Why Council defeats proposed Official Plan amendment application

On Tuesday, May 21st (2019) at the Saugeen Shores Planning Meeting, Town Council in a surprise move voted unanimously to reject a proposed amendment to the Official Plan.

The amendment proposed by a developer would have lifted an Environmental Protection (EP) restriction placed years ago on a Significant Woodland and Wetland within the community of Southampton (Saugeen Shores).

We felt this was a very important decision by Council and that readers should be made aware of each Councilor’s stand on the issue.  The following is a lot of reading but it sets out the views expressed by individuals on Council and why they decided, in a unanimous and recorded vote, to reject the proposed application for an Amendment change.

Over the past few months, many residents of Southampton banded together – signing a petition, attending a protest, writing Letters to the Editor, attending a public open house and, finally, attending the public Planning Meeting, where there were several delegations opposed to the amendment change.

(L-R) Councilors Matt Carr, John Rich, Kristan Shrider, Deputy Mayor Don Matheson, Town Clerk Linda White,     Mayor Luke Charbonneau, CAO David Smith, Vice Deputy Mayor Mike Myatt, Councilors Jamie Smith, Cheryl         Grace and Dave Myette       (for LARGER view, CLICK on Image)

Each Council member had his or her own reasons for voting to reject the amendment.

Vice Deputy Mayor Mike Myatt:

“I would like to acknowledge the extraordinary display of concerns that our residents have demonstrated pertaining to what the future holds for this parcel of land … this is how the process should work … there is a lot of passion.  This decision is obviously a controversial one and an important one.  On one hand are developers who would like to move to the next stage of carrying out an Environmental Impact Study (EIS) to see what, if any, plans can be developed for residential use.  On the other side, is a significant number of residents who would like to see the lands in question remain untouched both south of Bay Street and north of Bay Street.  I have my own strong thoughts about Bay street south where little or no development should take place and it should be turned over to the Bio Sphere Conservancy.  I don’t however hold the same level of enthusiasm for the lands north of Bay Street for eliminating all development.  These are two distinct thoughts.

Development in Saugeen Shores is inevitable and Council has to be as supportive as we can and demonstrate that the Town welcomes development.  Bruce County is in the early stages of undertaking a Natural Heritage Study and I believe this is the right approach.  A study of this nature would provide a community wide, comprehensive wide study where significant woodland features need to be preserved and where development could potentially occur in the future.  A Natural Heritage Study would also ensure that all residents who are potentially impacted might see how changes would impact their properties and lifestyle.  I believe the Town needs to partner with Bruce County in the Natural Heritage Study to comply with the Provincial Policy Statement (PPS).  In the PPS policy (page 22), it states:  “Natural Heritage systems shall be identified in eco regions … recognizing that natural heritage systems will vary in size and form in settlement areas and prime agricultural areas.” 

A good time to do this would be during the updating of the Saugeen Shores Official Plan.  According to the planner’s report (Mr. Kingsbury), “the county recognizes that the evaluation of significant woodlots, on a case by case basis, may no longer be adequate … in this regard, the County shall endeavour to undertake a county-wide evaluation of woodlands, provide required mapping and update the section as required.”  I agree with the statement that a broad evaluation of all significant woodlands in Saugeen Shores be carried out before any amendments are approved.  In 2005, when Pegasus Trail was being considered, the developer in consultation with Conservation authority officials (SVCA), led to a number of residential homes being approved in a heavily wooded area.  A special policy was incorporated in the Official Plan at that time which governed development in a wooded area. One of the positive outcomes was the deeding of all remaining lands to the Niagara Bio Sphere Conservancy and I firmly believe and trust that the right thing will be done in the future.  There are two parcels of land in Saugeen Shores now protected in perpetuity.  I sincerely hope that the outcome of the lands being discussed here, the majority of the lands, will end up in the hands of the Bio Sphere Conservancy, particularly south of Bay Street.  Any development in Significant Woodlands requires additional public consultation and during our Official Plan update would be a good time for it.  I also believe that lifting the restriction on Significant Woodlands is premature and I feel this application amendment needs more time and I will vote against the planner’s recommendation.

Councilor Cheryl Grace:

“The proponents of this application seek approval for this amendment because it is consistent with the Provincial Policy Statement (PPS) of 2014. The province requires that “… decisions shall be consistent with the PPS.”  It’s important to know what that means under the law.  Unfortunately, the PPS does not define what it means by ‘consistent’.  I finally found how Municipal councils should define ‘consistent’ in the Ontario Municipal Councilors’ Guide 2018 in the Land-use Planning section:  “The responsibility for long-term planning in Ontario should be shared between the Province and the municipalities. The Province sets the ground rules and direction for land-use planning through the Land Planning Act and the PPS.  Municipalities and Planning boards implement the Province’s land-use planning policy framework. Municipalities and Planning boards prepare Official Plans and make land-use planning decisions to achieve their communities’ economic, social and environmental objectives while implementing Provincial policy direction.  Municipal decisions must be consistent with the PPS which means that municipalities are given some flexibility in deciding how best to achieve Provincial policy direction.”

In other words, you can be consistent without being exactly the same.  The PPS supports this by stating:  “Policies represent minimum standards” … “within the framework of the provincial policy led planning system, planning authorities and decision makers may go beyond these minimum standards to address matters of importance to a specific community, unless doing so would conflict with any policy in the PPS.”

One can select goals from the governing documents cited by the planner and the developer’s planning consultants, the PPS, the town’s Official Plan and the County’s Official Plan.  The proponent’s consultant, Mr Davidson, thinks that the PPS “… directs urban type developments to settlement areas such as Southampton, it also promotes infilling and the efficient use of services and land and that, in this way, the PPS would generally be supportive of development on the non-hazard portions of the subject lands.”

It is just as easy to find goals in the PPS that are consistent with our town considering the fate of the Significant Woodland during an Official Plan review instead of through an individual planning application. In the PPS, it states:  “Natural features in an area shall be protected for the long term.  The diversity and connectivity of natural features in an area and a long-term ecological function and bio-diversity of natural heritage systems should be maintained, restored or, where possible, improved recognizing linkages between and among natural heritage features in areas, surface water features and ground water features.  Taking action to conserve land and resources omits the need for costly remedial measures to correct problems and supports economic and environmental principles” …”  Strong communities, a clean and healthy environment and a strong economy are inextricably linked.  Long-term prosperity, human and environmental health and social well-being should take precedence over short-term considerations.”

These are all laudable goals that are consistent with the PPS.  The challenge for us as a municipality is to decide how we balance the goals to best meet the needs of the community for the next five, ten, twenty or one hundred years.  Part 3 of the PPS states in a holistic way:  “The PPS is more than a set of individual policies. It is to be read in its entirety and relevant policies are to be applied to each situation.  When more than one policy is relevant, a decision maker should consider all the relevant policies to understand how they work together.”

The upcoming Official Plan review offers the best way to consider the future of these woodlands, evaluate and balance all the needs of our growing community.

I would also speak to the applicant’s request before the Official Plan review … in his letter of April 28th (2018), Mr. Davidson, the proponent’s planning consultant, stated that “… the developers are simply looking for the proverbial green light from the Town by having the County remove this overly restrictive Significant Woodland policy to allow for some assurance to the developer that development could be considered.”

Through their consultant, the proponents are arguing that they are not willing to wait for the completion of the Official Plan review which is to begin this year.  I do not find the need for urgency to be compelling.  I understand that several of the owners inherited this property that was acquired by family members decades ago. In the case of the majority owner, Mr. Durigon, Mr. Davidson tells us that, “He currently owns five parcels of vacant land between Island Street and Cole Blvd. and is currently in the process of acquiring another nine lots for the purposes of developing some of these lands for residential purposes.”

Mr. Durigon knew, or should have known, about the Town’s Official Plan’s restrictions and the Environmental Hazard (EH) building restrictions on this land when he purchased this property.

Our Official Plan review comes at a particularly opportune time.  Our Municipality is experiencing unprecedented growth and the accompanying pressure is to provide and maintain the necessary infrastructure, adequate housing supply, education and appropriately situated employment lands while providing and protecting existing recreational facilities and space, parks, beaches and woodlands.  This review will allow our community to decide how best to provide for these growing social needs, now and in the future while “… conserving bio-diversity and minimizing environmental and social impacts” (PPS statement).

The County states that further consideration of development of these woodlands would require further Planning Act applications and would be subject to a public process.  While this is true, the public consultations would appear in the form of an isolated public meetings to approve an application for development.  This would not compare to the opportunity for fulsome public consultation provided by the upcoming Official Plan review.  Over the last few months, we have seen unprecedented public concern about the proposed development in this area.  The previous Council felt that these woodlands are important enough that it restricted development in our current Official Plan.  I vote against the approval of this proposed application.”

Councilor Dave Myette:

“I agree that the land should be looked at as a whole and that this section is part of a larger woodland that travels through the green space between Port Elgin and Southampton and much of it is Significant Woodlands, Wetlands and EH lands and which, in all likelihood will never be the subject of development because of its unique characters … some of the statements however require some clarity.  I spent some time walking around this Woodland to get a feel for it.  Regarding the cold water streams and spawning habitat, it is the instincts of fish to go up-stream but that does not make it a spawning area.  There are only three streams in Bruce County that contain the proper flow and temperature for fish to spawn and reach maturity.

In that forest south of Bay Street, it is a Significant Woodland and I would never support development in that section.  Further north however, the woods change.  There is quite a difference between managed forests and over-grown, neglected forest and the north end is neglected.  In the future, there may be opportunity for development.  Many of you here tonight adjacent to the subject property where your houses are on were, at one time, Significant Woodlands and habitat areas. Therefore, to wholesale dismiss the idea that further development such as where you live could take place does not do the town or anybody any good. The opportunity is before us to take a holistic look at this through the Official Plan review and I support holding off on a decision about this until that is done.”

Councilor John Rich:

The report shows that no rules will be broken pertaining to the PPS, no rules will be broken with regards to the Bruce County Official Plan and no rules will be broken with regard to Saugeen Shores Official Plan and does not really give a reason for why something should be done.  There is always an argument that if you ‘don’t break rules then it’s ok’ but, if there is going to be a change like this (amendment), there is a compelling argument as to why would it be of benefit to the community. There is a lot of development land in Saugeen Shores and I don’t feel any real pressure to change this designation.  The Official Plan review may, in fact, result in more land being handed over to the Bio Sphere Conservancy.  The most important things is that residents have the right to protect their community and how they would like to see their neighbourhood develop and we (Council) should listen.  Therefore, I will not support this.”

Councilor Kristan Shrider:

“As you can tell, everything really is considered around the table and the emails and phone calls provide us with a lot of background to make decisions. I agree that the appropriate thing to do would be to look at the Official Plan and additional Environmental Impact Studies are needed to make an informed decision and I don’t think tonight is right to make those decisions.  We need more information and, therefore, I will not support this.”

Deputy Mayor Don Matheson:

“It’s important that the public feel that they are informed on matters that affect the Town.  That is our job – the job on Council.  We were elected to do what is best for the Town following the rules that are given to us.  With that in mind, I will not support this.  This is an important decision and we said we would be completing our Official Plan review by the end of this year and that is what we will do.  We will involve the community and, when we do this, we will make an informed decision at a later date and, hopefully, determine once and for all what is best for this woodland and that it is maintained forever.”

Mayor Luke Charbonneau:

I, too, will not support this.  This application only deals with half of this Specific Woodland and the woodland extends all the way to McNabb Street and beyond.  In my view, lifting a restriction on one part of the land and potentially allowing development in one part will, almost certainly impact the whole.  The significance of a Significant Woodland is its contiguous nature and that’s what makes it ‘significant’.  If you make a change to one part without considering all the other parts, that change can have an impact on the others.  It’s a contiguous piece of habitat so, when we make a consideration like this on a piece of land, it needs to be in the whole context. From a pure planning standpoint, the folks who live on the streets to the east, will not have been part of this planning process in the way that those who live in the immediate vicinity are. The potential of lifting this restrictions has the potential of also affecting all those people because, when you lift a restriction on one part, it affects others and those who have not been included in this planning process is not going to work for me.  So, I think we will have the opportunity to review this as part of the Official Plan and the Natural Heritage Study is something we ought to do and the County has already begun that process.  The Town of Saugeen Shores could join in that process where we could get really detailed information on a piece of land like this and see exactly where the significance lies and what the opportunities may or may not be for building, or not, in the future.  But that kind of work needs to be done and certainly the whole thing needs to be considered a one piece before proceeding.”