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Innisfil council backs MZO request for Orbit development near Alcona

In Agriculture
Nov 6th, 2020
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Minister’s zoning order requested to fast-track development and construction of GO train station on Line 6; Project could be home for up to 150,000 people if fully built out as envisioned

By: Miriam King Barrie Today

Innisfil councillors approved the revised draft of its request to the Minister of Municipal Affairs and Housing for a minister’s zoning order (MZO) to fast-track the Mobility Orbit development as a transit-oriented community.

The MZO would give approvals for high-density, mixed-use development surrounding a proposed GO train station on Line 6 near Alcona. It would allow the developer, Cortel Group, to avoid the lengthy Official Plan and zoning-bylaw amendment process in exchange for covering the cost of the new station.

With interest running high in the community, the town extended the public comment period and opened new lines of communication before Wednesday night’s special meeting.

The MZO requested now establishes three zones, surrounding the GO station:

* Transit Oriented Community 1, with a minimum density of 200 residential units per hectare housed in the tallest buildings, within a 225-metre radius of the station, in addition to non-residential uses and public amenties;

* Transit Oriented Community 2, with a density of 150 units per hectare within a circle 225 to 425 metres from the station;

* Transit Oriented Community 3, from 425 to 2,020 metres, where existing uses and standard application processes will be in place until a secondary plan for the area is completed.

All three zones are within what is now defined as a “major transit station area.”

There were other changes proposed. A memo received on Nov. 4 made it clear that policies relating to “sustainability” and “affordable housing” could not appropriately be included in an MZO.

Instead, the town’s growth director, Tim Cane, said the vision of sustainable and environmentally sensitive development was “relocated” to the site-plan process. The minister was also asked to include a requirement that the developer enter into a site-plan agreement with the town “to implement the council-adopted Orbit vision and Orbit principles.”

Council members also heard from the public about the project during the open forum portion of the meeting.

Speaking on behalf of the Innisfil District Association, Debra McGrath her group objects not the Orbit proposal, but rather the process around it. She called the MZO a “blunt tool designed to bypass all the laws designed to protect citizens.” McGrath warned that not only would council lose full control of planning, it would also erode the public trust.

By circumventing the standard planning process, “it doesn’t enable a fully informed decision-making process,” she said.

“We implore council and staff to consider the future,” McGrath said. “Hopefully, things will turn out better than we fear.”

Megan Varga also said an MZO lacks transparency and public input, noting that council was elected to represent its citizens. “I cannot find one resident who finds the MZO is the right path,” she said.

Architect Steve Kirshenblatt called the MZO “an attack on our democratic rights as citizens of this town.”

Kirshenblatt asked for more transparency regarding agreements signed with the developer.

But there was also support.

Sandra Rizzardo, of SanDiego Homes, indicated she supported the innovative and sustainable principles of the Orbit proposal.

“We think we can incorporate the values and the things that have always been important to Innisfil,” Rizzardo said.

Coun. Alex Waters asked staff to address the “recurring concerns of residents,” adding environmental issues would be swept aside by an MZO.

Cane acknowledged that there is no third-party appeal for an MZO, which approves land use, but said that other policies – including the Lake Simcoe Protection Plan – still apply. There would also be “checks and balances” through the site-plan process.

“They are there as a backstop to make sure the MZO is not running roughshod,” he said.

Land-use planning manager Mary Nordstrom said for development to occur, the site-plan process still requires a long list of background studies.

“I think that’s an important missing piece,” said Mayor Lynn Dollin. “This isn’t just, ‘Here you go, do whatever you want’.”

Coun. Bill Van Berkel was not convinced.

“I don’t think the MZO is the right tool,” he said, adding if there’s support for the Orbit then the MZO shouldn’t be needed. “(It) gives the developers and the ministry much more power than we have.”

Town of Innisfil chief administrative officer Jason Reynar said the developer needs the certainty of permissions granted in an MZO to get the appropriate financing.

“So, what I’m understanding is it’s a money thing,” said Van Berkel. “I still have a problem with the MZO.”

Dollin suggested that if the Orbit went through the regular Official Plan and zoning-bylaw amendment process, “there will be a lineup of developers and speculators to appeal it” to the Local Planning Appeal Tribunal (LPAT) and pressure on the town to settle by granting other approvals.

“We can spend tens of thousands of dollars at the LPAT and not know the outcome,” Dollin said, adding LPAT “can sometimes be the worst enemy… It ends up eroding the process, in my opinion.

“It’s not the (Orbit) vision that’s the issue… It is a vision that this council has been 100 per cent behind for a year and a half now,” she added.

Coun. Donna Orsatti agreed. “It’s about the financing,” she said. “Metrolinx has chosen the site. The residents want a station.”

With an MZO in place, construction on a GO station would be expected to begin in 2022. The standard planning process could delay the project by a decade or more, Orsatti said.

The planned community would add 7,000 residential units and approximately 20,000 people within the first ring around the GO station and could house up to 150,000 if it’s fully built out as envisioned.

Orsatti proposed an amendment to the motion requesting the MZO, asking that the town invite community consultation during the site-plan process. “This, I think, assures residents that there’s more control by the town,” she said.

The amendment was approved.

Council voted 5-2 in favour of the amended resolution requesting an MZO. Coun. Kevin Eisses declared a conflict of interest and abstained, while Deputy Mayor Dan Davidson was absent.

The request will now be forwarded to the County of Simcoe for “expedited” approval. The MZO is expected to reach the Minister Steve Clark’s desk before the end of the year.

One Response to “Innisfil council backs MZO request for Orbit development near Alcona”

  1. Angie Belanger says:

    The number of MZOs being “requested” by Simcoe County municipalities is disturbing. It seems that approx. one-third of all MZOs in Ontario approved by Minister of Municipal Affairs and Housing Steven Clark were for projects in Simcoe County.

    That’s staggering.

    Even more staggering is that the Simcoe County municipalities themselves are requesting and/or endorsing many of these MZO applications, negating their own standard planning processes and appeal processes altogether.

    MZOs were used sparingly in the past, primarily intended in areas without municipal organization that could do planning, such as northern Ontario. It seems unprecedented that the timing of the pandemic has factored into the use of MZOs in regions with municipal governments. Developers and some Simcoe County Town Councils appear to be taking advantage of COVID by trying to fast-track development across Simcoe County and the Province by using a formerly rare approval process meant for use in Unorganized Territories – a loophole now being exploited and abused by developers and local town councils of Simcoe County.

    The Government of Ontario has been approving Minister’s Zoning Orders (MZOs) to expedite these development projects but the process for some of these projects is entirely hidden from public view – no public notice, no public meetings, no information provided and no right to appeal the approval.

    What about the public’s right to know about proposed major development projects before the principle of development is established? What about our right to question the proponents at public meetings, and to explain concerns to local Councils before planning decisions are made? What about our right to appeal such decisions as provided under The Planning Act? MZOs circumvent and override the processes that ensure public consultation, environmental studies, and their impact considerations to agriculture and endangered species.

    But now, we’re seeing blatant abuses of this tool as it is used to rush past due process, padding developer profit, expediting previously stalled projects and, more importantly, denying the voice of residents. What began a few years ago with the County’s overriding “approval” of the large development in Midhurst appears to have now ballooned into three other County municipalities by taking advantage of a provincial loophole. Simcoe County MZOs have become more popular since the provincial government outlined its support of them as a quick way to get things built by removing “red tape”.

    The reasons and motivations of MZOs by each of these municipalities may never be fully known. But it is unconscionable to have local democracy eroded and abused with this practice by those council members elected as their residents’ voices. And during a pandemic, no less.

    MZOs silence and eliminate the voices of the very residents that elected them.

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