Friday’s announcement concerning how the Places to Grow policy affects the County of Simcoe and Innisfil puts the ball back in our court. The revisions recognize Alcona as a primary settlement area, and allows Simcoe County some flexibility in setting higher growth targets. However, the Ministry confirmed the Places to Grow policy for urban density and intensification – key elements that did not coincide with the Town’s Official Plan. Here’s a review of the critical issues that prevented the Town’s Official Plan from receiving provincial approval and how it is being resolved.
Urban Nodes are now “Primary Settlement Areas”
The province’s plan to designate certain communities as ‘urban nodes’ as a focus for “growth and intensification” caused a political uproar because Alcona was not included among those selected in Simcoe County. Innisfil feared that it would not be eligible for provincial infrastructure funding without this designation.
- “This Plan will be supported by ReNew Ontario, Ontario’s multi-year provincial infrastructure investment strategy, additional investments in transportation such as Move Ontario…”
- “It is estimated that over 20 per cent of infrastructure capital costs could be saved by moving from lower density development to more efficient and compact urban form.”
The concept of nodes is replaced by the new designation, “Primary Settlement Area” which is not further defined although certain conditions apply. Major growth is directed to settlement areas; toward settlement areas with municipal water and waste water service; establishment of new settlement areas is prohibited.
- “Primary settlement areas for the Simcoe Sub-area are identified in Schedule 8.”
Alcona is now included in a separate Schedule of primary settlement areas along with the others that were previously described as nodes.
The City of Barrie is described as a “principal primary settlement area” and the statement consistently emphasizes that downtown Barrie is the “urban growth centre”.
- “The City of Barrie is the principal primary settlement area. Downtown Barrie is the only urban growth centre in the Simcoe Sub-area.”
Up to Another 20,000 Population for Simcoe County
The Town and County were at odds with the province over growth targets for 2031. The province set a population target of 56,000 for Innisfil, well below the 65,000 assigned in the Simcoe County Official Plan. The decision now shifts, within limits, to the County:
- “Development may be approved in settlement areas in excess of what is needed to accommodate the forecasts in Schedule 7 …”
- “The County may approve adopted official plans or adopted official plan amendments regarding lands within a settlement area that redesignate lands not for urban uses to lands for urban uses that are in excess of what is needed for a time horizon of up to 20 years or to accommodate the forecasts in Schedule 7, whichever is sooner …”
- “The sum of all population growth accommodated on lands for urban uses approved pursuant to [this policy] shall not exceed a total population of 20,000 for the County of Simcoe.”
Depending on how this allocation is divided among Simcoe County municipalities, Innisfil may yet secure a population target at or near 65,000 for 2031. In any case, the numbers are not set in stone:
- “The Minister of Infrastructure will review the forecasts contained in Schedule 3 at least every five years in consultation with municipalities, and may revise the forecasts.”
Planned developments must meet a specified target for urban density. Required density declines from a combined total of 400 residents and jobs per hectare for Toronto, 200 for Newmarket Centre, 150 for Downtown Barrie, to 50 per hectare in ‘greenfield’ areas of Innisfil.
- “The designated greenfield area of each upper- or single-tier municipality will be planned to achieve a minimum density target that is not less than 50 residents and jobs combined per hectare.”
The policy does specify an objective to “promote transit-supportive densities”.
Urban Intensification Target is 40%
Infill projects and denser redevelopment in existing urban settlement areas must account for 40% of all new construction. That has been the stated provincial policy since 2005 and hasn’t changed. Innisfil had proposed that it should be a maximum of 23% in residential areas and a maximum of 20% in the Innisfil Heights industrial zone.
Innisfil Heights Employment Lands
Innisfil Heights is designated as a “strategic settlement employment area”:
- “Although not settlement areas, the strategic settlement employment areas and economic employment districts are considered designated greenfield area …”
- The Minister of Infrastructure, in consultation with other Ministers of the Crown, and affected municipalities and stakeholders, will determine the location and boundaries of strategic settlement employment areas, and may establish as appropriate the following:
a) Permitted uses, and the mix and percentage of certain uses;
b) Permitted uses for specific areas within the strategic settlement employment areas;
c) Lot sizes; and
d) Any additional policies and definitions that apply to these areas.
Innisfil’s Official Plan Up for Review
Town planners had claimed it was essential to build out Alcona North and Alcona South expansion areas to finance the construction of municipal services to the Highway 400 Innisfil Heights industrial zone. I expect these and other proposed new settlement areas are off the table until a full review of the Town’s Official Plan is completed. What’s different this time is the combination of the Inspiring Innisfil strategic plan and a whole slate of different town staff.
What Does It All Mean for Innisfil?
More than likely, it will have the effect of slowing, in the near term, further suburban-style residential greenfield development in Innisfil, at least until an updated Official Plan is in place. The focus will have to shift to smaller scale infill and redevelopment within existing Innisfil neighbourhoods. Empty lots and older, cottage-style housing might attract the attention of builders as potential opportunities.
Redevelopment of Innisfil Beach Road as an urban core for Innisfil may also be a bigger priority for developers to help Innisfil satisfy a need for a mix of housing and mixed uses that include local employment options. In the mean time, town staff will also plough ahead with a comprehensive plan for infrastructure, and transportation, including trails and bike paths. Although infrastructure funds will be available, the province may expect to see improvements in efficiency of up to 20% due to more compact development.
According to provincial policy, if the intensification rate in one year exceeds the 40% target, the higher rate becomes the new norm. If infill and redevelopment become the focus in Innisfil while greenfield development stalls, Innisfil could conceivably inherit a higher intensification target that tips the scale away from greenfield development even further.
Information released by the Toronto Real Estate Board (TREB) shows that Innisfil already has a large stock of available housing for sale. It is reported to have 159 months of housing inventory at current sales rates. (Simcoe County has 132 months of inventory; Newmarket 34.) How should we interpret that? It may be that the cost of commuting at $1.20 or more per litre of gasoline is making Innisfil less attractive to potential buyers. Or, with higher house prices, buyers may have more housing options in the same range to choose from. Changes in mortgage lending rules, chronic unemployment and uncertainty over the economy in general may be affecting the rate of sales.
I expect the Town’s emphasis will be on making Innisfil more vibrant, to lessen dependence on commuting, build the local economy, improve the sense of community and reinforce the Town’s financial position. Ultimately the plan remains for Innisfil to almost double in population by 2031 but the process is getting another look and we have a better chance of doing it more sustainably.