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County of Renfrew feels like winner of two-year battle with province over Official Plan

After battling the province for two years, the County of Renfrew's Official Plan was accepted. It focuses on development over traditional natural resources for revenue.

The County of Renfrew's Official Plan is in effect after a long battle with the provincial government.

An Official Plan is a policy document that guides the short-term and long-term development of a community and affects all lands within a municipal boundary (with some exceptions, such as federal lands). All municipalities in Ontario are required to have an Official Plan that reflects provincial interests and integrates planning for matters that affect land-use decisions.

It is not uncommon for the province to make several recommendations or request that some parts of the plan be removed or modified. In most cases, a municipality will adhere to the provincial requests in order to satisfy the province and move the plan forward. It's a common practice to avoid conflict which could jeopardize any future provincial funding opportunities.

However, not only did the county reject many of the provincial recommendations over the last two years, but its council gained a big ally when John Yakabuski, the local MPP and now Parliamentary Assistant to Premier Ford, lobbied his own government to accept the county’s version.  

When the councillors began drafting the Official Plan two years ago, one of the guiding principles was the need to retain and expand its economic development efforts, which have traditionally relied on natural resources such as forestry.

A revised plan then downplayed the role of forestry and reduced the amount of land, which previously been designated as agricultural or protected land (endangered species, etc.), and instead designated several areas as potential sites for commercial growth. Other areas were identified as sections of land with a strong potential for future housing, retail or tourist areas with the intent to dramatically increase economic development.

It was submitted and council was confident provincial officials would recognize and accept the plan review since it was created with the input of all 17 Renfrew County municipalities.

Despite these efforts the plan was returned to the county by the province with unwanted changes that most county residents, mayors and reeves felt would stifle any possibility of growth. All of county council objected to province’s version.

There have been instances in the past when Renfrew County council disagreed with provincial policy decisions. However, in this case all of council voiced not just their disagreement, but several expressed anger and outrage that the province would overrule local experts.

In the case of Horton Township, a growing municipality that borders Renfrew, most of the area was designated agricultural, which means the province would not allow any new development and that would mean no new revenue for the municipality.

Horton Township has seen several new homes built by individuals who decided to leave large urban centres for the slower paced lifestyle found in rural Ontario. Horton council commissioned an independent consultant to review the plan and the surveying company found several of the province’s designations incorrect or out of date.

Horton’s Mayor and council, along with his 16 counterparts were upset that ministry staff in downtown Toronto, most of whom have never toured the county, made recommendations such as designating thousands of acres of prime land as protected sites suitable for a growing deer population and no other purpose. Some areas of the county that are either filled with stones or swamps were classified as agricultural land, thereby restricting any new building or residential growth.

Warden Debbie Robinson, who is head of County Council, has argued throughout the last two years since the review began that both the county and the municipalities want to see new development, new building and growth in their communities. She stressed the changes recommended in Amendment 31 has reduced the red tape and bureaucracy emanating from Toronto and the county’s version make it easier to develop than what the province was asking for.

One example would be Karst land. Instead of automatically requiring an engineering study for development on Karst land the homeowner can drill their own holes and have the local building inspector check to make sure it is okay to build. This makes development easier and cheaper for the developer.

When the county responded to the province’s version with one of their own, Yakabuski stepped in to lobby for the county.

An appeal was launched and the county sought to pass an amendment which would enable more growth and make development easier. The county had been promised the amendment would pass with no opposition, but until the document was back at the county there had been no final assurance this would be the case. Last week the appeal period ended and the amendment became the official document.

Robinson credited the resolve of county council and also thanked Yakabuski for his efforts.

“John lives here and understands we are not at risk of losing our agricultural land if we have some flexibility,” Robinson said. “The plan was accepted and that would not have happened if John Yakabuski was not our MPP. He is so well respected at Queen’s Park. He was there for us every step of the way. The 14th of September was the last day of the appeal process and John was on the phone with me that morning and he assured us there would not be an appeal.”

“With OPA 31 now in place, the County of Renfrew has a foundational document that will assist our communities manage the expected growth across the region over the next several years,” Robinson added.

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