COLLINGWOOD, ONT.—Developer Thomas Vincent’s still-in-progress adult lifestyle village is just a five-minute walk from Georgian Bay.
The irony is not lost on him: Despite this proximity to “the sixth Great Lake,” from which this cottage country boom town draws most of its water, council says there soon won’t be enough treated water to flow through the taps of all the new condos and homes being built in the area.
So now development has to stop.
It means no shovels in the ground for projects that don’t already have building permits, such as the next phase of Vincent’s Balmoral Village. Instead of a medical centre and condos for seniors, two large dirt-filled lots will remain — at least for now.
“I’m at a loss for words to describe how I feel, besides disappointment,” Vincent said surveying the barren landscape. “We’re stuck with a ton of registrations, people have put money down, deposits, waiting to get in.”
The town had no alternative, Mayor Brian Saunderson said at a virtual council meeting Monday night. “In my opinion, inaction is not an option,” he said moments before supporting an interim control bylaw (ICBL) to halt new construction for at least a year, which passed 6-3.
Since 2001, the population in this town two hours northwest of Toronto has grown by more than 50 per cent, to about 20,000, with much of the spurt occurring in the past five years.
According to town staff, modelling now shows this rapid growth will compromise the water treatment plant’s ability to meet forecasted demand before a planned $65-million expansion is completed in 2025.
Staff identified a variety of other “opportunities” the town could explore, such as increasing the amount of chlorine during the winter, and reducing the amount of water it sells to nearby communities. But those alone were rejected as insufficient, and staff instead recommended the ICBL.
“There are implications that will have long-lasting effects on the community, however it is necessary to protect residents and ensure longer-term stability,” the town said in a statement.
Collingwood now joins other Ontario communities that are waving red flags about the scale of development and problems associated with planning and management of water and infrastructure.
ICBLs are an increasingly popular response, even if, as one Bay Street lawyer told Collingwood council earlier this week, the move is the “atom bomb” of planning.
They’re a tool under the Ontario Planning Act that allows a town to place a temporary freeze on certain land uses while the municipality studies or reviews its planning policies. An ICBL can be imposed for one year, with a maximum extension of one additional year.
A spokesperson for the Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing said the government does not keep track of how often they’re used. “The ministry is not involved in a municipality’s decision to issue one and they are not required to report this information to the ministry,” Conrad Spezowka wrote in an email to the Star.
In 2004, Toronto city council passed an ICBL to block a McDonald’s from putting a drive-thru on St. Clair Avenue West, and again in 2013 to keep Walmart and other big box retailers out of Kensington Market.
In 2018, Burlington passed an ICBL to halt new building in the downtown core for a year after the now-defunct Ontario Municipal Board approved a highrise with “excessive height,” justifying it “because we were designated as a major transit station area,” Burlington Mayor Marianne Meed Ward explained to the Star.
At the time, “building applications were coming in thick and fast, and each one was higher than the next. It was 17 (storeys), then it was 22 and then it was 26, we had one come in at 29.” The official plan called for four to eight storeys.
“It was the Wild West downtown, and we were losing control of our own ability to carefully plan and manage growth.”
Local developers said the move was politically motivated and made grim forecasts about the impact on the local economy. They predicted it would drive up housing prices in an already overheated market, and suggested it would ruin the city’s reputation.
Similar claims were made in Collingwood this week. One of the Bay Street lawyers representing developers warned council that passing the ICBL would turn the town into “the black sheep in Ontario where people are afraid to do business.” Like in Burlington, elected officials were blasted for a lack of transparency and possible secret agendas.
Years after Burlington enacted the ICBL, Meed Ward said the move was effective because it led to changes in Burlington’s Official Plan, which are now under appeal by developers. “Council is now in the driver’s seat, and that means the public’s in the driver’s seat” and applications that match “our vision” get approved, she said.
She called ICBLs a “critically important tool” for councils and communities that have been losing control of their ability to appropriately plan infrastructure and community services, when “all of a sudden you’re getting applications that are wildly beyond your population expectations, which is exactly what happened to Burlington.”
Niagara-on-the-Lake, a popular tourist destination, has also made good use of ICBLs to buy some time for careful reflection, said Betty Disero, the town’s lord mayor and a former Toronto councillor.
In 2018, the town passed an ICBL to stop any marijuana production from setting up in an agricultural area “until we had an opportunity to review and best plan on how to deal with these,” she said.
Council also passed an ICBL to curtail development in the booming Old Town section. That was lifted a year ago — and Disero won’t say much more than that because the town is embroiled in litigation with a developer, Rainer Hummel, who sued, alleging the ICBL was enacted in bad faith.
A few weeks ago, a Superior Court Justice James Ramsay rejected his argument.
“I think that council wanted to preserve the old town’s heritage and that it considered the matter urgent,” Ramsay wrote in a decision released April 15. “They wanted to fulfil the mandate that they thought they had been given by the public. They froze the status quo, considered studies and public input, amended the Official Plan and then repealed the interim control by-law. That is essentially what they were supposed to do.”
Hummel told the Star he will “definitely” appeal the decision. He declined further comment.
In addition to halting most new construction in Collingwood — there are some exemptions such as small-scale residential projects — the ICBL has triggered a series of measures including the hiring of an external planning consultant to carry out a study that will focus on “the implications of water and wastewater servicing constraints.”
“The town doesn’t need another planning study,” says Vincent, a transplanted Torontonian.
Developers and local engineers are willing to sit down “pro bono” with the town and come up with solutions to the water issue, he insists.
“Embrace the developers, because we want to help, we want everybody to be successful,” he says. “We can make this a fabulous destination and the town is going to tear that down in one year. Developers are going to say they’re fed up, they’re not going to deal with it.”