September 26, 2016 - Land use planning is at the heart of the livability and sustainability of the communities in which we live. The province-wide, land-use planning document, the Provincial Policy Statement (PPS), is an authoritative text used by local planning experts in Ontario to determine the layout of a community’s built and natural environment. It requires local decisions to align with provincial interests. Some Northern Ontario stakeholders in the land planning community regard the PPS as a product of provincial apprehension about overdevelopment and diminishing greenspaces in Southern Ontario. This premise stems from the document’s focus on growth management practices and its unnegotiable language that does not necessarily speak to local conditions in northern communities. The Ministry of Finance’s growth projections for Northern Ontario over the next 26 years are negative, with an estimated population decline from 798,000 in 2015 to 780,000 in 2041. Certainly, Northern Ontario is interested in seeing policies that encourage growth rather than constrain it, and this can be accomplished by loosening the reins of finite and protectionist policies in the PPS.
The first Provincial Policy Statement, tabled in 1996, was of a different legislative animal than it is today. The discretionary nature of the PPS was the result of permissive language that it contained, functioning more as a guideline than a policy with binding authority. Phrasings such as “shall have regard to” enabled a planner to exercise their good judgment, and did not encroach on local control (McConnell, n.p.). When the PPS was updated in 2005, the language changed, mandating that land planning matters “shall be consistent with” Policy Statements issued under the Planning Act (1).
This shift in language has arguably created a land use planning system in Ontario that eclipses homegrown expertise and privileges provincial priorities. The development of North Bay’s Home Depot exemplifies how local powers, circa 2005, had the authority to negotiate and make decisions at the local level. Developers expressed interest in building upon a piece of land that was identified as the potential habitat of the threatened eastern hognose snake. The North Bay-Mattawa Conservation Authority along with other environmental stakeholders worked with developers to arrive at a mutually agreeable decision for development. In exchange for encroaching upon this snake’s habitat, the developer would provide the resources necessary to rebuild and relocate a hibernacula (McConnell, n.p.; Scott, n.p). Under the PPS’s current policy that “development and site alternation shall not be permitted in the habitat of endangered and threatened species” (23), there is no room for negotiation among local experts on the ground, which creates an imbalanced power dynamic and limits development potential.
It was only in the most recent version of the Provincial Policy Statement, in 2014, where efforts were made to reflect the unique conditions in the province’s northern, rural and Aboriginal communities. The “Vision for Ontario’s Land Use Planning System” and “Geographic Scale of Policies” provisions highlight how the PPS aims to capture regional diversity within its framework. It is worth asking if this new policy is being put to practice in situ.
There are lived experiences among local planning experts in Northern Ontario which suggest this is not the case. The Town of Kenora’s bustling cottage industry faces challenges with respect to the PPS’s rules on severing land in untaxed, unorganized territory (Rickaby, n.p.). While, private developers in Sault Ste. Marie were denied the right to build a 91 lot subdivision that was estimated to generate $100 million dollars for the local economy due to the provincially significant wetland provisions, and limited rural development provisions in the PPS (Provincial Policy Statement 2014, 10, 22). This decision was made in spite of the City’s Director of Planning Don McConnell’s conditional support for the project (Avery, 32-33). In the same vein, The Planning Department in North Bay has been frustrated in its development efforts as a result of the provisions of the Policy, with a proposed industrial park development impeded by the Policy’s unscaleable coastal wetland protections and limited rural development clause. So while one could argue that the PPS is taking steps to capture and consider the realities of Northern Ontario, for now, it seems that this is largely rhetoric.
Furthermore, the PPS fails to create enforceable policies that allow for local variation. When a provision says, “Natural features and areas shall be protected for the long term” (22), there is very little negotiating room within that statement for local authorities to argue to the contrary. This finite language can also be observed in the provisions of the PPS with respect to the extended coastal wetland protection line, the “no negative impacts” phraseology, and long-term protection for prime agricultural land. Other provisions that do not effectively acknowledge local differences are those which emphasize mitigating urban sprawl, transit-supportive policy, a general tone of urban-centricity and lack of recognition of the “ undeveloped nature of many of our [northern] communities” (Provincial Policy Statement 2014, 4-7, 10, 14, 15, 17; Joint Submission, 2, 4). Northern communities do not wish to overdevelop and spoil their natural features – rather, they simply need a Policy that can be interpreted more broadly. This way, in the event a development opportunity does arise that does not necessarily coincide with the PPS, they will be afforded the right to advance an alternative development proposal.
Although the North’s population is in decline, the same cannot be said for Central Ontario which is projected to grow by 3.7 million by 2041. Over 65,000 hectares of farmland – an area larger than Toronto, has already been lost to alternative uses in the Greater Golden Horseshoe area since 2006. With this in mind, it makes sense that it is within provincial interest to better manage overdevelopment patterns, and that these conservation pressures in the South are perceptible within the language of the PPS. But as we know, this is not the case in Northern Ontario.
With all of this considered, the PPS should make good on its diversity rhetoric by actively acknowledging and accommodating for local differences in its implementable provisions. This would open the door for northern communities to pursue development opportunities in a way that the PPS does not currently afford.
Mandy-Jean Masse is a former policy intern at Northern Policy Institute.
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Avery v. City of Sault Ste. Marie  PL130890 (OMB), p.1. Web. May 2016.
Hillier, Beverley. Telephone interview. 14 June 2016.
Joint Submission by the Large Northern Urban Municipalities, 17 December 2012. TS. Author’s private collection. 5 July 2016.
McConnell, Don. Personal interview. 5 July 2016.
McEachern, Leslie. Telephone interview. 7 July 2016.
Port, Jeff. Telephone interview. 15 June 2016.
Rickaby, Tara. Telephone interview. 24 June 2016.
Scott, Paula. Telephone interview. July 2016. 9