Establishing Park Priorities

The Innisfil Beach Master Plan made news again this week. The online report from Innisfil Today (Staff admit steps were missed in Innisfil Beach Park Plan, Sep 25, 2020) makes for interesting reading.

Staff brought forward a report on the Master Plan near the end of a four hour Council meeting. The report concerned the hiring of a consultant to examine a variety of potential impacts (traffic, geotechnical, utilities, etc.) as well as costs and project phasing “and a detailed plan of which projects are to occur in which order.” 

However, the staff report also included authorization to implement two proposed amenities in the Master Plan using pre-approved funding. Staff intended to proceed with approved projects – an outdoor fitness installation ($233,000) as well as other items not yet approved, which included a BMX pump track ($292,000; high priority, 2-3 years in the Master Plan Final Report) and removal of the concrete pier. In previously endorsing the park “vision”, Council reallocated $2.58 of funding for park improvements such as “automated parking gates, solar lighting, outdoor fitness, and a docking system” into the Master Park Plan. 

Councillor Orsatti pointed out that the staff report was “inconsistent with the motion” that endorsed the “vision” for the park but deferred specific project approvals for later budget deliberations. Although staff said, “There is also a lot of anticipation from the community to see some park improvement projects started in Innisfil Beach Park sooner than 2022”, Council voted 6 to 2 to refer discussion to the Budget period, agreeing that it was inappropriate to proceed with projects without Council input and ahead of the consultant’s implementation plan. 

Councillor Orsatti added, “all of council understood that we would look at all the amenities that were recommended. It wasn’t sanctioned that all 43 of them were approved. Maybe the vision is, but not all the items.”

I think the obvious flaw in the Innisfil Beach Master Plan is that possible alternative sites are not being considered or proposed for some of the 43 project items listed for the park. Do we need all 43 items at Innisfil Beach Park? Could some of them be more usefully located elsewhere in our town? Without going through an itemized list, I would suggest the answer is “yes”.  I believe opportunities exist to leverage some of these projects in a way to also advance our ‘downtown’ vision. I would welcome a broader perspective.

Small Green Steps

We’re already being told not to expect too much from the coming federal Throne Speech regarding a ‘green revolution’ to address climate change. The global pandemic has evidently drained our capacity to be radically innovative. We’ll have to be satisfied with small green steps being taken by municipalities and corporations all around the world. One of them concerns a water conservation technology in our neck of the woods.

I first wrote about grey water recycling systems on this blog in 2011. So it was interesting to read recently that a resident of Tottenham, a neighbouring community in Simcoe County, is instrumental in developing a new compact, efficient grey water system.

More than 20 homes being built in a new subdivision in Pickering will include the Greyter Water System to recycle water from showers and bathing to flush toilets. Between showers and toilets, about half of residential water use occurs in the bathroom. Each Greyter unit is expected to save the homeowner 30,000 litres of water consumption a year.

That’s a lot of water but more modest in terms of savings. At Innisfil’s current water rates it amounts to about $65.00 worth of water consumption and perhaps roughly the same in waste water charges per year.  The average quarterly charge in Durham Region is $121.00 for water consumption and $125.21 for sewer usage based on 56,000 litres of use. 

The initial cost of the greywater system, around $5,000, currently has a lengthy pay-back. The interest in this technology comes more from municipalities keen to reduce the load on existing infrastructure.  

The Pickering installations are a pilot project and demonstration showcase for other municipalities and builders. The City of Pickering “has a goal to become one of the most sustainable cities in Canada. The city hosts an annual sustainable workshop series for builders, designers, municipal staff and other stakeholders to network and find solutions to save energy and conserve resources.”  (These new homes in Pickering are Canada’s first to recycle water using a locally-developed system, Tracy Hanes, Toronto Star, Aug 5, 2020)

Previously: Bigger Threat, Higher Hopes – – a thermal energy battery in Australia

Making or Breaking Downtown

We’re still struggling to understand the rationale for a sudden focus on trying to ‘extend’ the downtown to Lake Simcoe. The Staff Report (DSR-117-20) describes the planning rationale as “envisioning a sensitively infilled retail mixed-use to connect Downtown Alcona to the shores of Lake Simcoe and strengthening, both physically and symbolically, the connections between the Downtown, Park, and the Lake.”

A recent article (There’s a Vision for Alcona’s Downtown, Shane MacDonald, Simcoe.com) described the disconnect that exists between the demand for built retail and commercial space in Alcona versus the actual availability of such space. While retail vacancy is about 2%, and office space is unavailable, about 3.6 hectares (9 acres) of land on Innisfil Beach Road remains vacant. This figure, which is widely cited, might not take into account occupied properties that are significantly under-utilized or not used at all for retail or commercial purposes. The potential space available for development or redevelopment in this commercially zoned sector is probably much higher.

Planners seem to suggest that rezoning land toward the lake would help address this deficiency.  According to Innisfil’s Economic Development Champion, “In order to bring the prices down and to attract jobs to our community, we need more space … We need to flood that supply, because the demand is already there.” But a rezoning that would lead to a transition over years and decades, as existing residents gradually move out of the affected area, seems like a weak response. It wouldn’t be a flood. It would be more of a dribble. We have to assume that transitional commercial development would proceed over at least 20 years in step with the Master Plan for Innisfl Beach Park – unless there’s more we don’t know. And a lot of circumstances can change in 20 years.

Planners suggest three main reasons that private developers have failed to respond to healthy market demand for more space:

  • Land speculation
  • Challenges to land consolidation
  • Increasing construction costs 

It sounds like land speculators have made reasonable development on existing commercial properties uneconomic by excessively bidding up land values. The Town may be looking east of the 25thSideroad as an opportunity to assemble competing lots that are more economically viable over the long term. But I would argue that directly and aggressively confronting land speculators would be more efficient in dealing with the first two issues – speculation and land consolidation. In essence, one solution is to increase the property tax on vacant land significantly enough to quickly motivate more beneficial uses. I have to credit Shelterforce.org with the idea (How to Kill Land Speculation, Rick Rybeck, July 2018). I think the commercial property tax rate should also increase with the number of years that a commercially zoned property has been idle. It is entirely justified in that the Town of Innisfil (i.e. taxpayers like us) invested millions of dollars to create a modern functional streetscape and updated utilities for the express purpose of accommodating a ‘downtown’ commercial core. Even if land speculators now obstruct that objective, they have an obligation to contribute fairly to pay for the improvements that motivated them in the first place. (Location! Location! Location!) By shifting the tax burden to idle properties, Council can also alleviate the need for tax increases for existing businesses that are actually contributing to the economic and social health of our Town.  We would know if a higher tax on vacant land is effective by how quickly reasonable and affordable development proposals come forward. Let’s not let land speculators decide whether to make or break Innisfil’s downtown.

Previously: Downtown by the Lake Continues

Bigger Threat, Higher Hopes

With the UN warning the climate change is a bigger economic threat than the covid pandemic, it’s encouraging to hear about some positive developments. 

While Ontario foolishly cancelled some existing and planned renewable energy projects, a new development in battery storage makes these technologies all the more viable and economically sound. A company in South Australia has developed a “thermal battery” that is being described as a ‘game changer’.  (New Thermal Battery Could Be a Game Changer for Storing Renewable Energy, Natalie Parletta, freelance science writer, April 2019)

The thermal battery being developed by CCT Energy Storage “takes any form of electrical input on the front end and converts that to thermal energy … We use silicon as our phase-change material, melt it and store the heat from that.”  According to the company, the thermal battery has some unique properties:

  • it can charge and discharge at the same time
  • storage capability is 12 times greater than lead-acid batteries
  • it can store five to six times more energy than lithium-ion
  • it is considerably cheaper than lead-acid and lithium-ion
  • battery life is estimated at 20 years
  • the battery can be recycled without leaving harmful chemicals in the environment

The technology was first conceived in 2011 and research has concentrated on increasing the temperature of the phase-change material to reduce the battery’s end cost. Together with collaborators at the University of South Australia, the focus in 2019 was on a putting a prototype in the field and a working unit has been placed at a test site in April 2020. “The technology is scalable so it has much potential for large-scale energy storage.” To begin, the company plans to target the telecommunications and diesel markets. The company has assigned exclusive rights to a company to manufacture, build and distribute their thermal battery in Denmark, Sweden, and the Netherlands.” The company expects their technology “to help remote communities eliminate their reliance on diesel generators.” 

Realigning the 20th Sideroad

Concurrent with the widening of Innisfil Beach Rd., preparations are also continuing for the realignment of the 20thSideroad to remedy its awkward jog from one side of the existing railway tracks to  the other at Innisfil Beach Road.

On July 15, town staff presented a report and recommendations regarding this project. It was noted that the County of Simcoe has retained an engineering consultant to prepare design, administration and inspection details of the improvements. Innisfil has formally taken ownership of the 20thSideroad, which was “County Road 39”.

Actual construction is planned to begin in 2021.  Initial design included a median to prevent left turns from the north. This feature was requested by Metrolinx to prevent any vehicles from queuing on the railway tracks. The town expressed concern about disrupting continuous travel on the 20thSideroad.  The consultant was requested to suggest an alternate solution for the rail safety issue.

The preferred alternative is to place traffic signals at four corners which are coordinated to the movement of train traffic:

“The traffic signals at the four (4) corners of the intersection would be coordinated to operate in sequence to prevent queuing of traffic on the tracks. The signals would be designed and programmed to give priority to trains approaching the intersection through pre-emption.”

“Metrolinx is actively looking to expand rail service to their corridor by adding an additional rail line and two-way all-day service which will have impact to vehicular traffic at these intersections. The traffic signals will be pre-empted by the rail line operations and timed as such that they will prevent traffic from queuing over the rail line.”

The County and Town of Innisfil are drafting a Memorandum of Understanding  regarding mutual commitments and cost sharing while the County seeks Metrolinx endorsement of the design proposal. 

“The project is, and will continue to be, primarily funded by Development Charges collected by the County. It has been agreed that the Town will contribute the increased costs associated with the benefit to the existing user portion of funding for costs associated with the additional traffic signal and associated infrastructure.”

At the completion of the County’s project to widen Innisfil Beach Road between 20 Sideroad and Yonge Street the roadway ownership will be transferred to the Town. With the transfer, the proposed signals will be property of the Town and will be the responsibility of the Town to operate and maintain the infrastructure.”

The County continues to consider a 20thSideroad “bypass with grade separation from the rail corridor”. It hinges on the County’s Municipal Comprehensive Review (MCR) not expected to be completed until 2022. Meanwhile, “the Town is currently proceeding with the Environmental Assessment for the extension of Webster Boulevard north to 20 Sideroad to provide an alternative connection to help alleviate congestion at the 20 Sideroad and Innisfil Beach Road.” 

“An estimate of the construction cost to install a set of traffic signals at the Town’s intersection is in the magnitude of $300,000 to $400,000. The Town, as agreed, would be responsible in funding the 10% non-growth portion of these costs … Staff are recommending that Council approve funding for the signal installation and associated infrastructure through as a new capital project. It is further recommended that a budget of $40,000 be allocated to the project using Alternative Revenue Source (ARS) as the funding source.”

Source: Town of Innisfil DSR-109-20, July 15, 2020

Downtown ‘by the Lake’ Continues

On August 12, Innisfil Town Council will be considering the change of zoning to permit mixed-use commercial developments along Innisfil Beach Road (opposite Innisfil Beach Park) extending to Lake Simcoe. 

Council voted to remove the Interim Control Bylaw from 5 properties on Lakelands Ave. and extend the same bylaw for one year for properties on the south side of Innisfil Beach Rd.

A Staff Report of 79 pages, including appendices and attachments, outlines the background, three options and the preferred recommendation for this change. Affected residents might be surprised that the origin of this rezoning began in 2007 with the streetscape design of Innisfil Beach Rd. The street was segmented into three “precincts” including the “Waterfront Precinct” to create “a pedestrian retail experience connecting the existing Alcona downtown with Lake Simcoe”. The actual streetscape implementation diid not include this area. Innisfil Beach Rd was rezoned for mixed use development in 2012, excluding the ‘Waterfront Precinct’. The concept was revived in 2015 with preparations for the ‘Our Place’ Official Plan.

Briefly, Staff present a choice of one of three options:

  • The first, and preferred, amendment would remove 5 properties on Lakelands Ave. from Our Shore regulations and place them under the Comprehensive Zoning Bylaw.  Next, staff propose the creation of an MU3 (mixed use) zone that permits developments of 2 to 4 storeys, with other details regarding parking, street setback and permitted uses similar to those that exist elsewhere on Innisfil Beach Road. This would consist of zones MU3-1 (max. 4 storey near 25thSideroad) to MU3-4 (max. 2 storey at Lakelands) Apartments are a permitted use under MU3 zoning. “Based on comparable projects within Alcona and the surrounding region, Staff anticipate an average of 200-300 dwelling units (approx. 60 – 90 unit/ha) at complete build out over the subject lands, based on provided parking and building height constraints.” 
  • The second option is an amendment that would remove the first 3 properties on Lakelands Ave. from Our Shore regulations and place them under the Comprehensive Zoning Bylaw.  Other provisions for MU3 zoning would remain.
  • The third option removes 5 properties on Lakelands Ave. from the MU3 rezoning, which would then apply only to the properties on Innisfil Beach Road to the 25thSideroad. 

Rationale

The following is quoted from the Staff Report:

“The subject lands are within a large, linear Strategic Growth Area along Innisfil Beach Road to Lake Simcoe, a special designation under the Province’s Growth Plan and Town’s Official Plan intended to concentrate intensification within primary settlement areas… the lands are suitably designated as a Strategic Growth Area and able to accommodate focused intensification being contiguous to major recreational destinations, Alcona’s downtown, Innisfil’s highest valued commercial lands, and along a route suitable for future public transit considerations.”

“It is the opinion of Staff that the current use of properties on Lakelands Avenue and Innisfil Beach Road east of 25 Sideroad constitutes a significant underutilization of primary settlement area land.”

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