Councillor, Ward 1 Aurora

Strong and Wrong

Strong and Wrong?

‘If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.’  (African Proverb)

Late last year I tabled a Motion to put it on the record that I opposed Strong Mayor Powers (SMP). The rationale was that it was a direct assault on democracy. It was approved by a majority of the Council but had no effect because the mayor had already accepted SMP’s.

So, residents need to know what Powers our Mayor has asked for and has been given by the Provincial Government, led by the Premier of Ontario, Doug Ford.

This information is provided so residents are aware of the changes that have been made (or will be made possible) to the governance of Aurora through SMP’s. These powers are extensive and extend far beyond the intent of the Bill 23 legislation designed to have ‘More Houses Built Faster’. In fact, there are some questions about the legality of the application of these powers, but they will be clarified with time and most likely challenges.

Why were Strong Mayor Powers introduced?

In a word – Housing!

Housing has failed to meet the needs of the population of Canada and the province. The population has grown significantly through immigration mostly, and with the housing market stalled in this province, the logic of enabling housing starts seems appropriate.  Affordable/attainable housing is almost non-existent due to market conditions, particularly in the rental market.  The province decided that the ‘fault’ lay in Municipalities not doing enough to ensure that housing would be built fast, and therefore enacted Bill 23 – ‘More Houses Built Faster Act, 2022’, to build 1.5 million homes over the next 10 years.

The provincial Government then upped the ante by granting SMPs to 26 municipalities in July of 2023 to large municipalities of over 100,000 residents. This was closely followed by granting these same powers to any Municipality with a population over 50,000 whose mayor would agree to a housing target.

To achieve this, the provincial government decided to grant Strong Mayor Powers (SMPs) to the initial select few (Ottawa, Toronto), opening up the Greenbelt (recently over-turned because of scandal) and the almost indiscriminate granting of MZOs (Ministerial Zoning Orders) which are Ministerial directives that override Municipal zoning. Basically, the province through the Minister of Housing, could provide the zoning necessary to build homes regardless of the local zoning ordinances that we see in our Official Plan. The province could then tell us what to build and where. Ministerial zoning orders were largely rescinded last month under protest.

The catch?

The municipality had to sign a “housing pledge” (in the case of Aurora, this was 8,000 new units to be built by 2031). In exchange, that municipality would be granted the SMPs as well as receive money if their targets were met. (It should be noted that Bill 23 took Development Charges (DCs) away from the Municipality for certain dwelling types, so the province was incentivizing Municipalities with their own money.

However, recent information and the results of over a year of Bill 23 show that housing has NOT stalled because municipalities are dragging their feet regarding approvals. Our process of including a Community Information Meeting, followed by a Public Planning Meeting, then approval by the Council after consideration, is efficient and gathers important information from the public. It also ensures that development follows the local directives of our Official Plan. (OP)

We have many approved applications in the pipeline, as was presented in Council by the Director of Planning. However the ‘housing target’ is based on the awarding of building permits and depends on the housing market, not municipal foot-dragging.  Certainly, we have a strong demand with an increased population, but materials are in short supply as are skilled trades. The economic circumstances of high-interest rates and inflation have created a soft housing market. And ‘non-market’ housing (such as affordable housing) is not where the economic opportunities exist for those who invest in housing.  We have a lot of reviewed and approved applications. Still, the building permit applications do not come until the economic environment is suitable for a market that will bring a return on investment.

There is a pent-up demand in one development segment, and I will point out that only one application in our pipeline relates to purpose-built apartments. We have not yet seen an Affordable Housing Action Plan.  for Aurora outside of some bromides that appear in the newly Town-approved Official Plan. We have not seen any useful definition of ‘affordable’ or ‘attainable’, however, the provincial government has made a recent attempt. Our Official Plan suggests that up to 35% of all housing should be defined as ‘affordable’, yet in the past four years, none of this has been built. Applications to York Housing Inc. to help assist in providing solutions regarding affordability are welcomed but money is short as this is taxpayer and grant-supported.

Further, the Region, which assigns water and wastewater allocations for each building permit has capacity as of now but has to rely on the construction of the Leslie Street Trunk to meet the housing pledge and there are questions about whether the Leslie Street Trunk can be built in time to meet this pledge.

Our Official Plan Review has been years in the making and it should be the roadmap for meeting appropriate housing in Aurora. It is now approved by the Council and is at the Region for comments and approval, yet already some height and density of applications have exceeded the Official Plan. These have been approved by the Council to avoid challenges at the Ontario Land Tribunal. Tribunals are expensive and result in legal and independent planning expertise that must be paid for by the Town. Not a trivial amount either. Most are over 6 figures. Provisions exist that would allow an OTL to award costs to the losing side if their case is deemed frivolous.

Let me say that while our Official Plan is designed to build the kind of community we want, it can be challenged at any time based upon ‘good planning’ now adjudicated by the Ontario Land Tribunal.  Any application can be appealed, based on good planning principles, so expect challenges and negotiations with builders on height and density that may be outside of our OP. It is a ‘right’ each builder has, and it is democratic and fair that they are allowed to do so. SMP’s will not change this as the Tribunal is operated by the Province, and focused on good planning practices, not Official Plans that don’t synch with ‘Provincial Priorities.’

And what is as disturbing to those who live in so-called ‘stable neighbourhoods’ as-of-right provisions of the Act allow three units to be built on property where one exists. At a General Committee Meeting just last week, the Mayor upped the ante on this requesting we approve four townhomes on a single lot. So much for stable neighbourhoods. I will also point out that at the last Committee of Adjustment, this group approved the removal of a building in the Town Park neighbourhood and proposed two townhouses with rear garages and apartments upstairs. The site plans showed .5 Metre setbacks in some places and a list of other variances. It was approved. So much for stability in neighbourhoods.

There are pockets of developable land in Town where height and density may be considered appropriate and will not affect stable neighbourhoods, or may be appropriate because these zones may be along a major transportation corridor and close to shopping and amenities.  But SMP’s can put these decisions ultimately in one person’s hands.

Next, Some History of SMP’s and a description of actual powers are coming up. Stay tuned.


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