Public engagement levels for official plan review worry some councillors

While working on the City of Vaughan’s comprehensive zoning bylaw, Robert Rappolt recalled a meeting where three people showed up.

In a city of that size, that roughly meant for every 100,000 residents, a single person showed up to discuss a crucial piece of municipal planning policy. Through that lens, Rappolt said the response to Fort Erie’s early official plan review has been quite strong.

“I think it’s been a very good response from the community,” the team lead and project manager for Urban and Community Planning from WSP told councillors at the May 13 council-in-committee meeting.

As the Town prepares to update its official plan, which will provide an overarching guideline for growth and planning in the municipality in the coming years, Rappolt gave council an update at the meeting with what they’ve been hearing as they gather background information.

But several people around the horseshoe were less concerned about what the consultants were hearing from residents and more worried about how many residents were voicing their opinions.

“I’m disappointed we didn’t have more than 13 people,” said Councillor Ann-Marie Noyes, referencing a vision survey conducted earlier this year that generated 13 responses.

Councillor Tom Lewis asked Rappolt how the response in Fort Erie compared to other municipalities. That line of questioning ultimately led to Rappolt sharing his story about the zoning meeting in Vaughan.

“I don’t have specific stats but frankly it’s above average,” he said about Fort Erie’s engagement.

The survey wasn’t the only source of engagement, with a dedicated web portal receiving more than 1,000 visitors since its launch. Among those, 14 were classified as “engaged” after registering to receive updates.

A vision workshop in February brought 40 people out to learn more and share feedback, a report to council said.

Regarding what they heard from those who have participated, Rappolt grouped feedback into several main themes.

Those themes included:

  • Protecting and enhancing the natural environment
  • Attracting more diverse employers, supporting tourism, and improving the viability of office, retail and employment uses
  • Managing growth with a variety of density and built forms
  • Protecting and enhancing heritage and a sense of place, while also encouraging the creation of community hubs and flex streets
  • Supporting local farmers and protecting agriculture and rural heritage
  • Building transit systems locally and inter-municipal service

“It really offers a roadmap of how the official plan will be updated,” Rappolt said of the background studies.

The update comes at a crucial time. Planning in Ontario has been very dynamic over recent years, Rappolt said, as the provincial government attempts to address severe housing shortages with several pieces of legislation.

Niagara’s also dealing with a potential change to planning processes, as Queen’s Park has signaled upper tier municipalities will no longer have a role to play in planning. Instead, it will be up to the local town or city and the Province.

With that change coming, Councillor Nick Dubanow questioned Rappolt’s inclusion of the Niagara Region official plan in the Fort Erie review.

“Why would we be bound to an official plan put in place by a government that no longer has planning authority?” he asked.

Traditionally, lower tier municipalities had to ensure their official plans lined up with their regional counterparts.

Rappolt responded that they’re moving forward as is in part because the Region still currently has planning authority and in part because the Region’s plan is based on good planning principles.

“These are the principles we will continue to move forward on…regardless of what the status of the Region is as an approval authority,” Rappolt said.

The updated official plan will contemplate the future of Fort Erie out to 2051. Projections see around 15,000 new residents, 7,360 new housing units, and 18,430 new jobs in town by 2051, based on 2021 numbers.

A staff report said a draft official plan update should be ready for public release this summer, with a target of early August.

The push for public feedback hasn’t ended. Staff plans to hold several PIPS this spring and summer. Short for Planners in Public Spaces, it will see town planners going out to events like farmers’ markets and summer festivals.

“It’s bringing the consultation to the community,” Rappolt said.

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