Innisfil – The View Beyond the Trees

The apparent omission in Cookstown’s Belpark development is the lack of proactive neighbourhood participation in the process. Most people only get involved when trees hit the ground. In our busy day-to-day lives, we tend to assume that planners and politicians are going to act in everyone’s best interest and also assume they will be wise enough to know what that is. But growth and development is a bizarre stew of competing public and private interests involving three levels of government.

The property at the centre of the Belpark tree-cutting controversy was zoned for residential development back in 1999. It was approved through the Ontario Municipal Board (OMB) way back in 2003. As a result, we are seeing projects being initiated that were granted approval in another time and another mind-set. The Inspiring Innisfil strategic plan articulated a lot of goals and aspirations for our Town that clash with this accumulated legacy of old – I would say out-dated – development concepts. It will take more time (i.e. – years) for contemporary ideas to take shape but could possibly be steered toward improvement with enough public involvement and enlightened developer cooperation.

Innisfil residents have to keep these realities in mind:

  • The town’s population is going to roughly double to about 56,000 by 2030 – less than 20 years away. That much was decided at the provincial, county and municipal levels. There’s no going back. Remember that your county and municipal politicians argued for even more growth.
  • An additional 25,000 to 30,000 Innisfil residents translates into about 10,000 to 12,000 single family homes, or perhaps fewer, if there is an added mix of multi-unit structures. Some of those thousands of homes will be coming to your neighbourhood, wherever you are in Innisfil.

In other words, be prepared for big changes. Relatively old and stable societies across Europe have the comfort of knowing that good portions of their traditional and historic built environment will be preserved and maintained. In North America there is much less commitment to valuing and preserving the past. A recent commentary on development in Toronto suggested that the rate at which whole familiar neighbourhoods were being erased and replaced with new structures was causing high levels of stress among residents.

“The people of Innisfil are fiercely protective of their respective neighbourhoods”
Inspiring Innisfil, Final Report, p10

Innisfil residents likely also feel threatened by loss of their “sense of place”. Preserving natural features and open spaces is fundamental to that.  Here in Innisfil, amidst continuous pressures for growth, residents have made it clear that they would like to maintain their ‘rural’ landscape, a ‘village’ atmosphere, a ‘country’ feel. Is it possible to weave new development into an established community to create a modern urban ‘village’? Or is that just a fantasy? Residents generally view the construction of large suburban developments as destructive to that.

Lots will be completely cleared, hectares of land will be graded, pipes and utilities will be installed, roads will be added and widened. Much of this has been sketched out in general in the Town’s Official Plan, Comprehensive Zoning plan and the draft Master Transportation Plan. Specific project proposals from developers will complete the picture and bring it into focus. It’s essential for residents to be clear on the must haves, the wants, and what we’re willing to give up before the earth movers arrive. The Town of Innisfil publishes a list of active development applications and their current status on its website. It’s never too soon to find out what’s coming to a property near you. You can assume that any private property will be completely cleared from edge to edge and corner to corner as standard practice. So, it’s important to know what public space is allocated in plans for parks, trails, and protected environmental areas if we’re going to achieve a desirable balance between urban features and natural open spaces.

Part of the reason for starting this blog a few years ago was to offer a more convenient ‘Early Warning System’ for busy families and harried commuters. As a resident, I found it difficult to keep up with Town notices, public meetings, reports, and approvals. If you have the same problem, some of my articles highlight the status of developments and provide links to further resources. Previous articles included, “Lefroy Prepares for 1,175 New Households, and Innisfil Heights, Innisfil’s Next Development Frontier.

As I see it, if we are to retain any semblance of a “village” atmosphere in our neighbourhoods, here are some of the unfinished business we need to address as a community:

Inspiring Innisfil Strategy –
Preserve and enhance the unique character of the each neighbourhood within Innisfil

“Individual neighbourhood characteristics are important to the residents of Innisfil, and are also important in creating a “sense of place”.  People clearly indicated that they valued the distinctive character of each neighbourhood, and that they did not wish to see significant change that could negatively impact that character.”

  • Develop and implement Building Architectural Design Guidelines for each neighbourhood or those areas within Innisfil that are deemed to have unique building characteristics.
  • Complete a detailed Community Design Plan for each of Innisfil‘s distinct neighbourhoods

Inspiring Innisfil, Final Report, p 13

We’re not there yet. Our new housing developments feature winding roads and dead-end cul-de-sacs. The developer will tell you that this is to slow traffic and improve safety. It also increases road frontage to maximize the number of building lots while making transit virtually uneconomic. Links to the existing community are reduced, tending to isolate residents in a separate enclave.

Inspiring Innisfil Strategy –
Connect residents and neighbourhoods

  • Create a Community Linkages Plan (CLP) through the Official Plan process, mapping out existing and planned transportation networks throughout Innisfil (including all public roads, sidewalks, recreational pathways, trails, etc.).
  • Ensure that land-use planning policies as identified in the OP require physical linkages connecting neighbourhoods and all new developments (i.e. roads, recreational pathways, and sidewalks connecting residential subdivisions and commercial developments).

Inspiring Innisfil, Final Report, p 14

We’re not there yet. Recent subdivisions are designed to encourage reliance on cars. Space for paths, trails and open spaces needs to beset aside to make walking and cycling not only more possible but more desirable within established neighbourhoods.  So far we are building strip plazas fronted with barren parking lots. New subdivisions do not include any convenient commercial spaces within walking distance of those convoluted streets.

Inspiring Innisfil Strategy –
Make Innisfil a regional destination for outdoor recreation

  • Prepare a recreational trails master plan that includes an inventory of existing trails, gaps and opportunities for new trails, and designated routes for summer and winter recreation. The master plan should have an implementation action plan involving local and regional stakeholder groups. The trails should include hiking/walking, off-road cycling, equestrian, snowmobiling, cross-country skiing and ATVs. The plan should also incorporate linkages as part of the community linkage strategy and opportunities on lands yet to be developed.

Inspiring Innisfil, Final Report, p 37

If outdoor recreation is an important part of our economic and tourism strategy, my sense is that the amount of green space being set aside in the zoning documents is significantly inadequate to satisfy this goal. The comprehensive zoning plan and the master transportation plan are currently working their way through Council approval. I encourage residents to give some attention to both.


Part 1 – FYI to Developers: Trees Matter

Part 2 – The Roots of Controversy in Cookstown