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Draft Orbit Secondary Plan raises concerns, sparks questions

'Having the Orbit will allow more traditional neighbourhoods to stay traditional neighbourhoods.... We don’t want to look like Vaughan,' says mayor

Innisfil’s Orbit development inched closer to lifting off this week, with a special council meeting held to introduce the draft Secondary Plan for the transformative concept.

Representatives from Sajecki Planning joined members of town staff in presenting the plan to council and fielding questions from the public during the bulk of the more than three-hour session.

The comments received would be taken into consideration during the final revisions to the Secondary Plan, which would then come back to council for approval later in the spring. Andria Leigh, Director of Planning and Growth for the Town of Innisfil, said in a follow-up email that a future staff report to council will address “how the draft Secondary Plan has been amended to address some of the input received.”

But many of those who spoke from the gallery during the meeting seemed to convey issues with the Orbit even occurring, as opposed to providing constructive commentary that could be used in the refinement of the plan.

Diane Sykes was fearful of what the project could do to the current ratepayers in the municipality. Neither she nor her neighbours deserved to be test subjects for such a development, she argued.

“We need to look at these larger communities who are already there, like Mississauga: let them be the crash test dummy and see what happens to their taxpayer dollar base at the end of this,” she said. “We can’t afford to be the crash test dummy on this and end up paying for a rich developer or developers who have deep pockets already.”

Other residents, such as Cookstown’s Heather Andrews, questioned how the Orbit would benefit members in the neighbouring communities. Mayor Lynn Dollin, a resident of Cookstown herself, said while staff would report back in the future on what the Orbit will mean for the traditional villages and populated areas of the municipality, its unique use of space is perhaps the most tangible benefit for Innisfil’s current residents.

“Having the Orbit will allow more traditional neighbourhoods to stay traditional neighbourhoods,” Dollin said. “The City of Vaughan, in 1980 – which wasn’t that long ago – was 27,000 people; today it’s 350,000…. And I think it’s fair to say we don’t want to look like Vaughan.”  

Indeed, Innisfil has growth targets to meet by 2051, and the Orbit goes a long way to helping Innisfil get there.

In August 2021, a Ministerial Zoning Order (MZO) was issued for two transit-orientated communities (TOC) encompassing lands within a 425-metre radius of the proposed GO Station on 6th Line. As directed by the MZO, TOC 1 shall have a minimum density of 200 dwelling units per hectare and buildings between six and 40 storeys tall, while TOC 2 requires a minimum density of 150 dwelling units per hectare and buildings between four and 15 storeys, with an exception of up to 25 storeys for buildings fronting onto 6th Line.

A third TOC, making up most of the Orbit’s land, remains outside of the planning window to 2051, and not covered by the MZO’s scope. The draft Secondary Plan ties all three TOCs together, giving the town a cohesive document to guide the Orbit development over the next seven decades.

“The Secondary Plan provides the vision and planning framework to guide the development within the Orbit Secondary Plan Area and applies to an area broader than the MZO,” Leigh said. “The MZO regulations are embedded in the Secondary Plan, providing direction related to maximum heights, minimum densities and land uses within TOC 1 and TOC 2.”

When combined with settlement lands in north Alcona, the Orbit gives the municipality most of the lands it needs to house the additional approximately 40,000 people anticipated to settle in the area in the next 30 years. So, while Innisfil may not have a choice in how many people it welcomes, it does have a say in how they are house and how much greenfield is destroyed in the creation of those homes. In fact, Innisfil requires about a third of what neighbouring Bradford West Gwillimbury does to meet a similar population target, as highlight by Coun. Alex Waters during council's questions on the plan.

That is if it’s ever built.

Steven Kirshenblatt, an Innisfil resident who spoke at the meeting and architect by trade, who has designed high-rises in the Greater Toronto Area, isn’t optimistic the Orbit - in its current proposed format - is ever going to happen.

“This whole Orbit idea is very progressive and very outlooking, but it’s not reality,” he said. “I don’t believe this developer group will ever build it.”

And if it happens, it’s isolated from the rest of the community. That was the argument found in the comments of Brian Neebe, who questioned putting 40-storey buildings in the middle of farmers’ fields, and Darren Vella, a local planner who also lives in the community.

“How do we get the existing residents that live in Innisfil connected to the Orbit,” Vella said. “This is a community that is being developed that is completely isolated from Alcona; it is completely isolated from Lefroy. How are we going to get people who live in Innisfil today to use the Orbit?”

Looking out to 2091, planners suggest that the Orbit could house 90,000 people in the three TOCs. Vela, in his experience, has never seen a Secondary Plan with that kind of scope. Leigh stressed the importance of the document in ensuring a proper planning process for this project.

“It is important for the Secondary Plan to set the framework for the development of these lands through the Secondary Plan policies,” Leigh said. “The Secondary Plan also provides a strategy for servicing the entire Secondary Plan Area (the TOC 3 lands) to the 2091 planning horizon.” 

Even with a spring approval for the Secondary Plan, the town is unable to say when residents will begin to see development on the lands.

“It is difficult to provide a specific date for construction as this will be driven by the developers and the market,” Leigh said. “It is anticipated that construction for the proposed GO Station and development could commence within the next couple years and that there may be other related infrastructure works (bridges, roads) that may commence earlier.”

The Town of Innisfil maintains a page dedicated to the Oribt on its website. The public meeting is available to view in its entirety on the town’s YouTube page.