The five-year Official Plan review continues in North Huron
BY DENNY SCOTT
North Huron Township residents may be receiving notices from the municipality that there may be changes to their lands as a result of the official plan review the township is undertaking.
North Huron Council took the next step in its official plan five-year review last Wednesday when it went through examples of some of the changes with Huron County Manager of Planning Denise Van Amersfoort and planner Hanna Holman during a special meeting of council.
Van Amersfoort explained that many of the changes are cleaning up previous designations that have either changed over the years or are artifacts from previous imaging, which wasn’t in as high resolution as it is now.
She pointed out examples where photos taken in the 1960s or 1970s had led to natural environment spaces being bigger or smaller than anticipated due to low-resolution or grainy images making shadows appear as part of natural environment features.
Van Amersfoort also explained to council how properties would be better identified through changes to the official plan, pointing out that natural environment and hazard designations were being changed to better represent what is on a property.
Council spent over three hours discussing the plan and changes, covering a myriad of issues, with any unresolved issues to be directed to Holman and Van Amersfoort for further clarification.
While council did have questions about specific properties and about the process going forward, one of the most controversial topics was how notification of the changes should be handled.
The issue was first broached by Reeve Bernie Bailey who said council is constantly hearing about how people “don’t get the message” when correspondence is sent out through regular mail and asked if the planning department could send the changes out by registered mail.
“That way, three years later, we can go back and say you were sent a registered letter,” he said. “It would end a lot of discussions and hurt feelings.”
North Huron Clerk Carson Lamb said council could consider sending out the letters, but it would lead to a cost increase as the minimum number of letters to be sent out would be around 500.
Deputy-Reeve Trevor Seip agreed, saying that a regular letter would cost $1 to send, but registered letters cost between $5 and $7 each.
Van Amersfoort said her suggestion was to send a letter to everyone in the municipality to advise them that the five-year review is underway and to send a second letter detailing changes to property owners who would be directly impacted by changes.
“We would send an additional letter [to] those with significant property changes,” she said. “[The letter would] explain proposed changes and include a colour map with the changes highlighted so they can see.”
Van Amersfoort said some of those secondary letters could be avoided if council wished, but only in the case where changes were so miniscule they wouldn’t show up on aerial photography.
Seip said he understood that, saying he didn’t know if there would be value in sending those letters. Van Amersfoort further explained that it took staff time to answer questions from people who had proposed changes but couldn’t see them on the maps.
Other council members, starting with Councillor Paul Heffer, however, wanted every single change documented for landowners.
“You may call the changes ‘minor’, but a half-an-acre difference when they go to sell the farm [isn’t minor],” he said. “There are dollars involved [and] a sale that could happen.”
Van Amersfoort said any change like that would be “significant” and she was referring to situations where, for example, shadows would result in a sliver of land being changed to natural environment, but then another sliver of land was changed to agricultural for no net change.
Councillor Chris Palmer, however, said that any change is worth noting and shouldn’t be “diminished”.
“Send the letter, “ he said. “Let people worry about it if they want.”
After more discussion on the issue, council decided to send letters to all impacted landowners.
Another change that will be implemented will be that farmland that is in the floodplain will now be identified as agricultural land with a flooding overlay on it.
Van Amersfoort said the reason behind the change is that land can still be productively used for agricultural purposes, but shouldn’t be considered for building space.
Councillor Anita van Hittersum asked how that would impact taxation, saying that taxes don’t differentiate between a hazard or natural environment, however Van Amersfoort noted that taxation is based on use, not on land designation.
While the majority of the impacted lands are agricultural, there are a number of proposed changes to urban settlement areas as well, such as flood hazard mapping changing along the Maitland River through Wingham, errors being fixed in Blyth and planning ahead for future uses.
Van Amersfoort suggested that a parcel of land west of the Blyth campground, which is classified as community facility, could be changed to residential if it were able to be accessed by County Road 25. She said she wasn’t sure why the land, which is currently used for agriculture, was designated as community facility, but there could be other uses for it.
She also pointed to the fact that the only available industrial land in Blyth is only accessible by Dinsley Street. The property, which is between Dinsley Street and County Road 25 at the eastern border of the village, can’t be accessed from County Road 25 as the southernmost land it lines up with is actually in Morris-Turnberry for some reason. She said industrial traffic coming on to Dinsley Street could present complications, as it would need to either travel through the community, or head east and circle around to County Road 25.
Further complicating the issue is the fact that the lands abut on the land known as the Jackson farm, she said, which is one of the largest, developable pieces of land registered as residential in the community.
Bailey asked if the land could be turned residential, however, Van Amersfoort said there is no other industrial land that’s developable in the community.
Seip said having residential is key right now, but council shouldn’t ignore other uses.
Van Amersfoort agreed, saying council should “put blinders on to anything but residential.”
Van Amersfoort also spoke to industrial land in Wingham, saying there is land available on both the Morris-Turnberry and North Huron sides of the municipal border, but that it’s owned privately. She said council could engage the property owners to see if they want to sell and have the land developed or, failing that, look at the creation of a municipally-owned industrial park elsewhere.
She compared the situation to Goderich where the town had created Parson’s Court, an industrial area that was serviced and ready for industrial development.
“It’s a better use of infrastructure, which is already in the ground, than trying to start somewhere else,” she said.
Van Amersfoort also spoke to the changes that would come as a result of previous discussions with council, specifically rules that would allow additional residential units on AG1 and AG4 agricultural lands and intensification of residential development in settlement areas.
She explained that, under the new agricultural rules, additional residential dwellings could be built on AG1 and AG4 properties, with the latter needing to be more closely clustered than the former. She also said she anticipated seeing fewer and fewer applications for garden suites thanks to the additional residential structures being allowed.
She also spoke to how policies are shifting towards residential intensification and infill opportunities that will allow for a mix of residential uses within existing neighbourhoods.
She said the department is building trust right now through projects that prove higher density can be done well and “very gently”.
“Density can be anything from semi-detached homes to fourplexes, townhouses or apartment buildings,” she said.
Palmer questioned intensification and “affordable” houses, saying that he didn’t like the target of 30 per cent of new development being higher intensity.
“You can’t tell us in Wingham we have to have 30 per cent [higher density development] for all new residential development,” he said. “You can’t do that. You can suggest it, but it all depends on the developer. It’s his or her money. They have to make money, and do what works for them. I can’t accept [the target].”
Bailey and Lamb addressed that issue saying that, with wording-specific issues like that, it might be better to address it after the meeting. He said the review being undertaken at the special meeting was to provide “overall policy” direction to the planners and staff.
Palmer then went on to say he didn’t understand why the term “character” was being taken out of policies in regards to residential development.
“Now it says context,” he said. “That doesn’t make sense as it was used.”
Van Amersfoort explained that the “context” of the neighbourhood was easier to identify than character, which can be subjective and has been misused as of late.
She said by focusing on the context of a neighbourhood, it makes it easier to create a framework for design which can ease a lot of angst that neighbours of new developments may have.
She pointed to a Residential Intensification Guide developed by Huron County to be used across the county and said it provided a comprehensive list of often-heard concerns, as well as ways to mitigate those problems.
Palmer, however, wasn’t convinced, saying that the guide was for the site plan, which is handled after the neighbours of developments have a chance to air their concerns.
“You’re saying intensification has the right,” he said. “If you’ve got an empty lot, surrounded by houses and someone wants to put a big development there, you’re saying it has the right.”
Bailey interrupted Palmer, saying this wasn’t a North Huron issue, but a decision that was made by Huron County several years ago.
Van Amersfoort said she understood Palmer’s concerns, but said that intensification is the way to go for a number of reasons, including making use of existing in-ground infrastructure and protecting farmland.
“If we don’t grow up, we have to grow out,” she said, saying the cost of growing out is acres and acres of farmland being turned into residential properties. “Intensification is strongly supported by the Provincial Policy Statement and Huron County.”
She said the planning department has taken a strong stance on the issue, but has developed tools to bring accountability into the process.”
PALMER WANTS FURTHER REVIEW
After the presentation, Palmer said the gravity of the document necessitated council taking a deeper dive on the material.
“We should go through this, page by page,” he said of the 124-page document. “We need more questions. If we don’t question the document, at some point, it’s just a rubber stamp. We can't do that. This is too important. Our future is on this document for everything we do. Just to say we read it at home isn’t enough.”
Bailey, however, felt council was doing its due diligence on the matter, saying councillors had discussed the issue for over three hours that day, and that he had spent 30 hours over the past few months working on it.
“A lot of answers can be had if you read the document,” he said. “This is not something dreamed up overnight. We’ve always had an official plan, this is just the changes. It’s based on the law of the land, including provincial, federal and [our own laws].”
Bailey said both North Huron and Huron County staff had gone over the document thoroughly and it wasn’t something that popped up “out of the blue”.
“We have gone over it,” he said, adding there will be more consultation through public meetings, which are set for mid-April.
Falconer agreed with Bailey, saying the review had been an educational process for council. He said he understands Palmer’s concerns as an agricultural landowner, but that council doesn’t have the ultimate authority with this issue, saying it’s up to members of the public to handle their own property changes.
Seip said council has had the document for two weeks and will have it for another month, which will provide plenty of time for council members to digest it properly.
Palmer, however, wasn’t convinced and questioned whether the planners would listen to all the issues brought forward by ratepayers.
“We need to have confidence that [the planners] will listen,” he said “We’re trusting that you’ll be listening.”
Van Amersfoort said that, as registered professional planners in Ontario, they are ethically-bound to value all public consultation and consider how comments made can influence the direction of decision-making. “We are mandated to do that,” she said.
Council received the report and directed staff to provide notice to landowners with mapping changes, send letters to landowners with urban or adjacent lands of interest and schedule open houses for the week of April 18 in Blyth and Wingham.