North Huron to includes housing lens in Official Plan review
BY DENNY SCOTT
After a lengthy special meeting last week, North Huron Township Council has decided to implement a “housing-friendly review” as part of its upcoming five-year review of its Official Plan.
The review, which looks at the community’s official plan and zoning bylaws, will include the “housing-friendly review”, which Huron County Senior Planner Denise Van Amersfoort says is a lens through which council can make decisions regarding the future of residential development in the community.
Van Amersfoort presented the lens and review last Friday morning, and while council had some concerns about changes she suggested, it voted unanimously to include the documents in future planning.
The lens is an important tool, Van Amersfoort said at the start of her presentation, because of the recent explosion of the Huron County housing market. As an example, she pointed to developments where units are being sold when they are mid-construction or, in some cases, before construction has even begun.
“[Huron County] is looking to respond to the increased demand,” she said.
That response, she said, won’t just be about creating a single type of residence, and will include a variety of locations, sizes, building forms and price points.
She said her department is looking at intensification of residential properties, both existing and new, to help address the residential housing shortage. To elaborate, she said that multiple-unit structures, row houses and stacked townhouses, as well as more apartments, are being considered as a way of stretching the existing residential development opportunities.
Part of the problem with the higher demand, she said, is that house prices are increasing rapidly, making it difficult for people to find houses within their budget, especially since wage increases have not kept pace with the housing market.
“We want to promote sensitive intensification,” she said. “When we look at redevelopment, we want to see if we can get more units in a space without compromising character.”
Future development plans need to provide opportunities for all people, she said, regardless of age, socioeconomic status or accessibility concerns.
She pointed to a “housing spectrum” or “continuum” as an example, with lower-price or assisted options on one end and “market value” offerings, like condominiums or single detached homes, on the other end.
“Everyone deserves access to safe and affordable homes,” she said.
Van Amersfoort said that meeting that requirement has several hurdles to clear, however, as Huron County is seeing an increase of those experiencing homelessness, or an increase in how visible that issue is, while developers are saying it’s difficult to make affordable or attainable housing with the current cost of building supplies.
“It’s hard to build for someone who makes a living wage,” she said, explaining that, in Huron County, that means having housing available for 30 per cent of someone’s total bills who makes approximately $17 an hour.
She said everyone knows someone who is looking for a house, whether they be recent graduates looking to start out, young families looking to own their own home or older people looking to downsize, so the goal is to have different options available through multi-unit buildings.
That’s where the lens comes in, she said, as it encourages gentle intensification to make it easier to implement more dense forms of residential development.
The lens will be considered, she said, through changing official plan policies and zoning bylaw provisions to offer increased flexibility in land zoning rules and streamlining approval processes to help with savings and cost as well as prevent unnecessary planning applications.
Van Amersfoort then took a break from the presentation to allow North Huron Council members to bring their own concerns forward regarding housing in the area.
Reeve Bernie Bailey was the first to speak, asking about a proposed high-intensity development at the site of the Wingham Trailer Park.
Bailey assured council he wasn’t involved in the development, which he said is looking to create a three- to four-storey 50-unit apartment complex on the land.
Bailey did, however, want to make sure the planning department was ready for the process to get that development going to meet the need for local housing for factories in North Huron and Morris-Turnberry. He said one of those factories could be moved out of the country if housing isn’t available for the 400 to 450 people who need to work there. “We need the homes,” he said.
Bailey also spoke to problems with development saying that, in his experience, some of them are due to the developers themselves, so he wanted to make sure that everyone considering building knows what’s ahead of them before they start.
Aside from the concerns, Bailey said he was happy with the building going on in Blyth, but did mention land was becoming scarce in the community, and also spoke to the Hutton Heights project which, according to him, has seen buy-in from neighbouring landowners looking to develop alongside the municipally-backed project.
Deputy-Reeve Trevor Seip said North Huron’s problems have always been tied to supply and demand, explaining that, at one point, there were homes available but very little land, now there aren’t homes available, he said, and much of the land is tied up for one reason or another. He also said that inflation and increasing housing prices are not helping the problem.
“Our biggest issue is we have a supply of land, but we don’t have the authority to force people to build what we need,” he said.
Councillor Kevin Falconer said Blyth has a hurdle in that housing for the Blyth Festival can often take housing opportunities off the market for the full year despite only being used for a portion of the year.
“The unique problem we have in Blyth with having the seasonal theatre is we have an influx of renters every spring but they’re only here for half to three-quarters of the year,” he said. “They take up a lot of basement [spaces] or cohabitating options.
“It interferes with yearly rental [opportunities],” he said.
Falconer also said there is some trepidation around geared-to-income housing due to the presence of an existing supported housing facility. He said that space “brings other problems with it” like vandalism, vagrantism and the requirement for increased policing presence.
Falconer went on to say that building for people on a living wage would be difficult, especially with the number of people moving into Blyth who are downsizing from larger homes.
Councillor Anita van Hittersum said one of the most significant housing problems in her ward of East Wawanosh was the need for additional housing on existing residential portions of agricultural land. The restrictions, she said, which prevent more homes from being built, are preventing families from working the land together and farmers from building homes for workers.
“What people in rural areas need is an extra house on acres for workers and family members,” she said.
Later in the meeting Van Amersfoort said that farm labour and additional family housing on farms is something she had flagged as an important issue before the meeting, saying that increased flexibility could be considered.
She said proposed changes on agriculture lands (AG1 and AG2 designations) could include permitting a cluster of small buildings sharing services as opposed to one large building. On AG4 properties, which denote small holdings properties, the proposed changes could permit additional residential units to be attached to main buildings while detached additional residential units would still follow the existing garden suite provisions. Those provisions include rules for temporary houses, including how they can be built and how long they can stay on the property.
Other concerns that van Hittersum had were around medium- or high-density residential development. She said she didn’t want to see “really high” buildings in the community, claiming that “people don’t want that.” She said, in the settlement areas of North Huron, people want a house with gardens and to match the rest of their community.
Councillor Chris Palmer said he had recently had a change of heart regarding multiplexes, saying he was against them until one was built in his backyard.
“As long as they’re built to look good and look compatible, [I’m in favour],” he said.
He did say, however, there is currently a problem with locals finding homes thanks to people from Toronto, Kitchener, Waterloo, Cambridge and Guelph moving to the area to work from their new homes. As a result, he said a mix of housing opportunities makes sense and is what is required, going so far to say that Hutton Heights should eventually include mixed housing options.
Councillor Ric McBurney agreed, saying that people can’t afford the buildings they need due to the increased demand. He also said he was surprised to hear that high rise buildings are so maligned after they had been discussed at previous planning meetings.
Councillor Paul Heffer said, as a Wingham resident, he was jealous of the development in Blyth as the multiplexes being built there, which are geared towards seniors, are creating a happy community and making the opportunity for people to downsize.
“For every [multiplex] that’s built, older people in WIngham would go there and free up a house,” he said. “I know the prices are high on the houses here… I think we have to look at the retirement-age people that want to downsize. I can see how that could free up property and make this a win-win.”
Van Amersfoort said she had noted many of the same thoughts and concerns that council members had as she researched the areas, saying that North Huron has seen some great infilling of residential properties, especially in Blyth where multi-unit buildings have gone up both in the new development at the north end of town and the site of the former Blyth Public School. She said that kind of medium-density residential development was creating more housing opportunities in the community.
While council wasn’t against medium-density residential development, councillors did have concerns about the impact it could have, including Seip saying people wonder how it will impact neighbouring land values and Palmer saying it works, but only in certain locations.
Van Amersfoort said council could also consider ground-floor residential development in or near communities’ downtown cores, saying that kind of mixed usage would support more residential options.
She also highlighted several private properties in the municipality that could be developed, explaining she wasn’t suggesting trying to force development, but instead asking landowners if they want to consider rezoning land to make it ready for development in the future.
Van Amersfoort also talked about changing the municipality’s medium-density R2 zoning rules, which currently say anything including more than four units needs to be reviewed by council, slowing down development.
While she suggested raising that cap to eight, Bailey suggested going even higher, suggesting 12, saying it’s always easier to work downwards if neighbours are concerned than to create another layer of bureaucracy for developers. Other council members were in support of the change.
Council approved a motion to have Huron County Planning and Development staff implement the housing-friendly review in the five-year review of North Huron’s Official Plan and zoning bylaw update.