The result of a three-year long process mapping the town’s official planning blueprint, last updated in 2002, was brought to fruition this week, but the fact the town’s proposed Official Plan still contained a controversial development in the North Gwillimbury Forest brought calls for its amendment with its tabling at council last night.
The town’s updated Official Plan (OP) is a comprehensive document that is the result of the town’s planning division, the consulting firm hired in 2013 to undertake an Official Plan review, council-appointed steering committee, technical advisory committee and analysis of input from a total of 48 written submissions from the public, agencies and private landowners/agents on its draft version released in April of last year.
It covers a multitude of areas, including outlining the municipality’s growth management, general land use and development, sustainable natural environment, settlement areas, servicing and infrastructure, housing and community design.
It also, however, is the latest battleground playing out at the council table in a war over development rights versus environmental protections concerning a 400-acre piece of property north of Deer Park Drive in the north end of Keswick.
For a number of years now, DG Group (the rebranded Metrus company that owns the property), planners and lawyers with the town and York Region, Georgina council members, as well as lawyers and planning consultants with the North Gwillimbury Forest Alliance have been wrangling over interpretations of various planning documents that will either put the brakes on or open the door to a subdivision of just less than 1,100 homes dubbed Maple Lake Estates (MLE).
At issue is whether or not a development on the planning books for more than 20 years should still be allowed to be built under subsequent planning policies that have designated portions of the property as significant wetlands.
Ward 3 Councillor Dave Neeson doesn’t think so and he tabled a motion seeking an amendment that would change the designation of the MLE lands to an environmental protection area in Georgina’s Official Plan.
“After decades of controversy, I believe that the time is here,” Neeson said.
"I simply cannot accept that there are no expiry dates on development approvals, which, in this case, occurred decades ago. Decades ago, as a society, we also saw fit to not wear seatbelts and to smoke in our cars with children present. I don't think anyone would see those things as acceptable in today's society and, similarly, I don't think anyone in Georgina or the broader Lake Simcoe watershed would think that development on a provincially significant wetland is acceptable in a municipal Official Plan".
According to the town’s planning department, however, changing the designation of MLE lands would conflict with a complex layer of upper-tier planing documents and policies under the Planning Act.
“You can’t just divorce yourself and ignore the particular facts of the matter,” the town’s director of development services, Harold Lenters, said, referencing MLE’s long history, including the OMB’s urban residential designation of the property, re-affirmed by an Order of Council by the provincial cabinet, a draft plan of subdivision registered on title and a registered development agreement between the town and the developer.
“A registered plan of subdivision is about as far as you can go in terms of the planning process. It’s got a lot of strength to it.”
Based on the strength of the planning approvals in place, significant investment was made by the developers of the property to bring about $3 million in total water and sewage servicing infrastructure to the site, including the water tower on the north side of Deer Park Drive that is owned and operated by the region, but was bought and paid for by the developers.
“It is an integral part of servicing the lakeshore community in the system we have today,” Lenters said.
Neeson’s decision to seek an amendment to the town’s proposed Official Plan this week comes on the heels of the North Gwillimbury Forest Alliance (NGFA) re-iterating its position the town is legally obligated to bring its official plan into conformity with the provincial policy statement and York Region’s official plan, adding the town’s official plan must be amended to prohibit development on MLE’s wetlands and woodlands.
But Lenters and Jim Dyment of consulting firm MHBC Planning, Urban Design and Landscape Architecture, said the MLE lands were basically exempted from all the wetland policies the PPS and every other policy and plan has, including the Greenbelt Plan, which designated the MLE land towns and villages, and, in so doing, exempted it from the natural heritage system that is the backbone of the plan, and its policies.
“So, here’s the province’s tool to create a protected greenland system and it recognizes this development. That was a clear message to us.”
Alliance chairperson Jack Gibbons argued otherwise.
“There is nothing in the Greenbelt Plan that exempts the town from its Planning Act obligations to protect the MLE’s provincially significant wetlands and woodlands,” Gibbons said, adding “towns and villages” are not subject to the province’s Greenbelt Plan legislation and “continue to be governed by municipal official plans”.
Gibbons believes that is an opening for the town to do what he is asking it to do, but Lenters and Dyment don’t agree.
In addition, according to the Planning Act, upper-tier plans take precedence regarding conflicting policies and, therefore, the Greenbelt Plan and York Region Official Pan would have to be amended first to prohibit the approved development in order for the town’s official plan to be amended, Dyment said, adding both recognize and permit the approved Maple Lake Estates development.
From a planning perspective, MLE doesn’t need any more planning approvals to go ahead and build what is stipulated in its registered plan of subdivision.
In the interest of moving forward, protecting the forest and best serving the public interest, Lenters said supporting council’s decision, raised over the province’s review of the Greenbelt Plan of pursuing a land swap, is the best option.
That would move the MLE development to the south side of Deer Park Drive to land also owned by DG Group.
“I honestly believe that’s the best and only chance to save the forest,” Lenters said.
“Our position is this Official Plan represents good planning. It has been the most complex in terms of trying to knit all the things together in a way that meets all the tests of the Planning Act and all the policy. It implements provincial policy and it implements the region’s plan. Having said that, council is the policy makers. Our job is to provide them the best recommendations we can.”