Tweaks and alterations to Niagara-on-the-Lake’s proposed official plan to bring it into conformity with regional and provincial plans are no surprise and were anticipated, says Lord Mayor Betty Disero.
And having the town’s plan finished three years ago has actually enabled NOTL to deal with key issues and influence the creation of the region’s plan, Disero said in an interview.
“An official plan is a living document and as the province makes changes we have to make changes as well to meet the provincial policy statements,” she said.
Official plans are arcane, complex and detailed documents, painfully dense to outsiders, but crucial guides to the future direction of any municipality.
Town planner Kirsten McCauley confirmed NOTL is working closely with the region to ensure the official plan is aligned with regional directives.
She said the region’s plan could be approved as early as June 23. The next step would be to get regional approval of the town’s plan, which was submitted in 2019.
The town has borne the brunt of sharp criticism for submitting a plan that didn’t meet all regional and provincial criteria, but Disero is confident those issues can easily be addressed.
One of the key issues the current council dealt with in its 2019 plan is density within NOTL.
“The silver lining to this is that, at the region, as they were going through their density numbers, I kept pushing the regional commissioner of planning to allow us in Niagara-on-the-Lake to shift densities around for different areas as long as the total is the same in terms of our density requirements,” Disero said.
The region agreed, she said. Shortly after, the City of Welland asked for similar consideration.
And now the Niagara Region official plan “will allow all municipalities in the region to shift their densities to meet their priorities in terms of compatibility, heritage protection and that kind of stuff,” she said.
In a growing town like NOTL, the ability to target density in certain areas is a great benefit, she said.
“Oh my God, how lucky can we be that the region has recognized this?” Disero told a recent council meeting.
“We will be able to have lower densities in areas where heritage and preservation are paramount and we’ll be able to have a little higher densities in areas that are good transportation lines, that are good in terms of services and everything else.”
And that is because the current town council got ahead of the game and completed its draft official plan three years ago, Disero said.
Emails exchanged between the mayor and regional planning commissioner Michelle Sergi obtained by The Lake Report corroborate this development.
Disero said working with the region to ensure conformity between official plans is not a NOTL issue but something every municipality will do and is doing.
Disero said some of the policies included in the town’s plan were a “conscious decision made by council to support the farming community” in Niagara-on-the-Lake.
Another key issue was watershed mapping in NOTL.
“This council chose to take the side of our farming community rather than the side of the region and the province in terms of the watershed mapping,” Disero told council on May 30 council.
This was a key issue that had been a problem for well over a decade and the town opted to use the mapping created by NOTL’s agricultural community in its proposed official plan instead of what the province and region had determined.
Representatives of the farming community said, “Let the farming community go and argue this out with the region — why we believe our mapping is better,” Disero said in an interview.
This led to conversations at the region’s agricultural committee, of which she is a member and which also includes residents of NOTL.
“That will help an agreement between region, the town and the farming community in the long term.”
An email from senior regional planner Sean Norman confirmed the issue was resolved and made part of the region’s official plan.
“So, that is something that took like 10 years or more, I guess since 1995, to try to resolve,” the mayor said.
Disero attributes the resolution of these two key issues as a direct result of the town’s proposed official plan.
“Sometimes you get so busy doing the work you forget to tell people what you’re doing,” she told council.
Disero said no other official plans have been approved or even submitted as the region wants to finish its plan before approving any others.
“So, we’re, I think, again and coincidentally, we’re ahead of the game,” she told The Lake Report.
“All local area municipalities will have to review their plans and ours is in and we just have to make these adjustments and get the approvals that we need.”
She’s confident that will go smoothly.
In an email exchange between Disero and Doug Giles, acting commisioner of planning and development with the region, Giles said that since NOTL already has its plan submitted and reviewed by the region, it likely could be approved before the municipal election this fall, so long as it is revised to fit the region’s approved plan.
Disero said the proposed official plan is still a useful tool for town staff.
“Our planning department, anytime they get an application they look at the existing official plan but they also cross-reference it with our proposed one and where it’s going.”
But there was the hope that the plan would have been approved by now.
“We would have liked the region to have adopted and allowed us to make the changes after, but they decided that they were going to want to complete theirs before saying OK to ours.”
All in all, Disero said the town is in a better position than it would have been if the plan had not been finished yet.
“We are the only municipality now that is so far advanced that when the region approves their (official plan), we’re going to be right there. We won’t have to be like the other municipalities and start from scratch,” she said during a passionate address to council.
“So, people can say how bad we are but I don’t believe it. I think we’ve done everything in the best interest of this community and I believe we are ahead of the game at this point.”
“What we’re gonna hear is a lot of silly season politics, but we just have to keep moving forward,” Disero said in ending her speech, prompting applause from some councillors.
Coun. Sandra O’Connor emphasized the importance of what Disero said.
“Those are two big wins, so thank you,” she said.
Evan Saunders, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Lake Report