It may not be the most riveting read, but if you care about how and where Huntsville grows, you may want to sit up and take notice.
Town staff, with input from community members, councillors and consultants, has been working for some time to dust off the 2006 Official Plan (OP) and come up with a new version that will hopefully better reflect the type of planning applications the municipality receives. They’ve tried to take out some of the previous OP’s ambiguity with an end-goal of improving Huntsville’s social, economic and environmental resiliency. Staff has also tried to make the document more user-friendly, according to Manager of Planning Services Kirstin Maxwell.
The new OP will not only have to comply with new provincial policies and the District’s OP, but sets out a road map for future development—one that staff and developers will turn to when planning disputes arise.
Some of the changes at a glance include a more comprehensive affordable housing policy, referred to as ‘smart value housing,’ in the revised OP. Highway 60 design guidelines are also set out, as well as active transportation, agricultural and aggregate policies, cultural heritage and climate change. Gone are the days when climate change was simply considered a hoax by some; Huntsville’s draft OP now includes a section on mitigating the effects of climate change as well as energy conservation and other environmental policies related to things like wildland fires and deer wintering areas. Other changes include policies regarding the protection of fish habitat. Where the type of fish habitat is not known, a developer will be required to pay for a fish habitat study in order for a planning application to proceed.
The revamped OP also stipulates what responsible growth looks like and sets out targets for directing growth, particularly in the urban serviced area. “A minimum target of 60 per cent of new permanent dwelling units will be directed to the Huntsville Urban Settlement Area and the remaining 40 per cent to the other land use designations,” it states.
Tests for compatible development and building heights have also been included.
Huntsville’s Planning Committee held a special meeting on July 25, giving members one more kick at the can before going out for public input. Among the points discussed was whether it’s fair to differentiate between seasonal and year-round residents. Huntsville Mayor Scott Aitchison didn’t think so. He said he knows of people who are considered permanent residents, yet they spend half of the year in Florida. Maxwell said staff would take a closer look at that.
Other issues raised included a statement in the OP which indicates that major employment, commercial and travel-intensive land uses will be directed to the urban settlement area of the town in order to minimize commuting. But Aitchison, who was the most vocal at the meeting, called the statement too broad.
“There are lots of major employment commercial uses in the rural area that would be completely inappropriate in the urban area,” he said. He also noted that there is language in the draft OP that would make one think that industry is not welcome. He said certain language makes it seem as though, “when they’re done, then we don’t want them (industry) there anymore. So where do you want them? The message to me says you don’t want them at all, and I don’t think that’s the case.”
Questions regarding the impact of commuting also arose. Aitchison said there are parts of the document that suggests driving is bad. “I don’t know if that’s entirely fair. I think (former Huntsville Mayor) Claude Doughty used to make a fairly compelling argument that as changes are made to how we travel and how we drive and what kind of technology we use to drive, that our modes of transportation are probably going to become more efficient and have a smaller carbon footprint than the way we move water and wastewater around this hilly territory—the number of pumping stations alone we have here, the energy costs… it’s obnoxious.”
Other discussions surrounded statements in the draft OP, such as: “Where development is proposed in close proximity to wetlands a technical report may be required.” Aitchison said statement like that, where something may or may not be required, are found throughout the document. “This is the thing that drives, I think, the average individual crazy. What’s the criteria for determining where it may or may not be required? These are the kinds of things that drive people nuts.”
Maxwell explained that although the new draft OP’s environmental policies are more restrictive, it does aim to incorporate some flexibility for potential developments “that really would have no impact if it’s within 30 metres of a wetland as compared to somebody putting in a rural industry, or something along those lines.”
Huntsville Councillor Jonathan Wiebe said he’s not against using the word “shall” in that instance.
“Maybe we want to,” responded Aitchison. “Because protecting the wetlands is actually a fairly important thing. We don’t have a cut and fill bylaw, which is a tool we could use to protect things like wetlands. I know growing up here in the old days people said, ‘ah that swamp, if only I could fill that in…’”
Deputy Mayor Karin Terziano said she prefers to be more restrictive and noted that an applicant can always make a case as to why such a report should not be required.
After further discussion, committee agreed to leave it as ‘may,’ noting that site inspections to confirm whether a technical report may be required, and other wording in the document, would help protect the integrity of such wetlands.
On another point, Aitchison urged those present that East Parry Sound be mentioned at every opportunity as an area that uses Huntsville as a regional centre, particularly as it pertains to the hospital. “I say that over and over and over again at the (hospital) task force meeting… because they love to talk about Muskoka, but they never mention East Parry Sound and 30 per cent of the visits to the hospital come from East Parry Sound and it serves our purposes to continue to insist upon the importance of Huntsville as a regional centre, not just to the north end of Muskoka but to the south end and west end of East Parry Sound.”
The Mayor also turned to the word “professional” when associated with the downtown.
I think one of the great things about our downtown core is that it tends to be more retail, you know cafés, restaurants, shops, that kind of thing, than it does professional offices like accounting, lawyers, all that kind of stuff. If you look down the main street of Bracebridge, I think you see an awful lot more legal offices, that kind of stuff and as a result of that at 5 o’clock you could shoot a cannon down the street and nobody notices. So I don’t think it is in fact the heart of our professional service and I don’t think we want to encourage that either.Huntsville Mayor Scott Aitchison
Aitchison said he thinks professional offices should be encouraged outside of the downtown core, “because I think that takes away from the vibrancy. Things like real estate offices are the thin edge of the wedge, I think… I just wonder about that language.”
Another item in the OP that caused concern was a statement that the municipality would provide Wi-Fi throughout the downtown. “We don’t do that,” said Deputy Mayor Karin Terziano.
“We can’t afford that,” said Huntsville Councillor Bob Stone.
Maxwell said that statement was identified by the Town’s strategic plan as something that should be encouraged and the municipality should try to provide. “That kind of ties into the social and caring Huntsville, sort of thing,” said Maxwell, adding that it was also meant as a way to encourage more businesses in the downtown.
Other lively discussions included the concept of downzoning tourist commercial properties in the waterfront. Committee chair Nancy Alcock said the District is looking at the issue. “I’m not sure how much time we should be spending correcting our language when we know there could be a significant change at the District.”
Aitchison, on the other hand, said any such reference should be removed. “How people choose to vacation here is up to them,” he said. “Why would we have a policy that says we’re going to protect every one of those little old traditional cottage resorts because that’s where it all began… if you want to do that, buy one and make a museum. I don’t think that land use planning policies are a way to try to predict how people are going to want to spend their time vacationing in Muskoka.” He added that if someone determines that it doesn’t make sense to invest in modernizing an old seasonal resort, and the owner would prefer to sever it up or turn it into lots, “have at ‘er. It’s their property. In fact that probably has less of an impact on the water overall, to have five or six private cottages or homes, than to have a little mini-resort that’s busy all the time.”
Alcock agreed. “If I think of the cases we’ve had before us, none of us have liked the concept of an owner having to come in and plead ‘this is a difficult financial situation for our family.’ That’s just nuts for us to be engaged in that discussion,” she said.
But Maxwell told committee members that there is also an employment component to consider. “My concern is if we don’t have a policy somehow similar to this somewhere, will we be in a situation where something like Deerhurst could decide they’re going strictly residential, you don’t have to do anything, and then there’s that major employment loss for the town. I mean there’s a line there that I recognize, that smaller resorts are a different situation, but there could be potential impacts,” she warned.
If Deerhurst is no longer viable and they have to change it to something that’s residential, the fact that we have a policy that says ‘you know, we want to protect those jobs,’ means nothing.Aitchison
Maxwell told committee that if they wanted to take that out it could be done provided that Huntsville’s OP conforms to the District’s OP, otherwise they would not approve it.
Although discussions continued, in the end committee approved the draft.
Two open houses will be held next week, which will last two hours each. One will be held at the community hall in Port Sydney on Thursday, Aug. 9 from 7 to 9 p.m. and the other will be held at the Huntsville Civic Centre at Partners Hall on Saturday, Aug. 11 from 9 to 11 a.m. You can find the draft OP here.
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