Every 5 years or so, the Township of Muskoka Lakes is required to review its Official Plan. The review takes into account growth projections (often over the next 20 years) and current situations and challenges.  The process involves technical and expert studies, review of the official plans of higher levels of government (i.e. the District and the Province), and a number of opportunities for public input from individuals and organizations. Ultimately the Council of the day votes on the acceptance (or rejection) of any changes to the official plan. Decision of Council is final, subject to an appeal to the Ontario Municipal Board (OMB). In the most recent case, the Official Plan Amendment became known as OPA 40.

During the course of the development of OPA 40, countless expert reports and submissions were entertained, and the resulting document called the Official Plan Consolidation contained 270 pages.  Much of the document relates to urban, rural, waterfront lands, lake health, dark sky lighting, marinas, open space, etc., and did not attract much attention.  The singular change that caused a great deal of comment and debate surrounded the eastern boundary expansion of Port Carling for the stated purpose of facilitating the growth projected in the Township over the official planning horizon.

The lengthy process resulted in a decision by Township and District Councils in 2009 to approve OPA 40 and the included boundary expansion. To that point, many public meetings were held, expert opinion sought, and tough decisions made.

That decision was challenged at the OMB by the Muskoka Lakes Association and the Friends of Port Carling, and a number on the newly elected Township Council sought to reopen the entire decision. That is where this article picks up, and ultimately ends with the final decision by the OMB (or maybe not).

The Latest Chapter

August 2013

In December 2011, the Ontario Municipal Board (OMB) handed down its decision on the matter of the Township’s Official Plan Amendment (OPA 40) and the eastern boundary expansion of Port Carling. In essence, they approved the plan, and the expansion of the boundary (see below), and included agreed upon terms that are most often covered in the zoning application.  In January 2012, the decision became final, and all sides declared victory.

Following the OMB decision, the developer of Hanna’s Landing started into the planning of the next phase, which included an application to amend the zoning of the property to be in accordance with the approved Official Plan.  That application was submitted to the Township Planning staff in March of 2013, and after discussions and additions was deemed to be complete by the planning professionals.  The application was submitted to the Planning Committee of the Whole in May 2013, with the request to “circulate” the application to interested parties, a normal procedure for any zoning amendment. (note that circulation does not mean acceptance of the application, but a start of the review process of the application by council and other parties)  In May, the Planning Committee deferred the decision to circulate the application, and requested more information despite the assurance that the application was “complete” by the Township’s Planning Director.  The application was re-submitted in August to the same committee, and again, the approval to circulate was denied, and the committee started a line by line review of the by-law.

The Planning Act dictates a timely handling of such applications, and those deadlines were not met by the Township’s Planning Committee.

That is the crux of the appeal to the OMB by the developer, and a concern as to whether this council is able to handle the application.

And so we anticipate another costly legal fight, and another legal bill over an issue that was presumably settled almost 2 years ago. There will be ample time for public and expert comment on the proposed development, but it has to be allowed to happen in a timely fashion.  Let’s hope that this can be resolved soon.

The Story Since August 2011

August 2011

On August 3rd, 2011, the OMB handed down its decision on the Muskoka Lakes Official Plan update, otherwise known as OPA 40. While  OPA 40  (a 269 page document) covers many items, the focus of the OMB hearings almost exclusively related to the Port Carling eastern boundary expansion, and the proposed development known as Hanna‘s Landing (HL).

The Muskoka Ratepayers‘ Association (MRA) welcomes the OMB decision, as does the Muskoka Lakes Association (MLA) and the Friends of Port Carling (2 of the appellants). Mayor Murphy has also expressed her views that this is a “good news story”, and so it seems that Aristotle Christou (the OMB presider) got it right for all parties.

As stated previously, the MRA after much study and discussion, decided to support neither side, but instead publicly stated on numerous occasions that it was important to ensure that the proper processes were followed, and to leave the decision to our duly-elected representatives. The MRA met with the Township, the District, the MLA, the Friends, and the developers of Hanna‘s Landing, and made its views known at the Public Meetings and at our AGM.

The MRA outlined 5 steps that should be taken to ensure a fair process, and in layman‘s terms, these steps were to decide:

  1. Whether a boundary expansion was needed (growth projections, possible locations, etc.)
  2. Whether there was the political and community will to go ahead (vision, business, etc.)
  3. Whether the expansion was allowed (government rules and regulations at all levels)
  4. Whether it could be afforded (services needed, cost, who pays, etc.), and finally
  5. What the nature of the development should be

Over a period of years, these steps were carried out – open houses and public meetings were held, studies completed, and staff and Councils debated – resulting in a Consolidated Official Plan for the Township that was approved at both the Township and the District in 2009. Subsequent to that, appeals of the decision were launched by the Muskoka Lakes Association, the Friends of Port Carling, and the developers of Hanna‘s Landing. Those appeals were heard during 17 days of formal hearing spread over 4 months, and completed in January 2011.

In its conclusions,  the OMB affirmed that the OP and proposed expansion was consistent with the Provincial Policy Statement (PPS), the District Official Plan, and the Township Official Plan. Furthermore, the Board accepted the growth studies that projected populations over the planning period.

The Board also dealt with two other major issues. The first had to do with “enhanced policies to protect the waterfront”. While the report recognized that an Official Plan is not a document “providing restrictions and performance standards” (which are usually left to the zoning bylaws or site plan), a number of “site specific policies” for the Hanna‘s Landing properties were agreed to and will be incorporated into the final document. These had to do with permitted uses, servicing, roads, affordable housing, etc. and are referred to as Exhibit 75.

Having these policies agreed to at this point should make some of the required zoning and site planning decisions easier.

The final issue addressed involved was the so-called “tail”. This is an 8 acre piece of the Hanna‘s Landing property that was removed from the expansion lands by the District, and was the basis for the HL appeal. In the decision, Hanna‘s Landing can seek to include these lands in a further boundary expansion in 5 years should a convincing planning argument be made.

In the end, the OMB hearings affirmed that the councils of the day had been adequately informed in making their decision, and that the planning proposed was indeed “good planning”. The MRA has always had full confidence that the “process” would work, and that belief was upheld by the OMB decision.

We extend our congratulations to the Councils of both the Township and the District for carrying out an open and fair process. Congratulations are also due to both planning staffs for their untiring work and professionalism. And finally, congratulations are owed to all who took part in the process with their passions and experience, no matter what position they espoused. The final position appears to be one with which all parties are pleased.

In closing, with the hearings behind us, the MRA trusts that the final document will come together quickly, and that all the appropriate groups will work to ensure that this expansion is everything that has been promised and expected. This seems like a great opportunity to promote the economic development in Port Carling and the Township.

November 17th, 2011 Update

Well, we’re all still waiting. What looked to be a simple exercise of clarifying and incorporating some “urban design policies” (that were documented in “Exhibit 75”) into the Official Plan Amendment (OPA-40) has so far challenged the combined expertise of the 5 parties involved.

Back on August 3rd 2011, all parties to the agreement declared victory. They were given 60 days (later extended to 90 days) by the OMB chair to incorporate the urban policies into the final document. Sound difficult to you?? Everything had already been agreed to during the hearings and well documented. What’s taking so long? We’re sure the final decision is coming (but then so is Christmas).

As a final note (for now), we understand that there has been significant Council and staff time devoted to this matter, and that all party meetings have been held with the OMB to seek final resolution. This coupled with the host of lawyers and planners acting for the various parties should make this a costly effort.

December 23rd, 2011 Update

Over the past months, the planners and lawyers of all parties have met to work out a final agreement by the November 7th deadline imposed by the OMB. On that date, the parties met in Toronto before the OMB to present their final positions. Many of the points had been agreed to, but some were not resolved. The OMB Chair had made it clear that if the parties did not come to agreement on any issue, he would listen to the arguments and then make his final decision.

On December 14th, 2011 Chair Aristotle Christou published his findings.

Some of the differences were minor in nature, while others were felt to go beyond the testimony and evidence presented in the formal OMB hearings, and therefore outside the scope of that decision. In the words of the December decision, “the rules of natural justice and procedural fairness do not allow the Board to reopen the matter for discussion at this late date”.

And so now there is a final decision on the Official Plan Amendment (OPA 40) and the Port Carling boundary expansion – well almost. There appears to be yet another 15 day “appeal” period where any party to the agreement can challenge the decision. That should mean December 29th, 2011. We will wait to see how this long-running saga completes this phase. Then it is off to the zoning and site planning hearings. Merry Christmas.

January 8th, 2012 Update

The appeal period is now over, and OPA 40 has been approved, including the eastern boundary expansion of Port Carling. The Ratepayers’ have long advocated that the process for changes to the Official Plan be open, transparent, and thorough. We have not taken a position for or against the plan changes or the expansion, but now that the process has played out and the decisions made, we hope that all parties can work together in a collaborative spirit to ensure whatever development ensues, it is the best for all parties, and ultimately contributes to the economic and community well being of the Township of Muskoka Lakes.