A key provision of Ontario’s new bill meant to speed up housing construction would force municipalities that fail to make decisions on developers’ plans within tight deadlines to refund tens of thousands of dollars in application fees – a change that some urban-planning experts say will only result in more delays.
The ticking clock, aimed at cutting red tape and increasing housing supply, is part of a package of proposed changes labelled the More Homes for Everyone Act and unveiled by the province this week amid widespread concern about runaway real-estate prices.
As of next January, it would require municipalities to refund half of the fees for a rezoning application if they have not made a decision with 90 days, or 120 days if the application also calls for an amendment to an official plan. After 150 days (or 180 days for official plan amendments), a 75-per-cent refund is required, with the whole amount due after 210 days (or 240 days for official plan amendments.) In Toronto, an official plan-amendment application alone costs $60,000.
Theses deadlines are already almost never hit in Toronto as approvals can take close to two years – which developers have long complained gums up their ability to build new homes and adds thousands of dollars in costs to each new unit.
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But critics warn that under the new system, if planners do not have time to evaluate, for example, a major condo-tower application for its effects on water, roads and other infrastructure, they may simply turn it down to avoid the financial penalty. This could force developers to appeal more often to the already-backlogged Ontario Land Tribunal (OLT), where a decision could take years.
On Twitter, Gregg Lintern, Toronto’s chief planner, compared the deadlines to Pizza Pizza’s 30-minute delivery guarantee: “Building a city is not like ordering pizza … no matter what role you play in urban planning in Ontario, you’ve gotta think a ‘30 minutes or free’ approach on refunding application fees will not result in more homes for everyone.”
In an interview, Mr. Lintern warned that setting an artificial timeline on the process was “impractical and it belies reality,” noting that it can take 30 of the proposed 90 days just to undertake the statutory notice of putting up signs and advertising in a newspaper. He said he is worried the result will be a quick pipeline to the OLT.
“The outcome that we don’t want, the unintended consequence of this, is that applications get filed to the OLT,” he said. “And they lawyer up and it becomes adversarial.”
Building a city is not like ordering a pizza 🍕- no matter what role you play in urban planning in Ontario, you’ve gotta think a “30 minutes or free” approach on refunding application fees will not result in more homes for everyone— Gregg Lintern (@GreggLintern) March 31, 2022
Both he and Ana Bailao, Toronto’s deputy mayor for housing, argued that the planning process works best on major projects when there’s a dialogue between the developer and city staff, as well as the local community. Ms. Bailao noted that this can be a complicated back and forth and said that the onus can’t be on the city alone to speed the process.
“The legislation needs to be drafted in a way that not only tells municipalities that they have to do things in a certain way, but the applicant as well,” she said in an interview. “We give them comments. So if they take long to respond, there’s nothing we can do.”
Giulio Cescato, an associate director with IBI Group and a former manager of community planning with the City of Toronto, said the deadlines are unrealistic for large projects. He said the province’s plan appears poorly thought out and could further jam the OLT with appeals.
“If the intent of this was to speed up the process, I think the result of it will be precisely the opposite,” Mr. Cescato said in an interview.
He said no one disagrees the planning system needs to be improved. A better way forward for Toronto, he said, would be to concentrate efforts on revising its outdated zoning rules, which determine how high buildings can be, among other things, so that they match its official plan, which lays out where the city intends to grow. Doing so, he said, would allow developers to get their approvals without jumping though as many hoops.
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Despite the concerns, Ontario’s Municipal Affairs and Housing Minister, Steve Clark, doubled down on the refund policy as a key incentive to speed up application approvals at the municipal level.
“I make no apologies about trying to add some rigour into the system,” Mr. Clark told reporters on Thursday at Queen’s Park. “We’ve got to get shovels in the ground faster and this is the way to do it.”
Cam Guthrie, the mayor of Guelph, Ont., and the current chairman of Ontario’s Big City Mayors group, said he agreed the deadlines could cause issues with planning departments, which are already short-staffed. But he said the housing crisis means all governments need to work together to find new solutions.
“We have to try something new,” Mr. Guthrie said. “We can’t continue the way we have for years, because the current reality of housing is not working.”
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