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Simcoe mayors, warden want regional reform, but differ on how much

Mayors said they're big fans of use-it-or-lose-it policies for developers

EDITOR’S NOTE: This article originally appeared on The Trillium, a new Village Media website devoted exclusively to covering provincial politics at Queen’s Park.

Leaders in Simcoe County agree that change needs to happen. But what that should look like remains a topic of debate.

The Ford government is in the midst of reviewing how several upper-tier municipalities operate. The process has been handed off from independent facilitators to the province's Standing Committee on Heritage, Infrastructure and Cultural Policy, made up of PC, NDP and Liberal MPPs. It met Monday in Orillia.

"So you're all in agreement that the current system is not working?" Liberal MPP Mary-Margaret McMahon said at one point to a chorus of yeses.

Alar Soever, the former mayor of The Blue Mountains, said he chose not to run in 2022 partly due to the "dysfunction" between local and higher-level governments. For example, just one in five municipalities file their provincially mandated financial reports on time, he said.

"What would the government say if 80 per cent of Ontario filed their taxes late?" he asked.

There's lots of planning duplication between upper- and lower-tier governments, Soever said. For instance, subdivision plans are the realm of the county, while the municipality deals with changing the bylaws to make them happen.

"We both look at the same data on the same development ... there's no sense to have two staff dealing with it," he said.

Simcoe's warden, Basil Clarke, said he knows there's duplication — but he wished the province would've asked him first, because he has ideas for how to solve it.

"For example, there are some local official plan amendments that don't affect county policies at all, and we don't want to be involved in those," he said.

Clarke, who is also the mayor of Ramara, said he was "shocked" to hear that Simcoe might lose its planning department under Bill 23.

"It kind of came out of the blue. We read it on a website," he said.

Bill 23, passed in 2022, created "two different classes of upper-tier municipalities, those which have planning responsibilities and those which do not." Bill 185, passed last month, stripped planning authority from Peel, Halton and York, with Simcoe, Durham, Niagara and Waterloo to follow on a date to be announced.

Having to co-ordinate with 16 partners over transit and other complex systems is the wrong move, Clarke said.

"I don't see how it can work," he said.

The mayor of the largest town in Simcoe, on the other hand, would "love to see (planning) at our level."

"We're 45,000 population right now, and so we have the ability to do our planning," said Bradford West Gwillimbury mayor James Leduc, who has previously spoken in favour of regional reform.

Innisfil Mayor Lynn Dollin said her town also wants to manage its own planning and infrastructure, but wants to keep "regional coordination on growth management."

Several leaders, however, echoed previous sentiments of other Simcoe mayors who see more value in the county.

Terry Geddes, the former mayor of Collingwood and warden of Simcoe, said it would be a "step backwards" to remove planning authority from Simcoe County, stressing the importance of coordination.

"It's been working effectively for close to 180 years," he said.

Clearview Mayor Doug Measures said his town wouldn't be able to deliver its social services, waste management and other programs as efficiently as Simcoe does.

Previously, Premier Doug Ford had planned to dissolve Peel Region, but walked that back. A group of provincially appointed experts recently turned in their report, suggesting the province download road maintenance and waste collection to the lower tier municipalities while transitioning responsibility over water and wastewater to a provincially regulated utility.

Municipalities across Ontario are seeing housing projects bottlenecked by a lack of infrastructure.

"As I learned as mayor, you can place all the developments you want on a map, but if you can't drink the water and flush the toilet, you're not building a house," Geddes said.

Don May, the former president of the Ontario Professional Planners Institute, said that "all of the development in Simcoe County is being held up by infrastructure issues."

Almost 4,000 units in Stayner are on hold due to the water supply, May said, adding that he would be on board with the province establishing "regional entities" to own and operate water and wastewater infrastructure.

Dollin said she'd be happy to talk about how Innisfil's water and wastewater municipal services corporation works.

Wasaga Beach CAO Gerry Marshall is among the seemingly few municipalities doing fine, water-wise, with "a lot of room for growth." He said he doesn't want to be "penalized ... for doing the right thing, making the hard choices, and investing in water and wastewater infrastructure while other municipalities have not."

If water is uploaded, Wasaga Beach should be compensated, he said.

Another idea the government has floated is a use-it-or-lose-it policy for developers, which developers and some researchers are not fans of. Leaders at the committee, though, were all about it.

John White of the Blue Mountain Rate Payers Association said some applications have been sitting on the books for 50 years.

"I'm a big fan of that, because it ties up land in the municipality," Collingwood Mayor Yvonne Hamlin said.

Geddes said he implemented such a policy during his time in office. After developers sat on land for "many, many years," he sent them a letter with a "hard deadline."

"It worked," he said.

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Jack Hauen

About the Author: Jack Hauen

Jack has been covering Queen’s Park since 2019. Beats near to his heart include housing, transportation, municipalities, health and the environment. He especially enjoys using freedom of information requests to cause problems.
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