Sunday, November 20, 2011

Midhurst Residents in Shock with Lack of Answers

Village is to absorb and exceed all Springwater’s projected growth

By Kate Harries AWARE Simcoe November 18 2011

More than 100 people turned out for an information session on a plan that will make Midhurst larger than Gravenhurst in the short term, and the size of Stratford in 20 years.

No one spoke in favour. Some said they were in shock.

“It changes what the community is drastically, when you’re growing a community 10 times in a matter of 15 years,” said Kim Hand, who moved to Midhurst two years ago because of the “small-community atmosphere.”

There was a curious icy calm to the meeting, held Monday in Minesing.

Nervous township staff, although subjected to tough questioning, were treated politely and members of Springwater council, who kept quiet at the back of the room, were not challenged to answer for the plan. Residents questioned why the secondary plan that has been hanging over the community’s head for so many years suddenly gained approval from Simcoe County last month.

(The Ontario government immediately appealed the plan to the Ontario Municipal Board because of provincial policy that directs growth to six urban nodes in Simcoe County - Barrie, Orillia, Collingwood, Midland-Penetanguishene, Alliston and Bradford - and projects a rural character for Springwater.)

At odds with province “Is there any way you can elaborate on why decisions were made to pursue a plan that doesn’t fit within the province of Ontario mandate for healthy appropriate growth of communities?” Hand asked. “Why would we at the local level continue to create a plan that doesn’t match provincial planning guidelines?” “The plan was drafted while considering all the provincial policies that are in place,” planning manager Brent Spagnol replied. “I would never have imagined that something like this would have been planned,” Hand said.

Resident David Strachan asked the meeting for a show of hands in favour of the plan. One person put his hand up. Against? Almost every hand was raised. “This whole thing comes as a bit of a shock to me, because we were trying to get away from congestion,” said Strachan, who moved to Midhurst 18 months ago. “It’s an absolutely charming, beautiful little village… We elected a council – why is the council doing something that’s not in the interest of the public?”

The expansion has been looming since the former Vespra council (building on its delusional Bayfield St. development fiasco, in which it defied the Bill Davis provincial government and lost) first designated a vast settlement area covering prime farmland far beyond the boundaries of Midhurst.

‘Lay down our arms’

But it wasn’t just new residents who felt blindsided. “I’ve lived here since 1986 – 25 years I’ve lived here and I’ve been very interested in growth and development around here,” said Fred Graham. “I did not know this was happening and I pay attention to this type of thing.”

Graham added that back in 2008, when the Midhurst Secondary Plan was finalized by Springwater Council the approval was similarly under the radar. Spagnol explained that if the township had not created a secondary plan, the developers would have produced one. “That is the genesis of the secondary plan – to ensure that that municipal component is there,” he said.

“Okay, so that sounds like we’re scared of fighting the developers, so let’s just lay down our arms and surrender, but maybe get a couple of things on terms,” Graham commented, to applause. “But now instead of fighting the developers, you’re fighting the province of Ontario, correct?” “There’s an appeal,” Spagnol conceded.

“Right, and you’re going to be opposed to the position taken by the province of Ontario which wants to see you conforming to Places to Grow, correct?”

“The basis of the appeal is to argue that, yes,” Spagnol said.

Graham pointed out that the province wants 26,000 people as the 2031 population for Springwater which presently has 18,000 residents. Instead, he said, the secondary plan will bring 31,000 people to Midhurst alone, which means at least 45,000 people in the township, assuming no growth in Elmvale or Hillsdale (the two areas, beside Midhurst, that are designated for growth in Springwater).

Cost of OMB appeal Spagnol was reluctant to say that Springwater is pitting itself against the province.

Graham was insistent. “As it stands, will we be spending taxpayer money to oppose the province of Ontario at the OMB?”

“That decision of council has not been made,” Spagnol replied. “Are you saying that is an open possibility, that council will side with the province at the OMB?” Graham asked. “Ultimately, council’s determination will be what role the municipality will play during the OMB process.”

Graham asked that the township notify those who had signed up of the meeting at which council decides whether it will side with or against the province on the appeal.

The discussion seemed a little surreal as Mayor Linda Collins was a member of the council led by Tony Guergis that approved the plan in 2008, and she spoke in favour of it last month prior to it being approved without debate by the county. Ward 5 Councillor Jack Hanna said a few words at the end of the meeting. “We inherited this issue,” he said, asking residents to send him their concerns and he would “advance them to council.”

Public works and planning director Brad Sokach had served notice at the start of the meeting that the evening might produce “very few answers” because of legal advice. “We’re not able to debate the merits of the plan with you because it’s before the OMB.”

Spagnol stressed that there are front-ending agreements so that developers, not existing taxpayers, will pay for all infrastructure. After two years, however, the township assumes ongoing maintainance and other costs. Graham pointed out that studies of such developments show that they are, at best, revenue-neutral for a municipality but, more likely, the associated costs will drive taxes up.

“How is this in the public interest?” Graham asked. “Who are we trying to help here?”

The answer was left unspoken.