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One of the 2017 Town of Parry Sound Staff objectives is to ‘repatriate’ the responsibility for approving Official Plan amendments (OPA). I realize that I am using the term ‘repatriate’ incorrectly, but it makes a complex process a little easier to understand. This post summarizes the issue. It’s an interesting subject that provides some insight into how policy is created and approved.

Background

The Town of Parry Sound wants to gain the right to unilaterally approve amendments to its Official Plan. The Official Plan is a document that summarizes the Town’s plans and intentions with respect to development. Here’s a link to Parry Sound’s Official Plan. Presented below is the statement of Purpose from the Town’s Official Plan.

“The purpose of this Official Plan is to provide a planning framework to manage land use changes and to guide the physical development of the Town, while having regard to relevant social, economic, environmental and public health matters.

The Plan will:

 a) adopt growth management policies to guide development over the next twenty years;
b) direct the actions of Council, the Planning Board, agencies and the public on development applications;
c) recognize the financial capability of the Town to accommodate development and provide an appropriate level of municipal services;
d) ensure that development occurs in a manner that will minimize public health and safety issues, including the protection of human life and property from water related hazards such as flooding and erosion;
e) identify significant natural features and provide for their protection and conservation.”

It’s this document that, among other things, defines whether a new business can open in a certain part of Parry Sound, or if a bank can move from one location to another. Just because the Official Plan says it can, or can’t, doesn’t mean that it can, or can’t. In cases where the Official Plan allows, or at least doesn’t restrict, a new business to open, or another to move, then it probably will be approved to do so by the Town, if the application conforms with all other necessary requirements.

In cases where an application for a new business, or a move, or anything else doesn’t conform with the Official Plan, Council can, if they agree with the application, amend the Official Plan. This is referred to as an Official Plan Amendment (OPA). But that’s not the end of it. Because the OPA doesn’t conform with the Official Plan, the Town of Parry Sound must submit the proposed amendment to the Province of Ontario for approval. This typically takes a couple of months but can extend to 270 days. In most cases the Province approves an amendment, but when it doesn’t, the application underlying the amendment is denied, at least based on the application as it was initially framed.

Item 9.2.1 on the April 4, 2017 agenda is intended to confirm that the Town of Parry Sound wishes to apply to the Province for the right to approve its own OPAs, ‘repatriating’ that right from the Province. With that confirmation, Town Staff will make the necessary application with the Province to take control of OPAs. Provincial review will likely take several months, at most a couple of years. The Province can approve or reject this request. In the interim, Official Plan Amendments will continue to be reviewed by the Province. Item 9.2.1 also requests that the Town confirm that it no longer wishes to participate in the Parry Sound Area Planning Board (see below).

Allowing a municipality to approve their own Official Plan Amendments is not unusual. It is however, unusual in Northern Ontario, except for the larger municipalities such as North Bay and Sudbury. Seguin is one of the few smaller Northern Ontario municipalities who currently have the right to approve their own Official Plan Amendments.

Complications

I have only recently come to realize that there is a Parry Sound Area Planning Board (PSAPB) with responsibility for the Town of Parry Sound, McDougall, Carling, McKellar and Whitestone. It seems the PSAPB intends to request the right to approve Official Plan Amendments for their member municipalities. The board seems to feel that the Province would look more favourably on this request, rather than one where each municipality is delegated the right to approve OPAs for their own municipality. This means a Town of Parry Sound OPA would be reviewed, and approved or refused, by the PSAPB, rather than the Province. Given that this board is comprised of local elected politicians with limited resources and planning experience, asking this group to make informed decisions would probably not be in the best interests of Parry Sound. This also seems to be the opinion of Town of Parry Sound Staff.

Options

It seems there are three possible options for the future handling of Town of Parry Sound OPAs, all of which are under active consideration.

  1. Continue to have the Province review and, as appropriate, approve or reject OPAs.
  2. Delegate Official Plan Amendment review and approval to the Parry Sound Area Planning Board.
  3. Have Parry Sound OPAs reviewed and approved by Town of Parry Sound Council (‘repatriation’).

Reflections

My first reaction was to oppose this ‘repatriation’ of OPA rights by Parry Sound. My feeling was that the Province plays an important role with respect to ensuring that the intent of the Official Plan is being respected. It’s too easy for a council to forgo the intent of the Official Plan in hopes of generating additional economic development. Having an impartial, experienced set of eyes reviewing and approving the OPA seems important. Having the Province involved removes the burden from residents and businesses of having to look too closely at exactly what OPAs the town is approving, and the implications.

But, there is a but, things need to move forward in a timely fashion and not be hung up according to the schedule of the Province. A couple months here, a few months there, and suddenly momentum is lost, especially in this part of the world where construction is often seasonally restricted. A delay in filing an application with the Town, followed by the necessary community review, staff report and council deliberation, and then a couple of months or more for provincial review, followed by the onset of winter, can mean a project starts a year later than planned.

Even if the Town of Parry Sound gains the right to approve their own Official Plan Amendments, there is still the opportunity for public input before the issue is approved by Council, and if necessary after approval, through appeal to the Ontario Municipal Board (OMB). As I am discovering, this is a bit of nuclear option. While victory can be achieved, whatever that means, there is a high cost to all parties involved, winners and losers, in terms of expense, effort and time. It is not an option to be taken lightly. It also works best when all parties have access to the nuclear option, the right file an OMB appeal, or appeal an appeal. A business or resident, deciding to file an appeal, or a council deciding to approve a controversial OPA that might trigger an appeal, will need to carefully consider their options. It’s not quite assured mutual destruction, but it is costly in many ways. The key, in my opinion, is that all parties need to understand the appeal process and demonstrate that they are prepared to use it to ensure things are done in the best interests of the Town, its businesses, and its residents.

Conclusion

In the end, my preference is that the Town of Parry Sound gain the right to approve their own Official Plan Amendments. This would mean a by-law and the corresponding OPA could be approved at the same time. Decisions are made quickly, and appeals can be filed against both the by-law and OPA at the same time, if appropriate.

The second choice would be Parry Sound Area Planning Board approval of Town of Parry Sound Official Plan Amendments. That would add in a little delay to the process, perhaps a month or so, but much less than Provincial review. I wonder if the PSAPB would be responsible for defending their OPA decisions if appealed.

Of course, there is always the default situation where the Province continues to review Town of Parry Sound OPAs. That would not be ideal, but it is a known process.

What Will Happen?

Thinking about it a little bit more, my sense is that the Province will probably prefer to have an area planning board, in this case the Parry Sound Area Planning Board, assume responsibilities for approving Official Plan Amendments. It would mean the Province would only need to deal with a single body’s application for OPA approval privileges, the PSAPB in this case, rather than a number of separate applications, if Parry Sound goes ahead and withdraws from the PSAPB.

This explains the urgency of this week’s Item 9.2.1 and the decision before Council to leave the PSAPB. I think the Town realizes that if the Province is given the option to delegate OPA approvals to a single municipality or an area board, they will choose the latter.

So what will happen? The Town will surely withdraw from the Parry Sound Area Planning Board. That means the PSAPB won’t be able to include the Town in their application to ‘repatriate’ the responsibility to approve OPAs.

I expect that the Province will eventually approve the Town of Parry Sound’s application to ‘repatriate’ OPA rights, but it will take a year or so. It’s consistent with the Province’s strategy of downloading costs and responsibilities to the municipalities. That is unless the Province agrees to approve the Town’s request only if the Town joins with other area municipalities to have Official Plan Amendments reviewed by an area board.

This is ‘real world’ reality programming. And like TV it can take a season or more to come to any type of conclusion. Stay tuned.

It’s Not Magic, but It Can be Deceiving.