On February 24th, County Council approved a new Official Plan by a vote of 10-4. The new plan was years in the making and replaced a version which was pre-dated wineries in the County.
Although Council has approved it, the new plan does not come into force until it’s approved by the Minister of the Ontario Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing. Ministerial approval is expected sometime before July 2021.
The new Official Plan is intended to guide development in Prince Edward County over the next two decades and contains some departures from the old plan which are important to understand.
The following article is based on a public Zoom seminar which I organized last November and which was attended by 77 people.
For the benefit of those unable to attend the November 4th session, this article is a summary of the slides and material presented there.
It’s important to note that the new Official Plan under consideration supplements rather than replaces the Secondary Plans for Picton/Hallowell, Wellington, and Rossmore. In the event of conflicts, the new Official plan prevails over the Official Plan. Because the three built-up areas are covered by relatively recent secondary plans, the main impact of changes in the new Official Plan is outside the County’s urban areas.
Key Interest Areas
The draft Official Plan runs to more than 150 pages – not counting schedules and other attachments- a lot to cover in 60 minutes! To focus the discussion, registrants were surveyed ahead of time to identify their areas of greatest interest shown above.
Official Plans Really Matter
Under the Planning Act, every municipality in Ontario must have an official plan which is supposed to be updated every five years.
Most decisions taken by Council can be repealed or changed by a later Council meeting (or future Council). However, the Official Plan is different. When Council approves an Official Plan, the Official Plan is binding on future Councils unless an amendment is passed, which is no simple thing. Once adopted, the Official Plan has the force of law. Councils can influence but not prohibit development which is in accordance with the Official Plan.
By and large, the public has little appreciation of the impact of the Official Plan on the future of the community.
There have been several examples in the last few years where the public has been taken aback and concerned developments which, it turns out, were intended and encouraged under the Official Plan.
Three years ago, for example, Council considered a planning application for a new shopping mall opposite the No Frills store on Loyalist Parkway west of Picton. The plan was to have the local Sobey’s relocate there from central Picton.
Many community members were concerned that this would suck the life out of Picton Main Street and asked how such a thing could be allowed to happen.
It turns out that this is exactly what was intended under the part of the Official plan governing Picton and Hallowell. The plan –actually, the Picton Hallowell Secondary Plan—which had been approved by Council some years earlier had contained a land use called “Town Gateway” (shown in orange).
The Town Gateway was the intended location for big box stores like Sobey’s, while the Downtown Core Area (shown in red) was intended as boutiques, artisan shops, restaurants, etc.
Ontario Planning Hierarchy
The municipal Council cannot do whatever it wants when it comes up with an official plan.
There are several provincial laws and policies which the County must follow. Best known is the Planning Act which covers the ground rules for land use planning in Ontario. Less well know but just as impactful is the Provincial Policy Statement or PPS for short, which provides direction on matters of interest to the province as a whole.
In the County, the PPS is often cited when dealing with severances on agricultural land. It is in the overall provincial interest to preserve farmland and to prevent it being divided up into residential lots. The PPS therefore directs municipalities to preserve the integrity of lands designated as Prime Agriculture where, as many residents have discovered, severances are effectively prohibited.
At the municipal level there is also a hierarchy which is mandated by the Planning Act.
The municipality’s Official Plan sits at the highest level and all local land use decisions have to comply with it. The policies in the Official Plan are at a level with is too general to guide day-to-day decisions, so the policies of the municipality’s Official Plan are implemented through Zoning By-Law.
Land Use Designations
The Official Plan divides the whole County up into designated land use areas, where each designation has different goals for what kind of development should happen there. For example, in the Settlement areas of the County, land is designated as Urban Centre (think Picton, Wellington and Rossmore), Village (Bloomfield, Consecon, etc.) and Hamlet (Hillier, Milford, etc.).
A map showing the land use designations throughout the County is attached to the Official Plan.
For a lot of people, the relationship between the Official Plan and Zoning is hazy, so an example may help to make things clear.
The chart above is taken from the Official Plan Land Use Schedule and shows the designations for Waupoos including Shore, Agriculture, Rural and Environmental. At the lower left there is a circled area which encompasses the area of the Waupoos Marina.
The area circled in red on previous chart is shown in greater detail above. This chart drills down from the level of the Official Plan (general policies) to Zoning (specific uses and standards). It shows that within any one of the broad land use designations in the official plan, a large number of different specific uses may be possible.
Key Directions in the New Official Plan
While there are many things which have carried over from the 1998 Official Plan, there are several significant new directions which have been highlighted by planning staff.
Approach to Rural Development
A stated goal in both plans is to preserve the rural nature of the countryside and direct growth to the settlement areas.
One of the important policy changes in the new plan is to reduce the number of severances which can be taken off a property. For lands designated rural, the 1998 plan specified that a maximum of two severances could be taken off a lot. This referred to a maximum of two severances post-1998, and earlier severances didn’t count.
There is a concern in the community that in some areas, the number of severances means that the County’s rural roads are becoming an extended row of houses, thus losing their rural character.
It’s important to note that the possibility of severance will be further restricted under the new plan. There are several areas of the County where lands that were designated as Rural in the 1998 plan are re-classified as Agricultural (Prime Ag).
For example, the circled area on the chart above shows the intersection of Fry Road and Bethesda Road in Sophiasburgh. Under the 1998 plan, the land use schedule designates the area as Rural (shown as a lined area), while under the new plan, much of the same area has been changed from Rural to Agricultural (Prime Ag). Such reclassifications under the new plan are to be found in different places around the County.
While severances are permitted under either plan on lands designated as Rural, no severances are allowed on lands designated Agricultural (Prime Ag).
Comment: The way lands are classified as Rural or Agricultural is widely misunderstood. Lands are classified based on soil quality and other factors in big, broad areas, not at the level of individual properties. As a result, there will be smaller areas of poor soil within the areas designated Agricultural (Prime Ag), and smaller areas of good land within the areas designated Rural. The LEAR study report explains in detail how this works.
Approach to Large-Scale Development
Another strategy to preserve the County’s rural character is to direct development to the larger centres.
Comment: Given the extent of the development underway and planned, some members of the community are concerned that the type and scale of development will have a negative impact.
Approach to Affordable Housing
Affordable housing is widely recognized as a major challenge in Prince Edward County.
Between 2015 and 2020 year to date, the average selling price for a house in the County increased from $319,000 to $598,000, an increase of 87%. Or put another way, five years ago 44% of homes sold for $250,000 or less, while by 2020 it was 7%.
Affordable housing was a goal in 1998 plan, but the situation has, if anything, worsened.
Comment: The new plan looks to support more flexible and innovation solutions to accelerate the development of affordable housing. However, some participants felt it didn’t go far enough in recognizing innovative solutions like “tiny homes”, while others asked if the plan achieved the right balance between tourist needs and affordable housing needs.
Approach to Agriculture
Agriculture continues to make up a key part of the County economy and protecting and enhancing agriculture is a key goal of both the 1998 plan and the current draft.
That said, there have been important developments in the area since the 1998. Although it may seem hard to imagine now, when the 1998 draft was written, there were no wineries in the County, no breweries, and few organic farms.
The emphasis in the 1998 draft was around protecting agriculture as it was then known, rather than fostering new developments and types of agriculture. The current draft plan represents a change of course with a focus on agricultural diversification.
Diversification, in this case, refers not only to the diversification in the type of crops and livestock. The new draft takes a wide view of agricultural activity to include on-farm processing and a supply chain of businesses which support agriculture – activities which were largely prohibited in rural areas in the 1998 plan.
Comment: One question which has been raised concerns the focus in the draft on the preservation of large parcels to prevent the fragmentation of agricultural land into properties too small to be economically viable. The draft discourages the creation of agricultural lots smaller than 40 hectares (approx. 100 acres).
Critics point out that this emphasis on preserving large parcels actually inhibits the development of new types of agriculture which require much less land than traditional crops. For example, a 25-acre estate winery is large by County standards, but developers of new wineries often have to purchase parcels of 100 acres or more, forcing them to spend capital on lands which they don’t intend to use. Market gardens and greenhouses are two added examples.
Approach to Tourism
The 1998 plan had a narrow vision of tourism with a heavy emphasis on waterfront activities. Likewise, it discouraged if not outright prohibited tourist uses on agricultural land. Tourist-related development was to be concentrated along the shore and in defined tourist corridors such as the section of Loyalist Parkway which runs through Consecon and Hillier.
The vision of tourism in the draft plan is much broader. It acknowledges the more varied interests of tourists and that tourist-related development should not be limited to shore lands.
Comment: The growth of year-round tourism is important for the County economy which would be helped by the development of destination resorts which attract guests in winter as well as summer. With its insistence that such destination resort development should take place on Shore Land, the draft plan could be setting itself up for failure: almost all the available shore land has been developed as single-family homes and it’s not clear that the waterfront holds the same attraction in winter as it does during the summer.
Approach to Environment
Protection of the County’s natural environment is another key direction of the draft Official Plan. In particular, there is increased emphasis on the so-called Natural Core Areas which are key to the County’s ecology, as well as the corridors which link them.
Many residents travel through these natural core areas daily without understanding the impact they have on the ecological health of the County. Everyone who lives in Picton has probably taken the shortcut to Belleville through the Big Swamp, but how many realize that this is part of a critical ecosystem that encompasses the area of North Beach in Hillier?
The new plan provides more stringent controls on large-scale development, not only for the Natural Cores areas, but also for the Natural Core Linkage corridors that connect them.
Comment: The measures in the new plan are a significant but incremental expansion of controls already begun in the 1998 plan. Do these measures go far enough, given that Council was so concerned as to declare a “climate emergency” in the County?
Different Ways to Use Official Plan
People look at the draft Official Plan through one of two lenses. Some people approach it from a policy standpoint, to understand where the County is headed, while others want to use it to understand the impact on a specific policy. The approach to reading the Official Plan varies, depending what your goals are.
Looking at Policy
While urban planners, lawyers and policy makers may need to read the whole of the draft plan, many citizens who want to understand the policies in the plan are interested in one specific issue or another.
It’s not enough to read just one section to understand the overall policy embedded in the plan on any given issue. The draft is organized in sections on history & future direction, general policies, land use designations, implementation policies and a series of schedules. Any given topic such as rural development, there is relevant material in each of the sections with policy implications.
To simplify things for people who have an interest in one particular policy area or another, a thematic reading guide has been developed by our brokerage. For any given topic, it highlights the most important material to read across the plan.
Looking at Property
Other people want to understand the impact of the draft on a specific property.
This can be done using a “bottom up” approach which starts with finding the property on the land use schedule, determining the land use designation for the property, and then reviewing the policies which govern that land use designation.
There are, however, other aspects of the plan which can have implications for a specific property. As noted earlier, the draft plan increases the protections for natural core areas important to the County’s ecology and for the corridors linking them. If a property falls into either a Natural Core Area or a Link Area, specific restrictions on development may apply.
There are also other factors -some of them little known- which can affect the development potential of a property.
In 2017 and 2019 Lake Ontario water level exceeded the previous 100-year high water level flooding many properties and waterside roads. As a result, the public is now much more aware of one such constraint which can limit development – the 100-year flood line.
Other risks in the Constraint Areas schedule are less well known:
- In addition to operating landfills there are also several retired landfills located in the County.
- As seen in the Australia and the western states and provinces, climate change is exacerbating fire hazards in some areas.
- All steep slopes in the County are considered environmentally protected and undevelopable. In some cases, development is permitted within the normal setback from a slope or escarpment with a geotechnical study to demonstrate slope stability.
- Fans of the History Channel may be familiar with the term UXO or unexploded ordinance since the County was the subject of one of the episodes of Bomb Hunters. Because of training activities during the Second World War, there is heightened UXO risk in Wellers Bay, Point Petre, Ostrander Point (South Bay) and Prince Edward Point.
What Happens Next
In the run up to the Council meeting, the public can provide feedback on the plan until November 27th at the municipalities Have Your Say website or by emailing Michael Michaud, Manager of Planning at email@example.com.
A virtual public meeting will be held by the municipality on Wednesday, Nov. 25 at 7 pm where an overview of the plan will be presented, followed by questions from registered attendees. To register, email firstname.lastname@example.org before Monday, Nov. 23. The session will be recorded and shared online.
A special Committee of the Whole of Council on December 15th will provide Council with its first opportunity to consider the draft.
The draft will then go to Council for final approval in the first week of January 2021.
Once passed by our local government, the plan must be approved by the Minister of Housing and Municipal Affairs before it becomes effective, a process which is expected to take 1-3 months.
The draft of the new Official Plan, the LEAR study report and the 1998 Official Plan can be found at the Planning Department Official Plan page on the County’s web site.
Comments can be submitted (and where previous comments can be viewed) can be found at the municipality’s Have Your Say Site.
A copy of the Thematic Reading Guide can be downloaded here.
© 2020 Treat Hull & Associates Ltd. Not intended to solicit anyone under buyer representation agreement with another brokerage. May be used with attribution.