean 24,912 new lots.
Van Amersfoort then presented an example rural block, using Hullett-McKillop Road in Central Huron as an example, saying it could create a fragmented, but concentrated almost residential-like area on country blocks throughout the county.
The pair also detailed a number of other proposed changes to the Provincial Policy Statement, which is expected to be up for approval this fall, that the department either had no concerns with or supported. These include changes to settlement area expansions, employment areas and employment land conversions and growth targets.
The pair said that natural heritage policies remain under investigation by the government, so the department will update council on any changes to that division of the Provincial Policy Statement when they are provided by the provincial government.
They also noted several changes as a result of Bill 97, the Helping Homeowners, Protecting Tenants Act, including new ministerial powers, a new effective date for Bill 109 concerning planning fee refunds, parking for additional units and site plan control for developments with 10 or fewer units.
The comment period for the new Provincial Policy Statement is due to close on June 5, which is why Weber and Van Amersfoort wanted to speak to council as soon as possible in order to get the county’s comments delivered to the provincial government before the deadline.
Councillor Bernie MacLellan was the first to speak, noting that Van Amersfoort had been in Seaforth the previous night to speak to a similar report at Huron East Council’s regular meeting. He said he was concerned about the potential for increased expectations of the municipality, should these residential lots be created in rural areas, adding that he saw “so many downsides” to what was being proposed.
Councillor George Finch agreed, calling the proposed changes by the provincial government a “recipe for disaster” that was sure to set up communities like Huron County for failure.
Council then voted to voice its concerns along the lines of those stated by Weber and Van Amersfoort to the provincial government while sending a separate letter to Huron-Bruce MPP and Minister of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs Lisa Thompson. With Thompson’s cabinet position as an advocate for agriculture, several councillors stated, council hoped she would advocate for the preservation of prime agricultural land and the continued vitality of the region.