Among the broad implications of Bill 66, the Restoring Ontario’s Competitiveness Act, which was released in December and will be debated in the legislature, were changes to the Municipal Act which would have allowed municipalities to pass “Open for Business” bylaws.
These bylaws, according to Schedule 10 of Bill 66, would have allowed municipalities to suspend the normal planning rules in cases where a planning proposal is tied to job creation.
Claire Dodds, the Director of Development Services in South Frontenac Township, said that it was unclear, based on the preliminary wording of Schedule 10, how it would impact rural municipalities.
In the end, it turned out to be an academic question. Rural municipalities facing pressure from urban sprawl within the ‘Green Belt’ around Toronto, reacted strongly to some of the provisions in the schedule and it has been pulled from Bill 66.
Nonetheless, the initial inclusion of the schedule does reveal at least two things about the Ford government that smaller rural municipalities might want to keep in mind.
The first is that the provincial government are willing to over-ride long established planning protocols in order to promote even small scale manufacturing in Ontario. In cases that fit the criteria envisioned by Schedule 10, the documentation and procedures that underpin all the work done by municipal planners would have been suspended. Planning decisions under “Open for Business” bylaws would not have been required to conform to the Clean Water Act or the Provincial Policy statement, and they would not have been be subject to appeal.
Claire Dodds said that “in talking to colleagues about this, those issues were certainly raised, but a lot of it was unclear. I was not ready to bring a report to Council about the implications until we knew more.”
Dodds also pointed out that the provincial government already has a tool under the Planning Act, a “municipal zoning order” which they can use to suspend normal planning rules.
“It is used rarely, but it was used for the Honda plant in Allison, and for at least one other auto plant,” she said.
The “Open for business” bylaws would have extended that tool to municipalities as well.
The second thing that is revealed is something that is consistent with government policy under the previous Liberal Government. The focus of the government is on urban centres and larger rural communities. Schedule 10 said in order to qualify for “Open for Business” bylaws, municipalities with populations over 250,000 had to be considering projects that will create at least 100 jobs. Smaller municipalities (under 250,000) population, had to be looking at projects that create 50 jobs or more.
There is no recognition of genuinely rural municipalities. It lumps in South Frontenac (population 18,000) or for that matter North Frontenac (population 1900) with places like Kingston (124,000) and Kitchener (205,000). There is no “small rural” designation, when you would think that a category of under 50,000 in population creating 20 or 25 jobs would make sense.
There are two sides to this, as our local municipalities consider what might be coming at them from the for government over the next three and a half years. In one sense it is good news. The province is less likely to put pressure on smaller municipalities to change the way they operate. They imposed changes in Toronto and they are looking now at a process to consider populations in the rim of Toronto, but there is every chance they will not be interested in extending their gaze further away from Toronto.
The flip side of that is that any benefit the province can bring to smaller municipalities, through investments or promotion, is less likely to take place either.
All of this is balanced by the fact that a very large rump of the MPPs on the government benches represent rural ridings, which supported the governing party in record numbers in the last election. Those MPPs are more likely to ask the powers that be to provide at least some tangible support for rural Ontario, rather than bringing in the kind change that leads to disruption and, if past experience is any indication, higher property taxes.