Sign-off for Ottawa's new official plan delayed by housing bill

·3 min read
Ontario's approval of Ottawa's new official plan, which will guide development in the city, has been delayed by provincial housing legislation. (Justin Tang/The Canadian Press - image credit)
Ontario's approval of Ottawa's new official plan, which will guide development in the city, has been delayed by provincial housing legislation. (Justin Tang/The Canadian Press - image credit)

The City of Ottawa spent several years working on a new official plan to guide how it grows and what buildings can go up where, but it has not received final approval from the Ontario government — and no longer expects to until after the June provincial election.

The document has been affected by the Ford government's legislation aimed at boosting housing supply, which suspended decisions on municipal official plans that are still waiting for Municipal Affairs Minister Steve Clark's final sign-off.

That legislation was introduced on March 30, but was fast-tracked at Queen's Park and received both third reading and royal assent on Thursday.

Steve Willis, the City of Ottawa's general manager of planning, real estate and economic development, told planning committee Thursday he would be "very surprised" if the official plan was approved before the post-election cabinet was sworn in.

When council approved the plan last fall, after many marathon meetings and a lot of community input, the law said the minister had 120 days to approve the document. That would have led to a decision by late March.

Without that decision, planning decisions in Ottawa will keep following the old official plan, which remains in effect.

Planning committee co-chair Coun. Scott Moffatt maintained the document Ottawa approved did a "responsible" job of balancing a growing population and denser developments, even if some points don't quite line up with the government's housing affordability aims.

"I think our plan is far more progressive and realistic than what we've seen elsewhere in the province, including Hamilton," said Moffatt, referring to that city's decision to freeze its urban boundary. "But I feel that we're being unfairly lumped with those other plans, just as a bit of a catch-all."

Kate Porter/CBC
Kate Porter/CBC

Refunds for developer fees

At planning committee, Willis also expressed concern that the legislation would lead to cities having to refund fees if they don't decide on planning applications within a set number of days.

Site plan applications are to be decided in 60 days, rezonings in 90, and official plan amendments in 120 days. The housing bill laid out a scale whereby a city might have to refund 50 per cent, 75 per cent, or even all of the fees, depending on how long those decisions took.

Fees are often thousands or tens of thousands of dollars per application.

Willis looked back over the timelines his staff had hit last year, and estimated the City of Ottawa would end up refunding fees for about 75 per cent of zoning applications and 80 per cent of site plan applications.

"If we have money in and then money back out, we're going to have to have to bring forward a strategy for how is council going to handle this," said Willis, including possibly higher rates or a reserve to buffer it for the unkowns.

It also would be difficult to have the right number of staff on-hand when the city has little idea how many applications might come in, he added. The problem is compounded by a number of retirements in the planning department and a "hot job market" that makes it hard to hold onto new hires, Willis added.

That concerned several city councillors, including River ward Coun. Riley Brockington who feared the city might lose development revenue over a bill that he felt was tabled entirely to appeal to voters in the upcoming June 2 election.

"One of the challenges with Bill 109 is it's more about optics than building affordable housing," he said.

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