Hanna reverses position on Midhurst expansion
By Kate Harries AWARE News Network
It was clear from the start of last week’s Springwater council meeting that all was not well with Councillor Jack Hanna.
The normally feisty Midhurst representative looked pale and uncomfortable, his speech on occasion slowed, his hand constantly reaching to press his forehead.
Then, towards the end of the June 3 2020 meeting, under the ‘municipal updates’ section, he read out a statement. It was astonishing.
“It is no secret that I made a commitment to support those residents who were opposed to the development planned for Midhurst,” he said. “This development has now met all approvals and it is now time to move on.”
No one, apart from his wife Lori, knew he was going to make this statement, he said later. As other members of council watched, expressionless, on their screens (this was a virtual meeting, with only Mayor Don Allen, Deputy Mayor Jennifer Coughlin and Councillor Perry Ritchie present in the council chamber), Hanna continued.
His position to date, in opposition to the Midhurst Secondary Plan, had been based on “misinformation, that I believed to be accurate,” he said.
“To the best of my knowledge the development in Midhurst, including the first phase known as the Micks subdivision has been cleared to proceed by the relevant authorities and has met all the necessary environmental requirements,” Hanna read.
He said he believes the development is now at a stage “where the subdivision agreement can be approved and the developer can commence earthworks.”
It wasn’t clear from the statement to what misinformation he referred.
But interviewed later, on Sunday before he was due to go to hospital for an MRI to help diagnose agonizing headaches he’s been experiencing, Hanna explained he had been told that he was incorrect in his position that the more than 150 conditions imposed in July 2014 by the Ontario Municipal Board must be met before the development can proceed.
Hanna indicated there are legal issues he is not allowed to discuss. According to a legal document obtained by the Springwater News the developer – Carson Road Development Inc and Midhurst Development Doran Road Inc – last month served notice of an application in Superior Court against Hanna and the township to obtain access to Hanna’s personal email communications. Council appears to have discussed the matter in camera May 27 2020.
Springwater residents opposed to the Midhurst expansion have long taken comfort in the thoroughness of the conditions imposed by the Ontario Municipal Board when on July 3 2014 it gave conditional approval to development that was to increase the village’s population ten-fold to 30,000.
This was comfort that was reinforced by then-mayor Linda Collins and then-deputy mayor Dan McLean. The latter told readers of the Springwater News in a July 31 2014 letter that these were “some of the most stringent environmental and planning conditions for a development in the County of Simcoe.”
Bill French, mayor from 2014-18, also held up the OMB conditions as reassurance that the taxpayers of this small rural municipality would not be burdened with the costs of growth. He would point out that growth raises taxes with the need for infrastructure that is only partly covered by development charges and for expanded services and operational costs that fall to the ratepayer.
The OMB 2014 decision states that some conditions must be met “prior to any further approvals for the subject development” or “prior to site alteration,”
That was then, this is now, according to Hanna.
“I’m told that position has changed,” he said in an interview.
He said he’s been told that due to agreements between the township and the developer, and approvals from the province, the county and the township, work can proceed without all the conditions being met – as long as they’re being “worked on.”
Asked who told him, Hanna said “the township and those involved in negotiations.” Asked who those people are, he suggested getting the information from township staff. Asked if he wrote his statement himself, he said “absolutely.” Asked whether he sought legal advice in drafting the statement, he said he did not, adding that he inquired about getting legal advice through the township and was informed he didn’t qualify.
Hanna – who points out he is the only member of councils past and present to have ever voted against the MSP (during the 2010-14 term, when approvals were granted) – said it would be “arrogant” for him to continue as the sole hold-out against the development if in fact the rules have changed. “I follow the rules,” he said.
Curiously, when the matter was last publicly discussed, at the March 18 2020 meeting of council, there was no mention of changes to the need to have the MSP comply with all the OMB conditions before going ahead.
Midhurst resident David Strachan had raised the issue in relation to a Geranium request for permission to cut trees from a hectare of the Micks site, and Hanna echoed his concerns.
Allen and staff downplayed the significance of the tree clearing request. Agreeing with a summary by Allen, planning director Brent Spagnol said: “It allows for site preparation. All the other conditions still need to be satisfied and there are some key thresholds that need to be satisfied before development can move forward.”
Hanna’s reversal is the latest in the see-saw saga of the Midhurst mega-development that is widely derided as poor planning and inappropriate use of prime agricultural land.
It started in the 1990s when a boundary that initially delineated a “study area” became defined as a “settlement area” that was much greater than was publicly understood.
In October 2011, Collins moved approval of the plan at county council and it passed without debate. Then Bradford West Gwillimbury deputy mayor Rob Keffer failed to get a seconder to discuss the matter at a subsequent meeting. A public meeting in November 2011, notice of which was issued after the deadline for appeal of the county decision had expired, was the first many Midhurst residents – particularly recent arrivals to the community – had had heard of the mega-development.
However the province appealed the approval because it violated provincial policy that directed growth to six urban nodes in Simcoe County and projected a rural character for Springwater.
In 2012, the Liberal government brought in population limits for Greater Golden Horseshoe municipalities to slow the loss of agricultural and natural heritage lands to sprawl. It looked like the Midhurst project was doomed. But it emerged that a “special rule” had been passed to allow development of 300 hectares of the MSP – the only exemption granted across the GGH under the Places to Grow legislation.
A 2016 OMB hearing into county population allocations was curtailed by a behind-closed-doors deal reached by Simcoe County and the developers, with Springwater’s representatives (French and then deputy mayor Allen) excluded from the talks.
And so it went.
Despite claims by municipal representatives that they will maintain control of the mega-development and act in the best interests of township residents, in the end, the future of the municipality could be left to market forces.
Right now, those don’t look good for greenfield development requiring massive infrastructure investment.
But the construction industry is asking the government for help in the continued paving of rural Ontario. In a report this week, representatives ask for faster approvals, adjustment to the mortgage stress test, a freeze on property tax reassessment and development charges, the suspension or elimination of land transfer taxes and provision of government stimulus funds for home renovation, building upgrades and infrastructure repair.
Hanna update 1:07:00
Question period 9:30 mns; Micks subdivision tree-clearing 25:40 mns.