Over 56 Before ’51

New provincial amendments to the Growth Plan make clear that this government is firmly in the grip of the building industry.  The Ontario government released notice of amendments to the Growth Plan of the Greater Golden Horseshoe on June 16.  Town of Innisfil staff brought these forward to Council on July 15 with a ‘recommended’ response to the province which was due on July 31. The opportunity for public comment also closed on July 31. 

Amendments include “changes to the population and employment forecasts, horizon year for planning, and other policies to increase housing supply, create jobs, attract business investment …”

Current “Forecasts”

The existing Growth Plan for Simcoe County forecasts a population of 416,000 and 132,000 jobs by 2031 and 497,000 population and 152,000 jobs by 2041. From those amounts, Innisfil was allocated a population of 56,000 and 13,100 jobs by 2031. The County of Simcoe has not yet completed an allocation to Innisfil for 2041.

New Growth Plan

The province proposes to amend the Growth Plan:

  • to extend the ‘forecast horizon’ to 2051
  • to remove allocations of population and employment amongst constituent Simcoe County municipalities
  • to allow mineral aggregate operations, quarries and pits within endangered species habitats and the defined Natural Heritage System 
  • to replace existing Simcoe County forecasts with three new ‘scenarios’
  • to amend the Land Needs Assessment Methodology to require Ministerial approval for a municipal forecast of density lower than the provincial forecast

Pick One

The new plan for Simcoe County proposes:

  • a Reference Forecast: 555,000 people / 198,000 jobs
  • a High Growth Scenario: 571,000 people / 210,000 jobs
  • a Low Growth Scenario: 540,000 people / 188,000 jobs

The three scenarios propose an increase in population of 33 – 37% and a proposed increase in jobs of 42 -59%. The provincial consultation initiated with this notice will determine which scenario will be adopted as the ‘forecast’ for 2051.

“Minimum” Replaces Target

Policy language makes it clear “that the 20151 forecasts are to be treated as minimums and not targets”. Official Plans must be updated by July 1, 2022 to accommodate, at minimum, the 2051 forecast. 

Staff Recommendations

Staff consider the proposal for growth minimums rather than targets as “potentially of significant benefit to Innisfil”. The Town’s planning staff are “generally supportive” of the change because existing forecasts “have historically constrained the Town’s ability to expand the Innisfil Heights employment area and the settlement boundary of Alcona.” Staff also argued that existing forecasts were “potentially challenging” to the ability to achieve Council’s vision for the Orbit Go station development. 

To help manage increased development pressures, planning staff endorses adopting the Reference Forecast. “This provides a basis from which municipalities can plan to exceed the growth forecasts …” Staff note that “continuing to prohibit LPAT appeals on municipal growth management decisions is especially important” to ensure “that development is aligned with the local community’s vision …” 

Staff “has concerns” about the impact of larger urban centres on adjacent smaller municipalities, especially if they exceed forecast minimum growth. They suggest a land budgeting process to take existing boundaries into consideration. “The Growth Plan should include policies requiring municipalities to explore growth options … for the purposes of containing development within their existing municipal boundaries.”

What Does It Mean?

Adopting a Reference Scenario sets that forecast as a minimum growth number for Simcoe County with no specific allocation to individual County municipalities, and the High Growth Scenario as possibly a ‘target’. Local municipalities could potentially face pressure from the County to adopt more aggressive development proposals.

A Minimum Growth requirement opens the way for major residential development of Innisfil Heights. It has been prohibitively expensive to install services in what was solely an “employment” zone.  Now classified as an “employment/settlement” area, a higher growth forecast could justify intensive residential development in Innisfil Heights under the rubric of “complete communities” to finance the municipal services also required for the added industrial growth long sought by Innisfil. 

The province proposes amending the Land Needs Assessment Methodology for the entire Greater Golden Horseshoe. The “new methodology intends to provide a streamlined approach to land budgeting activities …” Municipalities could consider alternate assumptions about population and employment growth … to establish the case for a higher density target”. However, “assumptions that include density targetslower than those requiredin the Plan would require the Minister’s approval.” 

Town staff says that wider mineral extraction would pose a significant threat to the Natural Heritage System in Innisfil

Implementation

The Staff Report says, “The proposed amendments to the Plan, if approved, would apply immediately after they come into effect, including in-progress Municipal Comprehensive Reviews. The Province is proposing to retain the current date of July 1, 2022 for municipalities to bring their official plans into conformity with the amended Plan.”

Preparing for Mobility Orbit

Innisfil’s ambitious plan to build a GO transit station as the center of an even more ambitious new urban community ‘in orbit’ around it took another step forward at a virtual Council meeting on July 15.

The meeting, which can be viewed on the Town’s Youtube channel, received an update of the project on July 15. Much of the planners’ presentation was a repetition of earlier design concepts although the phasing and initial mixed-use construction around the GO station is beginning to exhibit more definition. The impetus for the Mobility Orbit is to combine and fully integrate a transit hub with a modern new settlement, which will absorb most, if not all, of the Town’s provincially mandated growth for up to the next 40 years.  The intention is to spare Innisfil’s agricultural lands and existing rural settlements from potentially drastic urban transitions in the coming decades.

Council authorized staff to continue with preparations, and specifically:

  • seek further “reviews and permissions to advance detailed design and construction of Orbit station and surrounding ‘Center of Mass’ …”
  • continue to engage with residents, businesses, community stakeholders and other levels of government … to create the regulatory framework for fulfillment of the Vision which will, among other things protect and preserve the agricultural and environmental fabric of Innisfil and Lake Simcoe”
  • Continue to “work collaboratively with Metrolinx and Cortel Group to facilitate design and construction … by 2022”
  • The Town Solicitor is “directed to negotiate and prepare necessary legal agreements … to be consistent with the terms of the Mobility Orbit Agreement 1.0 of October 23, 2019”
  • “the Town Solicitor is authorized to negotiate and prepare a Joint Consultant Agreement with Cortel as generally outlined in” an earlier Staff Report
  • “the Director of Growth Services is authorized to execute such agreement once finalized”

The Deputy Mayor expressed concern about the overall cost, as yet unknown, of such an ambitious station project and whether one developer could realistically finance it. However, it was stated that the Town is expected to assume the cost of various public spaces around the station such as bikeways and trails, public plazas or similar amenities.

It was also made clear that the initial phase of the station would consist of only the north half of the circular Orbit design with the other half to follow later. Temporary surface parking for commuters allocated on the northwest quadrant would eventually be the site of mixed-use buildings.

The legal agreements now being authorized should presumably provide better insight into who is responsible for what, who pays for what, and an initial timeline for various stages of construction. Considering that the current Ontario government mandated that new transit stations be built in cooperation with private developers, and that 2022, the completion date for this station, happens to align with the next provincial election year, it’s quite likely that the project will be accelerated with a Ministerial Order bypassing more onerous regulatory hurdles.

A Firmer Foundation?

Source: Innovative Planning Solutions, Urban Design Brief, 2016

In 2016, former mayor, Gord Wauchope, vacated his historic home on Innisfil Beach Road after selling the property to a developer. The Town agreed to defer Heritage designation on the property based on the Wauchope’s pledge to preserve the property outside of the Heritage Act. This was to ensure that they could realize a reputed million dollar return on the sale of their property. The 19th century home, was then relocated on the property in 2017 without ever being designated under the Ontario Heritage Act by Town Council.  At the time, the property was owned by Abendel Group, which currently owns other property along Innisfil Beach Rd. The company was reported ready to pay an estimated $300,000 to set the house on a new foundation.  Although relocated on the site, that never happened and the property was subsequently sold to Smith & Smith Homes.

Their plan was said to incorporate the historic home into a row of townhouses extending northward on the property. A Simcoe.com story published in March 2017 reported, “Abandel Group president … told Simcoe.com, the heritage house will be attached to a row of townhouses and will be visible from Innisfil Beach Road. The house is being attached to the townhouses because the back wall is not original and the brick was removed as part of a wood addition built in the 1950s …”

However, an urban design brief prepared by Innovative Planning Solutions in May 2016 did not guarantee preservation. “The dwelling will be demolished or relocated prior to commencement of site works and construction.” In fact, their site plan did not include the heritage house at all. Instead, “the design vision for the proposed development has been inspired by the existing residential dwelling and its unique historical heritage features.”

A municipal traffic study dated April, 2016 stated, “It has been assumed that, should all approvals be granted, the proposed development will be built-out by 2018.” That plan also collapsed. Since then the home has sat up in the air, raised on cinder blocks and beams, awaiting a new foundation and restoration. In May 2018 the home experienced some storm damage and vandalism was also reported. Once again, the property was sold while the house remains literally in limbo between heaven and earth. The “Planning Justification Report” for the Official Plan Amendment submitted by Innovative Planning Solutions (April 2020) says, “Great effort has been made to preserve this house…”

Now after 4 years, a new property owner has come forward with a new proposal to “incorporate” the heritage home into a four storey building which would consist of 2 storeys of commercial mixed uses and 2 storeys of residential space. Members of Council, members of the Heritage Committee and Town Staff attended a design charette in March 2020.

Source: Innovative Planning Solutions, Planning Justification Report

“The proposed development consists of a U-shaped four (4) storey purpose-built apartment building with two stories of commercial uses fronting Innisfil Beach Road. Proposed is 137 residential units, ranging from 61 m2 to 98 m2 (656-1,052 sq. ft.).

Source: Innovative Planning Solutions, Planning Justification Report

Ten (10) commercial units are provided for 744 m2 of commercial space on the main level along the frontage of the property, with eight (8) office units including 519 m2 of office space on the second level. Access to the office units is provided through the main lobby. The number of commercial and office units is subject to change. These units are designed to be flexible and provide tenant’s the ability to alter the unit size and layout based on their requirements / use. This will allow a wide variety of tenants to be able to lease the spaces and provide options for customization.

The heritage house has been integrated into the development and is centered in the commercial built form, as the focal point of the development. The heritage house will serve as a common entrance into a joint lobby for the commercial and residential units. It will also provide an open common amenity space that has the ability to showcase the heritage of the building.”

The Town of Innisfil has scheduled a virtual public meeting on Wednesday, July 15 at 6:30 pm to consider an application to amend the Official Plan to designate the property as Downtown Commercial Area to “allow a four storey apartment building with two storeys of commercial uses.” The virtual Council meeting can be viewed on the Town’s YouTube channel. Related reports and documentation are available at getinvolvedinnisfil.ca. After a four-year long, sad saga of neglect and deterioration, it remains to be seen if Innisfil’s Heritage preservation will finally achieve a firmer foundation in the year that Innisfil is marking its bicentennial.

Big Ideas for Small Business

Over the weekend, a large crane was moving signage into position for a Popeye’s chicken franchise (Opening Soon!) at the former Pasta Plus location in the Crossroads Plaza.  While I can imagine this will be very popular with some Innisfil families, others are expressing disappointment before it even opens.  There is dismay that as Innisfil continues to ‘urbanize’ the process is erasing the character of our town into yet another facsimile of so may other suburban and exurban areas.

Innisfil has an official policy to preserve the distinct character of its constituent neighbourhoods, so why are we undermining it? In the face of the current global pandemic the town is directing resources toward supporting existing small businesses and trying to attract more small and entrepreneurial enterprises. Yet other policies appear to be undermining this intent.

Our downtown commercial core was supposed to be developed into more retail space that creates more rental competition and lowers rents. Instead, empty tracts scattered along the main street were bought by out-of-town speculators. Retailers are paying excessive rates for the limited available spaces in relation to the current potential local business. We’ve watched successive openings and closings over the past two decades. In the end, only franchise chains with deep pockets can afford to set up under these conditions. The result is a depressing sameness and mediocrity to retail areas everywhere, termed the “geography of nowhere”. I wrote about this phenomenon in a previous article (Signs of High Rent Blight) that cited an insightful article from the New Yorker published in 2015. Five years later it is all the more relevant.

In a subsequent article (Guidance and Good Governance), I suggested some possible policy approaches. Now its time for even more aggressive changes to ensure our well-intentioned Master Plans, Official Plans, and Policy Statements aren’t just historical wallpaper.

  • The Downtown core commercial zoning of up to 8 storeys has obviously not worked. We need to revise this zoning downward to a maximum of 4 to 6 storeys. This should lower the speculative value of empty lots and encourage reasonable mixed development
  • If possible, owners of empty commercial lots should be given a deadline to initiate development or face penalties
  • We need to set a limit on the number of franchise businesses locating in Innisfil. It should not be more than 1/3 of the total built retail space in each settlement centre such as Alcona. This should also allow rents to align more reasonably with the real business potential within Innisfil neighbourhoods and ensure new opportunities for local entrepreneurs
  • Empty retail spaces need to be discouraged through a sliding scale of property tax based on the length of time a storefront remains empty

Canada Post is running ads urging us to shop local and support small business but that’s a big ask if we have fewer and fewer local small businesses and an even dimmer outlook on the horizon.

Planning Beyond Pandemic

There is a lot of speculation about what effect the pandemic will have on the way people work, commute, shop and socialize in its aftermath. The Town of Innisfil has has been directing more resources toward new, small and innovative enterprises in the belief that it is where the most new jobs originate. Once the pandemic risk recedes these programs may assume even more importance.

At the beginning of June Innisfil Accelerates announced a new virtual, “Innisfil Online Marketplace”.  It is described as “a four-part program that encourages entrepreneurs and business owners to move their business online, and supports them over the long-term.”

The announcement of the program included these details:

  • A partnership with Digital Main Street on a program called shopHERE powered by Google, which provides free Shopify stores for registered businesses to get online
  • A local directory of online stores, hosted on innisfilaccelerates.ca. Any store from bricks and mortar to side hustle can have their store listed regardless of size or sector
  • A free local support program where businesses can have their questions answered by a Shopify expert, in partnership with Nottawasaga Futures
  • A self-help section where people can use Shopify Help Centre to browse videos on any type of issue or challenge.

The Innisfil Accelerates also promotes “Garage Start-Ups”, based on amendment of the Town’s home-based business bylaw for office-use only. Under the new rules, the bylaw allows “any of the home’s occupants to be involved in the business, as well as up to four employees that live elsewhere, up from one. All activities must take place within the home (no outside storage, for example) and must follow all existing town regulations for noise, parking, and signage.” 

Innisfil Accelerates is also vigorously promoting downtown development for Alcona. With possible trends toward working from home, less commuting, more online shopping, and potential increased commercial vacancies it might be time to also think about how we could rethink the shape of our ‘downtown’ commercial core. More on that later.

View: Innisfil Marketplace Directory