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Town of Innisfil approves MZO request for the Orbit

Ministerial Zoning Order requested to fast-track development, and construction of GO train station on Line 6

In a special virtual meeting on Wednesday night, Innisfil Council approved the revised draft of its request to the Minister of Municipal Affairs & Housing for a Ministerial Zoning Order (MZO) to fast-track the Mobility Orbit, as a transit-oriented community.

The MZO would give approvals for high-density mixed-use development surrounding a proposed GO Train Station on Line 6 – allowing the developer, Cortel Group, to avoid the lengthy Official Plan and Zoning By-law Amendment process, in exchange for covering the cost of the new station. 

With interest running high in the community, the town extended the public comment period and opened new lines of communication before Wednesday night’s meeting.

“The feedback from the community, key stakeholders and council has been considered and informed the finalization of the proposed MZO,” council was told.

The MZO requested now establishes three zones, surrounding the GO station:

. Transit Oriented Community 1, with a minimum density of 200 residential units per hectare housed in the tallest buildings, within a 225 metre radius of the station, in addition to non-residential uses and public amenties;

. TOC 2, with a density of 150 units per hectare within a circle 225 to 425 m from the station;

. TOC 3, from 425 m to 2,020 m, where existing uses and standard application processes will be in place until a Secondary Plan for the area is completed.

All three zones are within what is now defined as a 'Major Transit Station Area'.

There were other changes proposed. A memo received on Nov. 4 made it clear that policies relating to “sustainability” and “affordable housing” could not appropriately be included in an MZO.

Instead, said Director of Growth Tim Cane, the vision of sustainable and environmentally-sensitive development was “relocated” to the site plan process – and the minister was asked to include a requirement that the developer enter into a Site Plan Agreement with the town, “to implement the council-adopted Orbit Vision and Orbit Principles.”

Additional comments were received during the open forum portion of council.

Debra McGrath, speaking on behalf of the Innisfil District Association, made it clear that what the IDA objects to is “not the Orbit, rather the process.”

She called the MZO a “blunt tool designed to bypass all the laws designed to protect citizens,” and warned that not only would council lose full control of planning, it would erode the public trust. By circumventing the standard planning process, “it doesn’t enable a fully-informed decision -making process,” she said. 

“We implore council and staff to consider the future,” McGrath said, adding, “Hopefully, things will turn out better than we fear.”

Architect Steve Kirshenblatt, who has addressed council previously on the issue, called the MZO “an attack on our democratic rights as citizens of this town. It is not the thing we should be doing in Innisfil, Ontario, and Canada.”

Kirshenblatt also asked for more transparency, regarding  agreements signed with the developer. If the Orbit has merit, “we should bring it back in the public forum,” he insisted.

An MZO “lacks transparency and public input,” said Megan Varga, noting that council was elected to represent its citizens. “I cannot find one resident who finds the MZO is the right path,” she said.  

But there was also support. Sandra Rizzardo, of SanDiego Homes, indicated that the builder was “so excited to be part of this,” and supported the innovative and sustainable principles of the Orbit.

“We think we can incorporate the values and the things that have always been important to Innisfil,” Rizzardo said, from walkways and parkettes to geothermal energy. “I think it’s a great initiative and I support it.”

Council also heard from the legal representative of a landowner within the proposed TOC3 zone, asking that the MZO be revised to permit higher densities beyond the 425 m radius.

Cane noted that the extended period for feedback was “a process that we are glad to do. We’ve wanted to make it as transparent as possible. I’ve personally looked at each and every comment,” and responded.

The key change to the draft MZO was the shifting of policy statements to the site plan process, and new definitions of both the TOC zones and “affordable housing.” The latter now includes housing made “attainable” through reduced down payments, and rental units that are “at least 20 percent below the average market rent of a unit in the regional market area.”

Cane noted that zoning bylaws “typically don’t have policy in them,” which is why references to sustainability, green infrastructure and affordable housing have been moved to the Master Site Plan Process Requirements.

A proposal that the developer enter into a Joint Consulting Agreement with the town was also dropped. There has been no time to develop the framework of the new agreement, said Cane; to avoid delays, the town will use standard development agreements instead.     

Coun. Alex Waters asked staff to address “the recurring concerns of residents,” that environmental issues would be swept aside by an MZO.

Cane acknowledged that there is no third party appeal for an MZO, which approves land use, but said that other policies – including the Lake Simcoe Protection Plan - still apply, and there will be “checks and balances” through the site plan process.

“They are there as a backstop to make sure the MZO (is) not running roughshod,” he said.

Manager of Land Use Planning Mary Nordstrom added that for actual development to occur, the site plan process requires completion of a long list of background studies – from landscape and grading, to tree inventories, geotechnical studies, environmental impact studies, a functional servicing report, and more.

“I think that’s an important missing piece,” said Mayor Lynn Dollin. “This isn’t just, ‘Here you go do whatever you want’.”

Coun. Bill Van Berkel was not convinced. “I don’t think the MZO is the right tool,” he said. If there is support for the Orbit, “why do we need the MZO?” he asked, warning that it “gives the developers and the Ministry much more power than we have.” 

CAO Jason Reynar said that the developer needs the certainty of the permissions granted in an MZO to get the appropriate financing. “The developer is saying, Let’s go! The MZO is the piece that fast-tracks that.”

“So, what I’m understanding is it’s a money thing,” said Van Berkel. “I still have a problem with the MZO.”

Mayor Dollin suggested that if the Orbit went through the regular Official Plan and Zoning Bylaw Amendment process, “there will be a line-up of developers and speculators to appeal it” to the Local Planning Appeal Tribunal (LPAT) and pressure on the town to settle by granting other approvals.

“We can spend tens of thousands of dollars at the LPAT and not know the outcome,” Dollin said, adding that the LPAT “can sometimes be the worst enemy… It ends up eroding the process, in my opinion.”

She noted, “It’s not the (Orbit) vision that’s the issue... It is a vision that this council has been 100 percent behind for a year and a half now.”

Coun. Donna Orsatti agreed. “It’s about the financing. Metrolinx has chosen the site. The residents want a station,” she said – and the developer is willing to pay to build it.

Under the MZO process, construction on a GO station is expected to begin in 2022. The standard planning process could delay the project by 10 to 15 years, Orsatti said, and if the developer doesn't pay for the GO station, “we would have to bear these costs.”

Rob Nicol said the Orbit was the town's vision, “aligned with Cortel Group and other developers… We’re building the heart of a transit-oriented community,” and called it “a great solution… to absorb growth responsibly without detrimental impact to the community.”

The "greenfield" planned community will add 7,000 residential units and approximately 20,000 people within 425 m of the GO Station, if TOC1 and TOC2 are fully developed. The entire Mobility Orbit 'Major Trransit Station Area' could house a population of 150,000 on full build-out.

Coun. Orsatti proposed a friendly amendment to the motion requesting the MZO, asking that the town invite community consultation during the site plan process and consider community feedback; and that the MZO include a statement that council is to be considered the approval authority “under the town's Site Plan Control By-law.”

“This, I think, assures residents that there’s more control by the town,” she said.

The amendment was approved, and Council voted 5-2 in favour of the amended resolution requesting an MZO. Coun. Kevin Eisses declared a conflict of interest and abstained; Deputy Mayor Dan Davidson was absent.

The resolution included the acquisition of free “Envision” software,and staff training in its use at a cost of $30,000, to allow town staff to evaluate the sustainability of infrastructure proposed during the site plan process. 

The request will now be forwarded to the County of Simcoe, for “expedited” approval, and is expected to reach the Minister’s desk before the end of the year.

“So much work has gone into this already by our staff,” said Coun. Carolyn Payne. “I feel we have to show faith in our staff that they know what they’re doing… They care about Innisfil. I just don’t think they would lead us in the wrong direction.”

She added, “We’ve done the right thing. Innisfil is growing and we have to grow along with this.”

“We’re growing an awful lot for a station,” replied Coun. Van Berkel.