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Coalition, residents raise concerns over controversial Rama Road corridor project

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In Council Watch
Dec 14th, 2020
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A map showing the three proposed developments that would make up the Rama Road Corridor.

‘MZOs are not something that should be given out like candy,’ says executive director of Simcoe County Greenbelt Coalition

By: Jessica Owen Barrie Today

Three controversial developments in Ramara Township – referred to as the Rama Road Corridor Project – are in a holding pattern while the township and the developers wait for word about a requested ministerial zoning order (MZO).

However, both a local environmental group and resident group are raising the alarm on what they call a dangerous way of getting a project through approvals.

“An MZO is not an appropriate tool for this size of a development,” said Margaret Prophet, executive director of the Simcoe County Greenbelt Coalition. “There are community concerns about how involved the community process will be. A MZO can take out the appeal process and community consultation in any meaningful way.”

The Rama Road Corridor project, also called the Rama Road Economic Employment District, is a project comprised of three major developments on Rama Road south of Casino Rama, on the shore of Lake Couchiching in Ramara Township.

Currently, the land is zoned destination commercial.

However, times have changed since some of the developments were first proposed – back in the early 2000s – and now the developers would like to include some residential development in their plans to complement the commercial use.

The first development is called Harbour Village at The Narrows. The project would include a 258-room hotel. The amendment to their proposal would also incorporate 1,678 mixed units.

The second development, called Ramara Waterpark Resort, would include a waterpark and a range of commercial uses including hotels. The amendment to their proposal would include mixed dwellings such as condominiums, retirement residences and townhouses.

These two projects have completed site plans, environmental assessments and public consultations, and are ready to start being built pending an MZO.

The third development is called Ramara Landing. It would include a community recreation centre. The amendment to their proposal would include mixed dwellings such as an independent living building, a long-term care home and townhouses/condominiums. This project is still in its preliminary stages and still requires site plan approval from the township, including an environmental assessment and public consultation, before it would be considered shovel-ready even if an MZO were to be approved.

The Township of Ramara voted in November to send a letter in support for a MZO on the entire project to the province. Also in November, Simcoe County council sent a letter in support.

All three projects are currently stalled awaiting the outcome of the MZO request.

Resident William Clarke has lived in his home on Hopkins Bay Road since 1998. He is part of a 200-member resident group that has concerns about transparency on the Rama Road Corridor Project.

The group sent a letter voicing their concerns to the minister of municipal affairs and housing Steve Clark, and Simcoe North MPP Jill Dunlop on Nov. 19. They have also had meetings with Deputy Mayor Joe Gough, Ward 2 Coun. Jennifer Fisher and township chief administrative officer John Pinsent. The group says they have requested information such as meeting minutes or background on the three projects, and have been directed to watch the meeting videos on YouTube.

“This development is way out of touch with reality, in our opinion,” said Clarke. “There’s such a broad variety of developments here, between dwellings, townhouses, high-rise condos, a seniors development, a waterpark. In my humble opinion, it’s ridiculous to have a waterpark next to a senior’s residence.”

Clarke says he and his group’s biggest concern is transparency. In their request to the minister, they have asked that the three projects that make up the Rama Road Corridor be each considered individually, and have asked that the township investigate the current financials of the developers behind the projects to make sure they still have the resources for these projects to still go ahead.

“We are not against development in our communities, but the development should be phased, done strategically, be sensitive to existing long-standing residents, and with a realistic vision,” said Clarke. “The biggest disappointment here is there has been no transparency. There was no interaction with the residents whatsoever. (Council) is there to represent the residents.”

Prophet says the coalition has concerns that some of the land in the area of the corridor is designated a provincially significant wetland. To accommodate a marina and boat slips, some of the shoreline in the heart of the Atherley wetland will have to be dug out via canals and harbours.

As Lake Couchiching is not protected by the Lake Simcoe Protection Plan and doesn’t have a conservation authority dedicated to its health, the coalition worries it is vulnerable.

“This tool has so much power and takes away so much public input, community involvement and appeal rights, which is supposed to be something granted within the Planning Act. MZOs are not something that should be given out like candy,” said Prophet. “Dealing with a body that is as important as Lake Couchiching, (municipalities) need to tread very carefully on the future of that lake. It’s significant to the people of Orillia.”

Ramara Township Mayor Basil Clarke said it can be frustrating working with developers to agree on plans, only for the province to change the rules which he says has led to the hold up in this case. The two developments that have their site plan approvals in place have been on the Ramara Township books for about 20 years.

“It’s frustrating,” said Clarke. “We’ve been trying for years to get these guys to all work together and come up with some type of compromise. Every time we think we’re getting somewhere, the province throws up a roadblock.”

He’s hoping the granting of an MZO might change that so some shovels could finally go in the ground instead of the land sitting empty.

“We are not providing a shortcut around the environment or environmental studies. All we want to do with this MZO is allow permanent residents in a destination commercial area,” said Clarke. “We have a desperate shortage of homes in Ramara Township. It’s one thing to supply jobs, but we have a shortage of employees now. Don’t give us a bunch of jobs with nowhere for people to live.”

Prophet has concerns that even if the township says they will require an environmental assessment as part of the site plan approval process for the Ramara Landing project, she says there is nothing in law that requires them to do so.

“Ramara can say what it wants, but there is nothing that is forced or statutory about those things. An MZO takes out the statutory requirement,” she said.

In regards to the Rama Road Corridor project as a whole, Prophet says she doesn’t understand why the township has approved applying for a MZO when they’re already most of the way through the approval process.

“There’s no reason why they can’t continue the (proper) process to add residential. It’s something I’m very curious about. Why would you apply for an MZO when you’re so close to the goal line already?” said Prophet.

“I think it’s disingenuous for them to say, ‘We’re just doing this for zoning, but we’re still going to do the whole thing.’ OK, then why cut out the appeal process? Because that’s what it will do,” she said.

Overall, Prophet says she thinks the public should be leery of promises from different levels of government, and should question the rhetoric thrown around in support of shortcuts such as the granting of MZOs.

“We always assume that these types of projects are a long-term financial boon for the economy. When you ask a municipality to show you the receipts… most of them don’t know,” said Prophet. “So we have to stop pretending that development is always going to bring something back. We get into these things assuming growth will always pay for itself but if that was the case, there wouldn’t be a road in Simcoe County that was unpaved. It’s a false paradigm.”

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