Tories warn municipalities to pump the brakes on big planning decisions

ANALYSIS: A letter from the government advises cities and towns to pause planning reviews until the province has unveiled its housing-supply policy. John Michael McGrath explains what this means for municipalities
By John Michael McGrath - Published on March 4, 2019
Steve Clark MPP in the Ontario legislature
Steve Clark, the minister for municipal affairs and housing, says that the government’s housing-supply plan could have many implications for municipalities’ current planning policies. (Chris Young/CP

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Ontario’s municipal affairs and housing minister is warning the province’s towns and cities to pump the brakes on any big planning changes they’ve got on the agenda for the new year.

In a mid-February letter to municipal heads of council, Steve Clark warned that the government’s housing-supply plan could have numerous implications for their current planning policies and that councils might want to hold off on pursuing them until the plan is made public this spring.

“My intention is to bring forward legislation and concrete policy changes that would impact planning province-wide in coming months,” Clark wrote. “You may wish to consider an interim pause on some planning decisions of reviews of major planning documents such as official plans or comprehensive zoning bylaw updates until this work is completed.”

Clark and the Progressive Conservative government have been saying openly for months that they want to increase the number of homes built in the GTHA as a way of lowering prices — and that they’re thinking big. This letter signals how far-reaching their policies will be: if the province is looking at some of the basic powers that come from official plans and zoning bylaws, councils could potentially be looking at having substantially less say over land-use rules in their cities.

Official plans and zoning bylaws are the bricks and mortar of municipal planning: the former relate to high-level decisions and the latter to more granular ones, but both determine what kinds of buildings are allowed where. And official plans and zoning bylaws are determined by provincial law. In theory, the province could dramatically restrict the power of municipalities to, for example, limit the height of buildings or draw distinctions between single-family homes and apartments.

Clark’s office says that the letter is a courtesy to councils to keep them in the loop.

“The intent of the letter to our municipal leaders is to inform them about the important work we’re doing to bring forward legislation and concrete policy changes in the coming months that would impact planning province-wide,” says Julie O’Driscoll, Clark’s director of communications. “That being said, municipalities are still able to submit plans if that’s what they prefer.”

One problem for municipalities, especially the larger ones, which have the busiest planning departments, is that they almost always have some kind of major planning review on the go. Gregg Lintern, Toronto’s chief planner, confirmed that his department has multiple projects underway that could be affected by changes in provincial planning law.

“The City Planning Division is advancing work related to the Official Plan Review with respect to Built Form and Public Realm policies, Transportation Policies, a number of area specific Secondary Plans, alternative parkland policies and inclusionary zoning policies — among other initiatives that might be affected by legislative change,” Lintern told TVO.org in an email.

However, Lintern says that this work won’t stop because of potential changes at Queen’s Park.

“While there may be changes that are advanced by the Province to provincial legislation that might ultimately have an impact on work underway, we cannot stop the advancement of developing policies … If there are changes to legislation that affect what we are advancing we will address this when we are aware of the impact of any legislative changes on the work underway.”

The government has already unveiled some proposed changes to the province’s planning rules. The public consultation period for changes to the Growth Plan for the Greater Golden Horseshoe — the provincial document that guides planning decisions throughout central Ontario — closed last week. Toronto’s planning staff raised a number of concerns: namely, that it would make it easier to convert industrial and warehouse lands into homes and would increase the density allowed around transit stations.

The government will be gathering public input from Toronto city council and other municipalities, developers, and advocacy groups as it refines its policy changes (some of that feedback will, inevitably, be ignored).

The Tory housing-supply plan doesn’t yet have a public release date, but if the government wants to make changes in law before Queen’s Park rises for the summer break, it’ll likely be announced in the coming weeks. Still, Clark’s letter confirms that the government isn’t thinking about small tweaks. Municipal councils — not to mention many of the voters who elect them — may not love the changes that are coming. On the other hand, people who want to own a home but can’t afford one just might.

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