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Proposal in Oro-Medonte 'a shocking disregard' of planning process, says Barrie's deputy-mayor

City conducting technical review of the plan on Penetanguishene Road; A ministerial zoning order has been requested by landowner

The City of Barrie wants to have a closer look at a large development proposed for just across the road in Oro-Medonte Township before the province potentially swoops in and gives the greenlight. 

The move comes after Simcoe County councillors recently approved a request from the McLean family to support a request for a ministerial zoning order (MZO) for a development on their property at 121 Penetanguishene Rd., dubbed McLean Park. The land, which is located just outside the city limits, is currently designated 'restricted rural' in the township's Official Plan.

The development would consist of multi-unit apartment buildings, back-to-back townhouses, senior-focused one-storey dwellings, a mix of commercial, office and retail uses, future institutional (long-term care home) and recreational uses, parkland, and a wastewater treatment facility, as well as minor and arterial roads.

An MZO would, in effect, bypass the need for a county Official Plan amendment, an Oro-Medonte Official Plan amendment and a zoning-bylaw amendment. As the McLean family has opted to apply for an MZO before filing an official application with Oro-Medonte Township, the public notification process has not yet happened.

In a memo to Barrie councillors, general manager of infrastructure and growth management Andrea Miller said the matter was never circulated to city staff for input because a development application was never dealt with by Oro-Medonte. The county also didn't seek input from Barrie.

During Monday night's general committee meeting, Deputy Mayor Barry Ward called it "a shocking disregard of the planning process in Ontario with this application."

Ward said it's a case where Oro-Medonte is bypassing the process, including public consultation, by possibly getting a minister to sign off on a development with 2,000 to 3,000 people "right on the edge of Barrie. There's not even a farmer's field in between. It's basically an expansion of Barrie's settlement boundaries without any of the process being followed."

The city will now have an opportunity to submit comments to be included in an information package sent to Minister of Municipal Affairs and Housing Steve Clark before the end of July. Staff is reviewing the technical documents related to the MZO request and are preparing a more detailed report, which is expected to come to council at its next meeting on Aug. 10 due to summer break. 

Further discussions are planned with the McLean family consulting team to address technical concerns, said Miller. 

"It is anticipated that the need to address outstanding technical concerns will continue once this matter is in the hands of the minister," she added. 

City staff have already identified several issues with the proposal, including using an MZO to approve the project and circumvent the technical review, how it ties into provincial growth policies, the need for additional studies, and the potential for future expansion.

MZOs have been around since the early 1970s, but are not used very often, said Miller.

The orders are typically used in matters that have languished without a decision at the municipal level.  

Coun. Clare Riepma, who represents Ward 1 in the Barrie's east end, said he believes the minister should be aware of the city's stance on the proposal, calling the process to this point "quite unusual."

"It doesn't follow the normal planning process that we require of all our developers and builders in our city," said Riepma.

Monday night was an odd double meeting. Following general committee was city council, where several people made deputations about the McLean Park proposal, including proponents Dr. Jim McLean and his sister Dr. Judy McLean-Wismer. 

"McLeans have lived on this land for almost a century now, three generations of farmers," said McLean-Wismer. "I think we've had a long history of respect for the land, which we feel will continue. We feel we've been good neighbours."

McLean-Wismer said the township has very few options for seniors housing. 

"Housing security remains a top priority for all levels of government and most acutely the seniors," she said, calling McLean Park "every planner's dream" with its use of greenspace while also creating hundreds of jobs. "This is an exciting plan whose time has come."

JIm McLean spoke pointedly about the pressures being placed on farmland, while also alluding to Barrie's annexation of thousands of acres on its southern border with Innisfil, which he referred to as "a wonderful irony in the room when it comes to protecting farmland."

"I'm not trying to pick a fight with you, I'm just stating the obvious," McLean added. "This is a complicated and nuanced topic, and no one gets to be the saint and no one should be painted the villain."

Ward said his concerns weren't about the merits of the project, but the deputy-mayor asked why the group hadn't gone through the process of consulting the public and having the proper studies done, instead seeking the MZO. 

McLean said the provincial order would provide the zoning change to make way for the development. 

"It doesn't mean there will be shovels in the ground tomorrow," he said. "There will still be years of studies and public consultation. We actually look forward to public consultation. We've had a lot of really glowing comments already, and so we say bring it on."

Ward followed up by asking why not go through that process now like every other developer. "Why is yours different?"

"Well, there's no use going through it if we can't get a zoning change to do it," McLean responded. "There's no use incorporating hundreds of thousands of dollars to do that."

Coun. Sergio Morales asked for more clarity.

McLean said there have been engineering reports done. 

"We've already done many studies," said McLean, alluding to reports to the township and county. "We've already spent a lot of money on this. I think you really need to double back and read up on what an MZO really is and what it requires. We plan to do the studies, we plan to go through the whole process. Oro won't let us build unless we do them."

Ward said he views the proposal as an extension of the city's settlement boundaries and asked McLean if he would endorse the minister making the property part of Barrie. "Is there a reason you haven't gone that route?"

"No, we're not requesting annexation," said McLean, adding their plan would be to use township servicing, such as water and wastewater. 

Coun. Robert Thomson said he shared similar concerns with Ward about bypassing process. 

"If it's such a great proposal, you should have nothing to worry about," he said.

Bernard Pope, who also spoke during the virtual meeting, said his interest is in protecting farmland.

"I've spoken with no one in the agricultural community that thinks this proposal is good," Pope said. "We should do all we can to protect farmland and farming in this province."

Springwater Township resident Jim Drury echoed Pope's concerns. 

"We are losing more and more land to development in this area," said Drury, who also opposed the MZO request. "My opposition to the McLean proposal is based on the need to protect disappearing agricultural land, a non-renewable resource."

Mayor Jeff Lehman said it did come as a surprise when the McLean sought the MZO, but he said the minister needs to be aware of the city's technical review and hopefully it is used in the decision.

"I think it's unfortunate that the McLeans were given advice to pursue this process," Lehman said. "It's unfortunate that, in Ontario, the minister's zoning order is seen as an alternative to the planning application process, because it gets around public consultation and local authority, and I don't think it was ever intended to do that."