Northeast Town seeks ministry approval to quit Planning Board

LITTLE CURRENT––At a special meeting of council earlier this month, the Northeast Town council carried a motion to contact the Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing (MMAH), requesting that the Northeast Town be granted permission to leave the Manitoulin Planning Board.

“The council of the corporation of the Town of Northeastern Manitoulin and the Islands requests that the minister of Municipal Affairs and Housing remove the Town of Northeastern Manitoulin and the Islands from the Manitoulin Planning Board and designate council as the authority for planning activities within its municipal boundaries,” states the motion carried by council.

The motion came after reviewing and discussing a report from town staff on planning options for the Northeast Town and a recommendation from staff to leave the Manitoulin Planning Board and take responsibility for its own planning.

Council has had ongoing discussions about wanting to leave the planning board over the last year due to various issues between the council and the board, most recently a failed attempt to communicate concerns with the draft Official Plan (OP), a recent planning board decision to appeal a zoning amendment made by the Northeast Town council to the Ontario Municipal Board (OMB), the discovery that the planning board was making decisions without a quorum and a recent property consent from the board which violated the OP.

These issues, atop other problems with the board in the past, led council to request town staff to prepare a report exploring the municipality’s other planning options.

The prepared planning options report was presented to council by town CAO Dave Williamson at its last meeting, however, as two councillors were absent, the discussion was deferred to a special meeting of council that was held earlier this month.

When Mr. Williamson presented the report he reiterated the background of council’s discussion of leaving the planning board, starting with when council first directed staff to review the costs associated with continuing with the Manitoulin Planning Board in December of 2012 after the planning board’s costs rose by 64 percent ($23,158 to $37,978) from 2012 to 2013. The operating cost increase led to a requisition from the planning board to the Northeast Town for an additional $17,810 towards the development of a new Official Plan, the report outlines.

“As a result of the increasing costs of being associated with the Manitoulin Planning Board, the lack of cooperation from the planning board’s staff and the lack of support from the board’s members, council directed staff to prepare a report on the options available to them,” states the report. “The following three options are considered in this report: maintain status quo, alternative partnership models, or establish a municipal planning authority.”

Mr. Williamson specifically reviewed in detail the option of establishing a municipal planning authority, as it was the option recommended by staff to council.

“All of the municipalities on Manitoulin Island participate in the local planning board, however there are many communities of comparable size to the Northeast Town, such as Bruce Mines, Blind River, Spanish and Espanola that do not participate in planning boards and function as municipal planning authorities,” Mr. Williamson read from the report. “Since the board and planning area are defined by the minister (of the MMAH), it would take an order from the minister to remove a municipality from an established planning board.”

“When considering moving away from the existing model, council needs to consider expertise, cost, effectiveness and efficiency,” said Mr. Williamson.

Mr. Williamson told council that the existing town staff have the requisite skills to process the bulk of planning applications and a consultant (registered professional planer) could be used on a contract basis to assist with the more complicated applications or issues and that mapping services are available locally and the maintenance of the GIS (Geographic Information System) could be contracted out also.

“The municipality paid the planning board $37,978 for core services in 2013,” Mr. Williamson read from the report. “Based on the eight applications (there have been five with an estimated three more this year) processed for the municipality during the year the cost per application is $4,747. The incremental cost for the services of town staff are estimated at less than $1,000 per year for attendance at workshops and training on planning, consulting fees are estimated at $1,500 per application and mapping and GIS updates are estimated at $3,500 per year. The estimated annual cost of $6,500 will be reduced by the application fees (revenue) of $4,800 (eight applications multiplied by $600), bringing the estimated annual cost for a municipal planning authority to $14,625 or $1,828 per application instead of the $4,747 per application that the planning board is currently charging.”

“The one-time costs for establishing a municipal planning authority are the development of an Official Plan, the purchase of the initial supply of forms and the purchase of an upgraded GIS software licence to permit editing,” concluded Mr. Williamson. “Updating our existing plan is estimated to cost $15,000 to $20,000. The forms are estimated at $500 and upgraded software is estimated at $2,000. Based on the planning board’s levy for 2013, the upfront costs of $22,500 will be fully recovered within the first year. The cost analysis clearly shows that a municipal planning authority is more efficient than a district planning authority.”

“I like this idea (of leaving the planning board),” said Councillor Marcel Gauthier. “We have the space in our new building (the new municipal offices which are being built in the Little Current post office building). If we do leave, will we be able to use the existing Official Plan until ours is approved?”

Mr. Williamson replied that ‘yes,’ council would be able to use the existing Official Plan until the Northeast Town developed its own, if council decided to leave the planning board and the decision was approved by the MMAH.

Councillor Bill Koehler expressed cost concerns should the number of applications were to rise, asking how many planning applications per year had been processed by the planning board in the past?

Mr. Williamson reported that there had been 15 planning applications in 2012, 34 applications in 2010 (noting that it was an exceptionally high year) and 11 in 2009. He also noted that on average only one in four applications were complex and would not be able to handled in-house.

Councillor Koehler also said he was concerned that if council was responsible for its own planning, that extra town staff would have to be hired.

“No, we would not have to hire any new staff if we left the planning board,” responded the town CAO.

“Our relationship is so tainted with the planning board, I have to support leaving it,” continued Councillor Koehler. “It was so insulting that when our mayor went to speak to the planning board they weren’t interested. I hope those members will realize the extra 33 percent their municipality will have to pick up if we leave.”

“If and when we decide to leave (the planning board) it would be determined by the MMAH,” added Mayor MacNevin. “If we decide to leave, nothing will change until the MMAH makes a decision. We would have to contact the MMAH of our decision, then we would likely have a visit from the MMAH and they would try to mediate a solution. It’s not going to be a quick process.”

“My perspective is that if we left the planning board we would have more control over decisions that directly effect our municipality and our taxpayers,” concluded Mayor MacNevin.

In a recorded vote Northeast Town Mayor Al MacNevin, Councillors Michael Erskine, Marcel Gauthier, Christina Jones, Bill Koehler, Dawn Orr, Melissa Peters and Bruce Woods voted in favour of the decision to leave the Manitoulin Planning Board, while Councillor Paul Skippen (planning board chair) voted against the motion. The motion was carried and a letter was sent to the MMAH.

Robin Burridge