If there’s one issue that is constant in any growing small town, it’s concerns about the pace and type of change. What kinds of homes are being built? How many? Can our infrastructure handle that? What will traffic be like? Will our taxes go up? What about preserving the environment? Who will benefit?
Those are all good questions, and the public is right to ask them. But by the time the public is asking those questions, they’ve already been asked and answered as part of the development process. So here’s the development process, from the developer’s perspective.
You have an idea! A good idea. You’ve gathered your resources, raised some money, and you’ve even found a piece of land. If this works out, you can…well, it’s worth looking at what people actually want to do when they develop something. We tend to treat all developers as if they’re big-city investors who are only out for the bottom line. Often, it’s actually someone looking to start a small local business, or build a home for their family, or even start a nonprofit affordable housing project. That’s worth noting because, while the development process doesn’t discriminate based on the type of developer, we do. Often a development issue is controversial, not because of the project or location, but because we question the motives of the developer. We should always try to be conscious of where our feelings about a given development are coming from, because often they’re coming from our own biases, and that’s something the process doesn’t always account for.
But back to our example. YOU are the developer, and your idea is a good one that will benefit the whole community. You’ve found a piece of land, and your finances are in order. Your Realtor has helped you ensure that there are no obvious obstacles related to the land itself, so you go for it: you spend a few hundred thousand dollars to purchase the land you need to build your dream. Now the real work begins.
While your Realtor helped you find a piece of land that has the right characteristics for your project (the right location and features), in order to develop that land you need to make sure that you meet all of the requirements of every jurisdiction:
- The Province sets out rules for what type of development can occur in which places. This includes environmental regulations, administered through Conservation Authorities (see below), and regional planning requirements such as the Greater Golden Horseshoe Growth Plan. It also includes Ontario’s Building Code, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves!
- Conservation Authorities were created after the fatal floods of Hurricane Hazel of 1954. While you can’t prevent a hurricane, you can make sure that you don’t build homes in a flood plain. CAs were created to manage watersheds, knowing where flooding is likely to occur and issuing permits appropriately. Because watershed management is intricately linked with environmental management of every kind, CAs are also best positioned to protect important habitat. Our local CA is Lower Trent Conservation Authority.
- Every County has its own Planning department that translates provincial requirements into suitable guidelines for its region. Northumberland County has its own Official Plan, which takes into account the Greater Golden Horseshoe Growth Plan above it and frames the municipal Official Plans beneath it.
- Every Municipality has an Official Plan. An OP is a document that sets out the values of a community in the way that those values are embodied in our built environment. For example, if a community values accessibility, then they can include provisions in the Official Plan that require all businesses to be accessible to the mobility impaired by installing ramps, accessible restrooms, etc. If we value community engagement, we plan for mixed-use neighbourhoods where people both live and shop, where we can walk everywhere we need to go and can bump into each other for a chat, rather than having miles and miles of suburbia where you only see people as they enter or exit their car. The municipal OP has to take into account all of the provincial requirements, as well as the County’s OP. You can see Brighton’s OP here. Brighton is also currently working on a Secondary Plan, which takes those values questions deeper into a specific section of town to ensure it is being developed into the community we want to live in tomorrow and twenty years from now.
- Those high level values then translate to specific Planning requirements for each Zone of the community. The Official Plan includes a map of the whole community, with boundaries around each Zone. Only structures that help fulfill the values we’ve set out in the OP will be allowed in that Zone. An Industrial Park will have specific zoning requirements for light, medium, or heavy industrial uses; you can’t have heavy manufacturing in a Residential Zone. Residential neighbourhoods often benefit from some degree of uniformity, so R1 zoning restricts new buildings to single-family detached dwellings and duplexes, R2 allows for detached and semi-detached, R3 allows for semi-detached to four-plexes, and R4 allows row housing and apartment buildings. There’s zoning for Agricultural, Rural, Rural Residential, Shoreline Residential, Hamlet Residential, Local Commercial, Highway Commercial, Recreational Commercial, Core Area, Environmental Protection, and Future Development, among others.
Developing land means meeting all of the requirements of every one of these authorities. In practice it means filling out a few forms at the municipal Planning office, but getting the information needed to fill out those forms correctly can involve months or years of work:
- You may need to sever a lot off of a larger chunk of land and/or rezone your land in order to use it for your intended purposes. This requires Conservation Authority approval, Planning Department approval, and Council approval.
- The Conservation Authority will likely need to do a site visit to ensure that your “vacant” land isn’t considered wetlands; this can cost up to ~$300.
- The municipality may require you to get an Environmental Impact Study to ensure that your development will not destroy sensitive habitat or significant woodlands. The EIS can cost tens of thousands of dollars. If a project is large enough to change traffic flows, the municipality may also require a professional traffic study, or other studies to determine the overall impact of your proposed development on the community.
- Severance and rezoning applications need to come with drawings of the intended development, including several technical features. Planning consultants charge $65-$150/hr to help produce such drawings and applications, and while it’s possible to do it yourself, doing it improperly can cause long delays and additional expenses.
- Severance applications cost $3,000 + a $1,000 deposit; Rezoning applications cost between $2,500-$7,000 + a $2,000 deposit. That’s per lot, so if your proposal involves multiple lots it will add up quickly. Each application is 14-15 pages of dense jargon that can be difficult to understand without support from professionals, and errors and questions cause delays.
Once you have the approval of the Conservation Authority and the Planning Department, you get your day before Council at the Planning Meeting. Councillors are presented with a document from the Planner that outlines the proposal and its impacts, and comes with a recommendation from the Planner. If the Planner has done their job right, and you’ve done yours, then that recommendation will always be for Council to approve the proposal; nobody wants to waste time on a proposal that’s sure to lose! So all of the work goes in before it comes to Council.
So there you are, having invested hundreds of thousands of dollars in land, tens of thousands of dollars in application fees and consultant fees, months of work learning Planning jargon, all so you can check all of the boxes and fulfill the process to get to this point. Your plans hang on the decision of Council: will they accept the Planner’s recommendation, and approve your proposal? You’ve done everything by the book!
Is it really up to Council at this point to say no, when the environmental and planning experts have already said yes? Well, maybe! It might be that there are considerations that the process didn’t take into account. Perhaps there’s a species of turtle on your property that isn’t endangered enough to be provincially protected, but that Council decides to protect locally. Perhaps there’s a new Official Plan in the works, and Council has decided not to wait for it to be officially implemented in order to start following its guidelines. Perhaps there’s a large residents’ group that has vocally opposed the project, and Councillors find their arguments compelling. Whatever their reasons, Council might decide not to approve your project.
If that happens, what will you do? Swallow your sunk costs and walk away? Or file an appeal with the Ontario Land Tribunal? Developers usually choose the appeal, and since they had checked all of the boxes of all of the relevant authorities before the proposal came before Council, the municipality has a hard time defending their decision to reject the proposal. Municipalities usually lose, the project goes forward anyway, but now we also have legal fees to cover. More often than not, Council’s decision to deny a development project is an expensive gesture, not an actual denial.
There are a few important takeaways from this:
- The process needs to be more transparent. If more people understood the process there would be more feedback at the appropriate points (public consultations are rarely well attended!) and less controversy.
- The process needs to be respected. Councillors and the public need to recognize the expertise of the Planner, the Conservation Authority, and the relevant consultants and others who worked on the proposal. If a proposal is able to satisfy all of the provincial, Conservation Authority, county, and municipal requirements, and it still isn’t acceptable to Council, then that should mean that there’s a problem in the process, NOT that Council is deciding to arbitrarily overrule the experts.
- The process needs to be open to review. It may be that a proposal that checks all of the boxes still isn’t acceptable; Council needs to be open to learning from that and changing the process to ensure that it is a reliable guide for all development proposals.