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Jan. 27, 2022 | Thursday
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Region's slow approval of NOTL's official plan irks councillors
Councillors are working on ways to take further control of development standards in NOTL. (File)

Councillors are frustrated with the increased pace of development in Niagara-on-the-Lake and the delayed approval of the town's official plan by the Region of Niagara.

“We need a better framework to develop the policy we have and reflect the wishes and concerns of residents,” Coun. Allan Bisback said during a committee of the whole planning meeting on Monday.

When the town's zoning bylaw was changed more than a decade ago, "I don’t think there was any belief that we would be inundated with people moving from the cities, trying to move into our town, buying up our lots, knocking down the cottages and one-and-a-half storey houses and putting up large homes.”

Chief administrative officer Marnie Cluckie said the town would be organizing a workshop in September to help councillors understand where they can exercise more control over building and outline future actions to rein in development.

Bisback appreciated the idea of the workshop but stressed the town needs to come up with solutions sooner than later.

“We have to move with solutions and not just accept the status quo,” he said.

Lord Mayor Betty Disero said it is time for the town to update its zoning bylaw particularly in light of information she received from Craig Larmour, director of community and development services.

A town-wide zoning bylaw was implemented in 2009 and made general regulations for development across the municipality. The previous bylaw allowed for contextual zoning, which meant developments were required to build to the average dimensions of the surrounding properties and were not subject to town-wide regulations, said Disero.

The new zoning bylaw can create problems when the committee of adjustment gets involved.

Developers "go to the committee of adjustment and get variances. So, now it's not a 10-metre (height) it's ten and a half, and it's not a five metre setback, it's two and a half," Disero said in an interview Tuesday.

"A lot of members of council are saying, 'Why did we ever change the contextual zoning?' Who knew at the time that this would be the result of that?"

During the council meeting Monday, Disero said Larmour explained said it was changed because "contextual zoning was too difficult. It was too much work to determine how tall and how far set back each building should be.” 

“So some staff at that time and some developers at that time lobbied and they changed it.”

“It’s time for a review of those setbacks and I think we need to look at how we can protect neighbourhoods,” Disero said.

She said it is a matter of protecting property values as well as neighbourhood character.

“Here’s the issue for me: a house gets built huge on a piece of property, the houses next to it and all around it are dwarfed in size and they no longer have a value other than land value,” she said.

Prospective homeowners moving to NOTL will look at new builds and immediately jump to the conclusion that they should demolish the homes they buy and build massive new houses, Disero said.

“It destroys the character. The Old Town and the character we have is really our economic driver to this town.”

If it means changing the 30-foot height allowance or property setback rules, "then that’s what we need to do. And it will not be an easy task. We will get sued by everybody thinking that they have property rights, particularly developers. It will be tough,” Disero cautioned.

Councillors wove greater control by the municipality over development into the official plan the town adopted in 2019. It is still awaiting approval by the region.

“It annoys me that the region is sitting on our official plan for so long,” Coun. Wendy Cheropita said.

Coun. Clare Cameron echoed that sentiment and suggested the town start developing relationships with builders to push the desire for smaller homes, for the town to consider where NOTL’s youth will go to school and to inform prospective homeowners of the character of the town.

“We all know what the problems are. We need solutions,” she said.

The region does not need to have its official plan finalized until July 2022 and probably won't approve the town's plan until that is done, planning manager Rick Wilson said.

Some of the town's official plan is not compatible with the region's but certain sections are and may move forward before the 2022 deadline, he said.

Disero said she has been doing everything she can to speed up the process.

“You know how rude and pushy I can be. I’ve been trying, I started pleading, I started begging. I asked them to give us parts of it,” she said.

“Then I got the email from the representative of the planning department saying, ‘No, we’re going to do ours first before we do any of the local municipalities.' ”

Cheropita stressed that the town needs to implement a community planning permit system, which allows greater building regulations for certain areas.

“That’s one we really have to push for as quickly as we can because it will give us the tools and allows us to have building codes, standards and design elements,” Cheropita said.

Coun. Gary Burroughs suggested the town ask the province to expedite approval ahead of the region's schedule.