Neither Prevented Nor Halted

Many municipalities in Ontario are relieved that the Ontario government has abandoned its ‘review’ of municipal government structure and potential amalgamations.

Nevertheless, I’ve heard a couple of people speculate that the future of Innisfil is for it to eventually be divided and absorbed by Bradford to the south and Barrie to the north. Urban planning consultant, Bob Lehman, now retired, suggested as much in a 2002 report which recommended:

 “that the current municipalities of Barrie, Essa, Adjala-Tosorontio, New Tecumseth, Innisfil and Bradford-West Gwillimbury, realign their boundaries to form three new cities outside of the county system (Barrie-Innisfil, Bradford-West Gwillimbury and New Tecumseth-Tosorontio), while a restructured Township of Essa remains within the new County of North Simcoe … Should the three-city idea not proceed, the report suggests that an annexation of lands from Innisfil to the City of Barrie should occur as soon as possible.” (Barrie’s growth plans still look to the south, Huntsville Forester, Feb 6, 2002)

The aggressive expansion of both Bradford and Barrie into new “industrial” lands west of highway 400 brings this possibility closer.  As I’ve said before, it all revolves around pipes and where these urban infrastructure tentacles spread. While Innisfil extended pipes north and south to service existing settlements along the shore of Lake Simcoe, its neighbours to the north and south expanded west toward the highway while spawning multiple subdivisions to pay for it.

Barrie has grown through a series of land annexations dating over more than 40 years. It added 35 square kilometres in 1982 and more than 9 square kilometres in 2010. Overall, it has acquired more than 49 square kilometres through annexation.

It’s not that Innisfil wasn’t eyeing the highway for industrial development too. But it needed new residential development to justify the high, and ever increasing, cost of installing services, which would have to stretch all the way from the lake several kilometres away. It also conflicted with existing and historic agricultural uses. The provincial government stepped in and imposed an ‘industrial-only’ designation on Innisfil’s development plan. This ensured that ‘employment lands’ adjacent to highway 400 could never be developed – by Innisfil. Town efforts to get developers to finance new services upfront for future industrial development failed.  Other creative financing efforts also fizzled. Some development proposals that would have required impossibly large septic systems likewise came to naught.

First we heard hysterical claims that Barrie had run out of sufficient industrial land in order to justify an annexation from Innisfil. Alternatively, we are told that it is to accommodate “dramatic population growth” which can be neither ‘prevented, nor halted’:

“It is the hope of the City of Barrie Council that the people of South Simcoe realize that growth has not been courted by (Barrie), any more than the area can halt or prevent such growth … What local governments can do is to work together to plan and to manage the dramatic population growth projected from 2002 to 2021”

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Making Change

In the midst of a global climate emergency we need dramatic and meaningful change in our daily lives. Historically, real change often starts at the local municipal level driven by grass roots activists. Blue bin recycling, reducing urban smog, protecting watersheds and repairing the ozone layer are some examples.

Yet it seems we are still planning our urban structure on outdated templates. A looming potential environmental collapse will affect us directly in terms of food security, housing, transportation and employment. There should be an urgent systematic effort at building local resilience in the event of sudden disruptions. That means building up local resources and capabilities.

Innisfil still stumbles along the ‘development’ path that sets our future in the past. Some of our priorities should be:

Local & Independent Retail:

Alcona was intended to be a commercial centre for Innisfil but it has yet to materialize.  Too much retail space is controlled by non-residents, who charge excessive rents. This leads to business failures and a revolving tenancy. We need to tax vacant store space to encourage reasonable occupancy, and we need to tax speculators that hold empty lots all along Innisfil Beach Road.

After 10 years, we need to break the deadlock on commercial development by bringing key properties under municipal ownership so that they can be developed according to already-established design principles. Previous consultations have established that residents want something emulating a traditional Ontario town ‘main’ street, not a series of car dominated strip plazas.

We need to specify a quota for smaller commercial spaces to accommodate start-up enterprises. We need to combine new commercial space with access to state of the art telecommunications to encourage professional, information and creative businesses to locate here.

We need to encourage local business ownership and entrepreneurs by setting a limit on the number and size of franchise businesses, and banning drive-throughs.

Innovative New Development:

The word ‘sustainable’ has frequently been over-used or misused. But there are already a number of technologies that could make a meaningful difference:

Permit the use of any local or recycled materials in building that meet performance standards. Require renewable energy technology in new building. Require water conservation technology in new building such as cisterns and ‘grey-water’ or ‘black-water’ processes to reduce the impact on municipal infrastructure.

Transportation:

Connecting Innisfil’s disparate neighbourhoods is supposed to be a priority. We need a better system of bike lanes and walking paths. This needs more urgent attention. Along with promoting local retail and services, a modest bicycle-powered jitney service, employing youth, could shuttle residents to nearby shops, services and restaurants. It could reduce auto dependence and would be a unique and fun option for town visitors as well.

Food Accessibility

Although there is some ample wealth in Innisfil, other residents also sadly need the support of a food bank. We need to establish more easily accessible community gardens that could grow food for those who need it.  We could create ‘edible’ public ‘gardens’ with fruits, nuts, berries and other plants to harvest that are open to anyone. There are many empty spaces of varying sizes and shapes that could be used, if seen with a different eye.

Reusing & Recycling

A periodic public ‘market’ that offers used items for free or a small fee might help divert many usable goods from landfill. It might encourage the innovation of small refurbishing or repurposing businesses. All that’s needed is an accessible public open space to get started. It could possibly be combined with a periodic opportunity for local crafters and artisans to participate.

Making Change

We know what’s coming because we’ve seen it occurring around the world. We know national and provincial governments are acting too slowly or not at all. And we know that corporations are vigorously lobbying to put profits ahead of people. That leaves it up to us and our municipal governments as the first line of defense. Can we make change?

Being Different

Twenty years ago, I had high hopes that Innisfil might turn out to be a place where ‘different’ happened.  As an amalgamation of existing smaller towns and villages, the prevailing desire was to keep these distinct historical characters and identities, and to preserve a rural / agricultural tradition while adapting to inevitable growth.

Ten years ago Innisfil adopted an Official Plan, Inspiring Innisfil, that was intended to work toward these goals. Over the years it has not turned out that way. Under pressure to satisfy provincial growth targets, pushed by a powerful building industry lobby, and facing territorial predations from the City of Barrie, we have built the same unsustainable urban sprawl that characterizes so many other municipalities.

The focus has been on building single-family detached housing on successive waves of green space. Arranged over winding streets, they will never be suited for public transit service. Over the same period, only a handful of farmers are left within Innisfil as urban development continues to encroach. The plan to create a ‘main street’ commercial district in Alcona has failed to materialize while car-dependent shopping plaza developments took shape at the edge of Alcona. Sadly, the new commercial additions to the streetscape are too often predictable franchises that replicate the same monotony of other urban centres. Proposed developments have still involved a strip plaza design with parking lots and a drive-through. We are building the past and we will be stuck with it for several generations as attention turns to adapting to climate change realities and / or emergencies.

Perhaps it was naive to expect real ground-breaking innovation. Now we have a new Official Plan effort, Our Place, that attempts to address some of these failings by designing for public spaces that will serve as gathering spaces for local residents to meet, relax, socialize, or participate in casual events.

Nor can we independently challenge the prevailing social environment where commuting is the norm, work hours are either all encompassing or totally fragmented, and ‘family’ time is tightly organized and scheduled. Many people have only a tenuous connection to their communities, neighbours and each other, held together virtually by social media. In this environment, the “Live, Work, Play” mantra that we hear so often rings hollow. Even if those three elements were all truly local, residents would still be challenged to achieve and enjoy the ideal that it represents.

Still, I am optimistic for the long-term. It will take years to change (challenge?) the corporate and institutional mind-set and more years to change the rules and expectations. Change is constant, so change for the better is still possible. We have the techniques and technology to reintegrate agriculture into the urban landscape. We just need the wisdom. We can revive local commerce, we just need the right incentives. We can build more sustainable neighbourhoods if we have the determination and foresight. But ‘being different’ means ‘doing different’. Are we ready to break the mould and implement new ideas?  We should be.

Behaving Badly

The Innisfil Beach Master Plan contains a plan to change the zoning on Innisfil Beach Road and a portion of Lakelands Ave. from residential to mixed commercial uses. This did not go over well with residents in the affected areas. “On May 8, council passed an interim control bylaw that applies to properties on the south side of Innisfil Beach Road from the 25th Sideroad to Lake Simcoe, which will help begin the eventual transition to a commercial area … What we don’t want to do is reinforce the residential character that is here now,” according to the Town’s Manager of Land Use Planning. (simcoe.com, May 23, 2019)

In response to angered residents, some seasonal, the local councilor hastily organized a meeting at the library with Town staff. The Mayor, Deputy Mayor and Town CAO attended along with the Manager of Land Use Planning and other staff. My impression was that it was another dismal example of two groups talking past each other.  It seems everyone was behaving badly. The meeting started with a slide presentation outlining the “planning process” going back to the Official Plan of 2010 and various other reports subsequently.

It’s all very well to say ‘we’ve been working on this for years’ but suggesting residents are responsible for not paying enough attention doesn’t cut it. I do pay attention to most Town developments and wrote several blog articles about the Our Place planning process. I think it’s fair to say no one saw this coming. My impression was that the proposal to rezone for commercial development east of the 25th Sideroad was panned by residents at the time (2015) and, we thought, discarded.

But the mills of the gods ground on. It’s precisely because the planning process is so complex and multi-faceted that residents easily lose track of what is current. When does an option become a policy? When does a consultant’s report become a town plan? When does a red circle on an aerial view become an interim control bylaw?

We can go back to a report dated December 2015, Policy Directions Report, Draft (phase 2) prepared by SGL Planning & Design Inc. where ‘options’ were discussed:

One map showed the existing commercial zoning:

“Currently, the intensification corridor along Innisfil Beach Road goes as far east as 25th Sideroad. The corridor could be extended along the south side of Innisfil Beach Road, across the street from Innisfil Beach Park, eastward to Lake Simcoe. This extension would allow for higher density residential development, as well as commercial development and mixed use buildings to be located along the corridor complementing the park and the link to the lake. The residents of Innisfil have expressed interest in restaurant and café type uses along this stretch of road, to complement the recreational uses in the park and to draw both more residents and visitors to the street when visiting the park and lake. This area is shown on Figure 13.” This map showed the proposed ‘option’:

Notice the justification for this option: “The residents of Innisfil have expressed interest in restaurant and café type uses along this stretch of road …”  Wait a minute. How does commercial development “complement” the park? The Community Engagement Feedback Report (Spring 2015) prepared by the same consultant shows that a café and restaurant were some of the least requested options:

Under the heading, Key Messages Heard, we read

  • Preserve the community character as the Town grows …
  • Plan for the community first … the Town must put the community’s needs ahead of tourists. Residents acknowledge that visitors are critical to the local economy and should be accommodated, but Innisfil residents’ needs must be taken into account first.
  • Residents see Alcona as the centre of Innisfil where densification, multi-family residential development, and new commercial activity will strengthen its role as the downtown and commercial centre of the town.

A map compiled from participants’ input at Community Visioning Days did not illustrate activities extending beyond the 25th Sideroad:

So, years later we have some vocal residents asking who will be ‘fired’, or shouting, “Don’t believe them. They lied to me!” (about a totally different development).

According to the manager of land use planning, “There was a desire to have a main street that could be connected to the lake”. .. “the area of Innisfil Beach Road to the lake from the 25th Sideroad, including the eight Lakelands Avenue residences, was identified as an “area of interest” during the Official Plan process, and the commercial designation is intended to connect the “main street” to the lake and Innisfil Beach Park.” (Wrong Thing to Do, simcoe.com, August 27, 2019)

But what is being connected to what? The SGL study itself noted that Innisfil has failed to develop a ‘main street’ commercial sector in the existing corridor. If the effort to create a commercial core has so far failed over the past 10 years, what are we ‘connecting?

A planner offered the justification that “a retail study … identified a need for an additional one million square feet of commercial retail space in Alcona.” However, the Official Plan review conducted by Simcoe County noted:

“We will not consider new commercial designations outside of the Downtown Commercial Area designations that serve more than the day to day needs of residents until the existing Downtown Commercial Area in Alcona contains an additional 50,000 sq. m. of retail and service commercial floor space as measured from the adoption of this Plan. Upon that milestone being achieved, additional new commercial designations may be considered”. (County Finalized Proposed Modifications, August 2018, version 4)

So let’s be honest. What is driving this push to designate commercial uses to the lake?:

The Beach Master Plan is focused on revenue generation. The Town is looking for ways to use the park as a revenue source

Park amenities need to be supported by new additional Town services, and that can only be funded by private developments. The Park Master Plan clearly talks about development on park land abutting Innisfil Beach Road but I haven’t heard any open discussion of that yet.

Some people suspect that a developer is already waiting in the wings. It may not be too far fetched. There is a history of developers trying to encroach on public spaces. In Toronto, Downsview Park and Ontario Place are examples. Barrie allowed developers to destroy Molson Park completely.

Innisfil’s CAO gave residents some sensible advice, telling residents to focus on the Innisfil Beach Master Plan because “what happens at the park” determines what happens on the street.

Innisfil residents can convey their views through the Town website, getinvolvedinnisfil.ca  or contact gpierce@innisfil.ca.

In Praise of Inefficiency

In the mid-twentieth century a multitude of small wholesalers managed the distribution of goods to industry and consumers but this was inefficient so we opted for ‘free’ trade instead, and thousands of jobs were lost. There were a lot of domestic manufacturers but this was too inefficient so the combination of multinational corporations, container shipping and the calculated exploitation of regional and national economic disparities led to their demise. 

There were independent local grocers, bakers and butchers but this was too inefficient so we replaced them with supermarket chains and warehouse stores. Before long, national and international franchises settled over every aspect of retailing. A depressing conformity settled over every community. Wages have stagnated for decades.  Automation and artificial intelligence promises to be more efficient by eliminating even more jobs.

Now, our Ontario government “For the People” wants to shave 4 cents off every Ontario tax dollar spent by introducing “efficiencies” in government administration.  We are beginning with a spending cut of $1.4 billion this year (2019-20) and rising to a $3.8 billion cut after the next provincial election (2023-24). That’s a lot of ‘efficiency’ to find, especially considering that health and education are the two largest segments of the budget. Salaries make up the bulk of costs for those services.  The Ontario government has introduced legislation to limit public sector wage increases to an average of 1% for 3 years. (Executive salaries over $100,000 are already frozen).

It might be useful to pause here and look again at the Phoenix payroll experiment that was supposed to “save Canada $70 million per year, eliminate tedious work and update an antiquated [40 year old] payroll system”…

Before Phoenix, departments handled payroll themselves using an inefficient patchwork of finicky old systems. So the Harper Conservatives vowed a countrywide cleanup: every department would start using the same system, Phoenix, managed in large part by a new 550-employee office…  

The project was incredibly complicated, like the HR equivalent of string theory. Because each of the federal departments and agencies had their own collective agreement, they all calculated pay for overtime, promotions, maternity leave and other types of work differently. Altogether, Phoenix needed to assimilate more than 80,000 different pay rules. ” (You don’t want this guy’s job, Luc Rinaldi, CPA Canada, Feb 28, 2019)

“With the goal of saving money, 1,200 departmental compensation advisers were eliminated” (CBC – ipolitics, Dec 2018)

A new book, Team Human, by Douglas Rushkoff (2019) seems to suggest that our Ontario government is barking up the wrong tree. Les ruthless competition and more cooperation, less efficiency and more empathy might be a better approach:

“By hiring more people rather than machines, paying them livable wages, and operating with less immediate efficiency, [my italics] companies could minimize the destruction they leave in their wake … Hiring ten farmers or nurses may be more expensive in the short run than using one robotic tractor or caregiver, but it may just make life better and less costly for everyone over the long term.”

The employment model has become so prevalent that [people] still tend to think of prosperity in terms of getting everyone “jobs”, as if what everyone really wants is the opportunity to commodify their living hours. It’s not that we need full employment to get everything done, grow enough food, or make enough stuff for everyone… Jobs have reversed from the means to the ends …  They are not a way to ensure that needed work gets done, but a way of justifying one’s share in the abundance.”

As artificial intelligence continues to eliminate numerous jobs in more and more economic sectors, Rushkoff says, “we should be celebrating our efficiency and discussing alternative strategies for distributing our surplus, from a global welfare program to universal basic income.”

Instead our Ontario government is pursuing the employment model, reducing corporate taxes in the hope that it will induce investment in factories.

“The products they manufacture may be unnecessary plastic contraptions for which demand may be created with manipulative marketing and then space made in landfills, but at least they will create an excuse to employ some human hours.”

If we look at the Ford conservative government actions to date, they are totally opposite:  If you need a reminder, click to see everything the Doug Ford government cut in its first year in office.

In pursuit of ‘efficiency’, the Ontario government is only exacerbating poverty, concentrating more wealth in the hands of the few, crippling economic innovation,  and dismantling the ability of our government “for the people” to address the urgent issues of the day. I recommend reading Team Human. We will only survive the challenges ahead if we work together as a team and, as Rushkoff says, “find the others”.

A Quiet Rotary Gem

The Innisfil Rotary Trail officially opened in late 2016 through the planning and funding efforts of the Innisfil Rotary Club but it was only this summer that I ventured out one weekend to experience it myself. I was very impressed and inspired.

Open spaces invite many creative ideas

The trail extends south toward the 7th Line and winds back toward the town’s  Works and InnPower buildings. Along the way is a welcoming paved path as well as a side trail loop into deep shady woods. Installations so far include some inviting benches.

A fallen tree creates a natural sculptural effect

Further south, the trail is still under construction but gives a taste of what the finished project will be like. As a member of both the Arts Council and the Innisfil Garden Club, my mind raced with ideas for future additions:  spaces for a wild flower meadow, flowering prennials and shrubs, a pollinator garden, wild edibles like berries, an arbour with blackberry vines, public sculptures in selected settings using natural materials.  So many possibilities within an already beautiful natural setting. The Innisfil Rotary Trail is a special place, a quiet and enjoyable retreat with so much potential to be an enduring jewel in our midst.