Tensions are brewing in Innisfil, Ontario surrounding the fate of a proposed massive new development after the approval of a Minister’s Zoning Order (MZ0).
A powerful and controversial tool, an MZO allows the provincial government to forgo the planning process and make immediate decisions with respect to future developments, which can’t be appealed.
So, it looks like it's a green light for the proposed game-changing Innisfil Mobility Orbit community to become a reality.
Redefining the area around the 6th Line and east of 20th Sideroad in Innisfil, south of Barrie, the project is to be built on what is now farmland. The development would transform the region with a planned neighbourhood built in concentric circles around a shiny new GO station. At its core will be commercial and residential buildings with the highest densities. It’s just the latest in a handful of transportation-centric communities planned for Ontario in coming decades.
“We envision the Orbit as a vibrant hub with a full suite of amenities, including spaces designed for local entrepreneurs and traditional and non-traditional industries, year-round sports and recreational options, arts and culture spaces and more,” says Innisfil Mayor Lynn Dollin. “With the GO Station at its centre, the Orbit will offer numerous transportation options to connect it to Innisfil’s surrounding communities thanks to pedestrian-first streets, enhanced cycling options, and accessibility initiatives -- all supporting an enhanced Innisfil Transit system.”
While not without its merits -- perhaps most notably, adding a new transportations station to the region -- not everyone is a fan of the plan.
Environmental group Rescue Lake Simcoe Coalition says the project will come with serious collateral damage to the surrounding region, adding to urban sprawl and reducing the water quality in the already compromised Lake Simcoe.
“The heights and design are really at odds with the current look and feel of the town, which is rural and suburban; there's only one building I can think of that's taller than 5 stories,” says Claire Malcolmson, executive director of the Rescue Lake Simcoe Coalition. “This is proposing 6 - 40 stories. But more importantly, the community didn't want this high-rise plan. They overwhelmingly just wanted a GO station.”
The proposed GO station, however, would not be close to any existing communities.
“In some places, it's appropriate to build where community infrastructure and services already exist. Innisfil's residential density is so low they are using Uber as 'public transit' because the alternative isn't feasible financially,” says Malcolmson. “So, by using lots of infill and by building affordable housing along existing commercial areas, both transit and existing local businesses get a boost. And no farmland has to be built on in this scenario.”
Furthermore -- and arguably more importantly -- Malcolmson is concerned about the environmental impacts of the sprawling development.
“Impacts of the development itself through the construction phase, and then the addition of 20,000 people both contribute to phosphorus pollution of Lake Simcoe which drives weed and algae growth and leads to low oxygen levels for fish,” says Malcolmson. “Ultimately, we are nearing the end of the lake's ability to handle more growth and this gigantic project just jumped the queue.”
Dollin cites the region’s growth pressures and assures that the project will heavily consider sustainability.
“The Orbit is our opportunity to grow in a way that helps preserve our rural landscapes and existing neighbourhoods by growing smarter in a more concentrated area centered around a train station,” says Dollin. “Most importantly, Orbit will promote sustainability and reduce the impacts of climate change by good design at that neighbourhood level that reduces CO2 emissions.”
Dollin says the premise of Orbit is to create a more responsible and sustainable development that better protects the health of the lake. “The MZO includes protection of environmental lands. In addition, development within the MZO lands will proceed through the Town’s Site Plan Control process that requires conformity with local, county and provincial policies, including the Lake Simcoe Protection Plan,” says Dollin.
“As part of that process, environmental studies will be required and reviewed by Town and our partners to ensure appropriate environmental safeguards are in place and that development occurs in a sustainable manner. In addition, lands outside this MZO lands will be further considered through a future Secondary Plan that will look at protection of key environmental features”
The situation once again brings the all-too-common use of MZOs into focus. In this case, Malcolmson calls its use an abuse of power.
“Using an MZO is the biggest risk because it's a blunt tool and is really pretty mysterious,” says Malcolmson. “There's no appeal mechanism if the Town or the public is not satisfied. The Town wants to secure environmental design and stormwater management through site plan requirements, but I’m doubtful that the Town will be able to get as much as they promised in Council meetings.”
Malcolmson says there were other ways to build GO stations without developer funding.
“The legislative change that the province made recently to allow private interests to develop GO stations and own their air rights gives developers an opportunity to ask the municipality for what the developer wants,” says Malcolmson. “In this case it's much more. Development ambitions stretch to the 400 highway about 10 km away. This is also a residential development proposal much bigger than the previous MZOs issued by the province. Something this big really should go through the proper planning channels.”
Dollin calls the MZO a “stepping stone in the ultimate development of the Orbit” and says that the public consultation prior to and during the pandemic revealed that the construction of the Innisfil GO Station remains a high community priority.
The MZO process was able to establish land use permissions sooner to support private investment by the developer to construct the rail station. Dollin notes that the MZO is not for the entire Orbit area and the limit of the MZO extends to 425m from the station to provide for approximately 20,000 people.
“The MZO will facilitate the construction of the new rail station together with much needed affordable housing and jobs with access to transit, which is of even greater priority during these unprecedented times,” says Dollin. “There are climate change and quality of life benefits of having rail transit in place sooner for the Town. Development is always going to occur around an approved GO station, so why not realize responsible development sooner?”