During the first quarter of 2015, the Government of Ontario (the Province) initiated a coordinated 10-year review of Ontario’s four land use plans (the Coordinated Review): (1) the Growth Plan for the Greater Golden Horseshoe (the Growth Plan), (2) the Greenbelt Plan, (3) the Oak Ridges Moraine Conservation Plan (the ORMCP), and (4) the Niagara Escarpment Plan (the NEP) by releasing the discussion paper “Our Region, Our Community, Our Home.” The general purpose of these four provincial plans is to manage growth, build complete communities, curb sprawl and protect the natural environment within the Greater Golden Horseshoe, all of which are aspects of the provincial government’s climate change agenda and a land use approach that promotes “building up” rather than “building out.”

In December 2015, a provincially-appointed advisory panel provided recommendations to the Province titled, “Planning for Health, Prosperity and Growth in the Greater Golden Horseshoe: 2015 – 2041.” The Province also received comments through stakeholder consultations during the spring of 2015. On May 10, 2016, the Province released proposed revisions to the four plans titled, “Shaping Land Use in the Greater Golden Horseshoe”. The public comment period ended on October 31, 2016.

This article provides a high level overview of some of the proposed changes and draws preliminary conclusions regarding the implementation challenges facing regional and local municipalities, and the development industry’s shared concerns regarding these challenges.

Overview of the proposed changes

Provincial land use plans play an important role in the development of the Greater Golden Horseshoe. All decisions affecting planning matters, whether they are decisions of a local council, a provincial ministry, the Ontario Municipal Board or another planning board, commission or agency of the government, must conform to provincial plans. Given the Coordinated Review is the first major revision of the provincial plans since many first came into effect, the emerging policy environment carries practical challenges for the local implementation of these proposed policies.

There are numerous changes proposed to the Growth Plan. The four major changes are reviewed below.

  1. Changes to minimum intensification targets within built-up areas

    The Growth Plan requires upper-tier and single-tier municipalities to implement provincially-mandated residential development targets for built-up areas through official plan policies, meaning a minimum percentage of all residential development on an annual basis will be directed to occur within the developed urban boundary of a given municipality.

    This intensification target is currently at 40 percent. The proposed revisions to the Growth Plan would increase the intensification target to 60 percent, meaning that upper-tier and single-tier municipalities must, as a part of the next municipal comprehensive review of their official plans, increase their annual residential development intensification targets by 20 percent.

  2. Changes to the minimum density targets for Designated Greenfield Areas

    The Province also proposes to increase density targets for Designated Greenfield Areas (DGA). DGA are those urban areas and rural settlement areas in single-tier and upper-tier municipalities that are not a part of a municipality’s built-up area. By and large, DGA consist of underserviced or unserviced lands (i.e., little to no storm water services, waste water services, water services and/or roads, are available).

    Currently, the Growth Plan requires upper-tier and single-tier municipalities to include policies in their official plans to achieve a minimum density target for DGA of 50 residents and jobs combined per hectare. The proposed revisions to the Growth Plan would require municipalities to adopt official plan policies that would achieve a minimum density target of 80 residents and jobs combined per hectare.

  3. Density directed to transit stops

    Changes are also proposed to policies that effect transit corridors and station areas.

    New policies would establish minimum density targets for “major transit station areas,” the boundaries of which will be established by municipalities in official plans, and scaled in intensity by municipalities to reflect the particular urban context and type of public transit proposed.

    By 2041 or earlier, the proposed revisions to the Growth Plan would require that major transit station areas be planned to achieve minimum gross density targets of:

    • 200 residents and jobs combined per hectare for areas served by subways;
    • 160 residents and jobs combined per hectare for areas that are served by light rail transit or bus rapid transit; and
    • 150 resident and jobs combined per hectare for lands that are served by express rail service on the GO Transit network
  4. Changes to employment land policies

    Employment land policies are also expected to change under the proposed revisions to the Growth Plan. Municipalities would be required to designate “suitable lands” in official plans within settlement areas that are adjacent to, or in the vicinity of, major goods movement facilities and corridors, including major highway interchanges, as Prime Employment Areas (PEA or PEAs). PEAs are to be protected for appropriate employment uses over the long-term by prohibiting residential and other sensitive land use development, institutional uses, and retail, commercial and office uses that are not ancillary to the PEA. Municipalities would have the discretion to identify other existing employment areas (a land use designation already contemplated under the Growth Plan) within settlement areas as PEAs.

    Notably, the proposed revisions to the Growth Plan employment lands policies are silent with respect to prohibiting major retail uses within employment areas.

    With the exception of PEAs, the proposed revisions to the Growth Plan would direct any permitted commercial uses to locations in employment areas that support active transportation and are serviced by transit where that service is available.

The Greenbelt Plan, NEP and ORMCP

The purpose of the Greenbelt Plan is to protect agricultural land and ecological features and functions within the designated Greenbelt area. Whereas the policies of the Growth Plan determine the scale of urbanization in the Greater Golden Horseshoe, the policies of the Greenbelt Plan determine where urbanization will be permitted or refused.

Within the Greenbelt area lays the Niagara Escarpment and the Oak Ridges Moraine. The NEP is an environmental land use plan that provides policies for the maintenance of the geological and ecological features of the Niagara Escarpment and land within its vicinity. The NEP area is located within the Greenbelt area, and the NEP generally provides for the land use policies within this scoped area of the Greenbelt.

Finally, the ORMCP provides land use and resource management planning direction for the protection of the Oak Ridges Moraine area’s ecological and hydrological features and functions.

The Province has attempted to revise the terms and definitions in these three plans to make them consistent across the board. Despite these efforts, there continues to be some inconsistencies that may prove problematic, such as the policies regarding natural heritage performance standards and development criteria. For example, setbacks for changes from natural heritage features to drains and ditches in some areas within the Greenbelt Plan are not included in the NEP or the ORMCP.

The revised Greenbelt Plan contains policies that would permit the expansion of settlement areas within towns and villages located within the Protected Countryside into the surrounding Protected Countryside, provided they comply with the policies of the revised Growth Plan. When the policies of the two plans are read together, the expansion of these settlement area boundaries is permitted to occur only as a part of a municipal comprehensive review that demonstrates sufficient opportunities to accommodate forecasted population growth not available through intensification, and in Designated Greenfield Areas based on the minimum intensification and density targets of the revised Growth Plan and a land needs assessment.

The proposed revisions to the Greenbelt Plan continue to prohibit growth into the Greenbelt area of settlement areas based outside of it and limit land use permissions for lands within the Greenbelt. The proposed revisions to the Greenbelt Plan, ORMCP and NEP do not include policies that establish a process for land owners to petition the Province to request boundary adjustments or additional land use permissions for lands, subject to the policies of these three plans.

The revised ORMCP also directs that an agricultural system will be identified for the Greater Golden Horseshoe, which includes the agricultural land base and an Agricultural Support Network comprised of “infrastructure, services and assets important to the viability of the agri-food sector.” This direction is picked up in the proposed revisions to the Growth Plan and Greenbelt Plan, but is omitted in the NEP.

The 2014 revisions to the Provincial Policy Statement 2014 (PPS) removed policies requiring that an agricultural use be in existence in order to be permitted and to continue in a natural heritage area. This was not carried forward to the NEP. Furthermore, the lot creation policies of the NEP restrict certain agricultural uses, such as wineries, from Agricultural Purpose Only lands. This revision is inconsistent with the new/severed lots policies of the PPS and the revised ORMCP, which permit a variety of agricultural uses. Similar inconsistencies are present between the NEP and the ORMCP regarding permissions for infrastructure development in prime agricultural lands and speciality crop areas. The proposed revisions to the policies of the NEP permit only linear facilities in these areas, while the ORMCP takes a contextual approach and directs that infrastructure development shall not be approved unless there is:

  • A demonstrated need for the project;
  • No reasonable alternative; and
  • Impacts on the prime agricultural area are avoided or mitigated.

Implementation challenges to regional and local municipalities

By 2041, an estimated 13.5 million people are expected to call the Greater Golden Horseshoe home, with the number of jobs forecasted to rise from 4.5 million to 6.3 million. This represents a 50 percent increase in population and a 40 percent increase in the number of jobs.

With few exceptions, staff of upper, lower and single-tier municipalities have been near unanimous in their recommendations to locally-elected representatives in respect of comments to be delivered to the Province on the Coordinated Review. Many municipalities (including York Region and its lower-tier municipalities of Aurora, Markham, Newmarket and Vaughan, together with Hamilton and Durham Region) are of the view that the impacts of proposed changes—particularly increased intensification targets and minimum densities for DGA—have either not been properly assessed by the Province or are simply unachievable given population growth forecasts to 2041.

At the root of this concern is that the Province has not fully appreciated the contextual realities for many municipalities and is instead “planning by numbers,” which results in a “one-size-fits all” approach to land use planning. For example, to achieve the minimum density target of 80 combined people/jobs per hectare in DGA, a development at a rate of 150 to 200 combined people/jobs per hectare will be required because the proposed density target does not account for subdivisions that are already approved. Achieving the DGA-wide density targets would, in large part, result in significantly increasing density on the outer fringes of existing communities in comparison to the densities in the centres and along the corridors of those municipalities.

Intensification of built-up areas at a rate of 60 percent will also be challenging given that population growth forecasts are not proposed to change by 2041. There is a sense among municipal planning staff that the Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing (MMAH) has not achieved an equilibrium between intensification and minimum density targets for DGA, and that both increases cannot be satisfied. Achieving the minimum DGA density target, particularly if that target is actually much higher than 80 combined people/jobs per hectare, will mean less residential intensification of built-up areas and vice versa.

There is also the sense that the proposed changes are not sufficiently flexible in respect of employment lands designations. Of central concern is the fact that PEAs presume lower densities and extensive land use, and do not permit major office uses. These constraints limit opportunities for future employment uses in these areas.

The proposed policies that support higher density at transit stops have also been identified as problematic. For many Greater Golden Horseshoe municipalities, regional transportation planning has long promoted “park and go” use of public transit through the provision of surface parking at Metrolinx stops. Hitting the prescribed density targets is at odds with the provision of “no density” surface parking at close proximity to stations. Accordingly, municipalities are asking that the proposed policies provide them with discretion in establishing density targets for transit stations.

Compounding many of these issues is the lack of transition or “phase-in” policies in the revised Growth Plan. In essence, municipal conformity with the various revised plans may be required the day they come into effect notwithstanding the fact that, for many municipalities, conformity with the in-effect plans has not yet been achieved.

Finally, there is the issue of the funding gap. The proposed policies require significant infrastructure funding from the Province if they are to be realized. At this time, no such funding commitments appear forthcoming. Significant infrastructure investment is needed to support even today’s growth—never mind growth at the rate proposed by the new targets.

As for the coordinated review of the Greenbelt Plan, the ORMCP and the NEP, the revised documents do, by and large, achieve a level of inter-plan consistency that was previously absent. However, the insufficient direction regarding the responsibility to implement certain policy goals, such as the responsibility to implement the Agricultural Support Network, perhaps raises more questions than the newly achieved consistency answers.

The development industry response

Although rare at times, the development industry has echoed municipalities over the concerns identified with the proposed revisions to the provincial plans, especially those related to the increased growth targets. Not only has the industry expressed that the targets are too high, but it has also pointed out that they should not be applied to DGA that have already been developed or to undeveloped land that has been committed for development through approved secondary plans or draft plans.

The development industry has also identified that certain land uses or features should be excluded from DGA calculations; stormwater management ponds, cemeteries, schools, employment lands, arterial roads, public parks and public open spaces, employment areas, etc.

The development industry is supportive of major transit areas being delineated and given specific density targets. It also supports the notion of strategic growth areas but is concerned that planning by numbers applies a “one size fits all” approach, and does not consider infrastructure and transit capacity or diversity of municipalities and communities.

The development industry has pointed out that if MMAH proposes to increase minimum DGA density targets and residential intensification targets for built-up areas, but continues to restrict growth to land outside the Greenbelt, then the boundary of the built-up area must be updated to 2016 and the Province must reaffirm the Whitebelt lands as the long-term urban reserve. The industry is also asking the Province to consider evidence-based rather than number-based planning, and to implement transition policies to acknowledge the challenges represented by a sudden change in policy. There is concern that the targets are proposed to apply across all DGA without taking into account the increases to the built-up area since 2006, as well as lands already approved for development.

The development industry has identified that it is critical for provincial, regional and local government, the public and stakeholders to find common ground to better align public policy and focus on creating the necessary housing supply to accommodate growth, employment centres to help attract jobs and support economic competitiveness, and the necessary environmental protections and agricultural policies to support a diverse economy and quality of life in Ontario.

The development industry has also asked that the Province provide clear criteria regarding the Greenbelt boundary refinements process, and an open and transparent process to review site specific requests to designations.

It remains to be seen whether the Province will extend the Coordinated Review in order to reconcile the concerns of the private and public sectors with its climate change and land use planning policy agenda focus.