April 29, 2009

Province demanding higher densities for new housing

As published in The Erin Advocate

Smaller, more affordable homes will be a key part of any new residential development in Erin, once Ontario's new Places to Grow guidelines take effect.

Designed to limit urban sprawl and make more efficient use of existing land within built-up areas, the plan requires Wellington County to take its share of Southern Ontario's growing population. In turn, Wellington wants Erin to take some of that growth.

The town is not obliged to grow, however, until it has the capacity to treat sewage in its urban areas. Since 2007, new housing has been frozen while the Town organizes its Servicing and Settlement Master Plan (SSMP). Public input meetings start next week, on Monday, May 4, at 7 p.m., at Centre 2000. The examination of sewage and other growth issues will take another two years.

At a public open house last week at Erin council chambers, County Planning Director Gary Cousins said Wellington is committed to maintaining "small town character" in its communities.

County projections show almost no urban growth in Erin until 2016. The forecast for 2016 to 2031 is for Erin village to grow by 1,300, to a total of 4,400 people (up 42%); Hillsburgh would grow by 700 to a total of 2,080 people (up 51%); the rural population would grow only by 1,040, to a total of 9,050 (up 13%).

The projected total of 15,530 residents is based on having sewage service by 2016. Cousins said projections will be revised as needed, and conceded that if the town decided against a sewage system, it would be difficult for the province to force it upon us.

"There would probably be some disappointment in the County," he said. "Other communities are having to take growth, and I'm sure they would like to see some of it go into Erin."

The idea of resisting all growth is dangerous, said Mayor Rod Finnie, predicting that it would result in fewer public services. "You grow, or you die," he said. Erin Councillor John Brennan asked, "How do you grow, and not lose what is precious?"

As several people at the meeting pointed out, growth in well-paying employment is crucial. If you are only earning $10 per hour, you will not be able to buy even a so-called "affordable" home for $200,000. One of the province's goals is to develop self-sustaining communities, with less need for commuting to big-city jobs.

"You have to bring in the work if you are going to bring the people in," said County Councillor Lou Maieron. He believes there is too much pressure on the SSMP process to develop services for potential new subdivisions on land within the urban boundaries, especially in the northeast area of Erin village.

"Council has a very open mind," said Erin Councillor Barb Tocher. "It is our community who will determine how we will grow, and there will be lots of opportunity for everyone to have their input."

Resident John Sutherland, a member of the SSMP Liaison Committee, said new technologies could eliminate the need for a central sewage facility. "We need to look forward, and maybe have a decentralized system," he said.

If and when the growth comes, here are the basic requirements that the county plans to set, with an amendment to its official plan. The County as a whole would have to meet the targets, so there will be local variations.

• 25 per cent of new housing would have to be affordable for low and moderate-income households.

• For currently vacant land within urban boundaries, known as Greenfield areas, new development would have to have a density of 40 residents and jobs per hectare (1 hectare = 2.47 acres). This would mean about 6 housing units per acre in new subdivisions. Wellington has requested exemption (not yet approved) from the provincial target of 50, which could push density to more than 8 housing units per acre. Developers with subdivisions approved, but not yet built, will be asked to consider revising their plans to add more homes per acre.

• By 2015, 20 per cent of new development would have to be in urban areas that are already built-up, with "a broader mix of housing types than has been the norm in small towns" and encouragement of new rental accommodation. Wellington has requested a major reduction from the provincial "Intensification" target of 40 per cent (also not yet approved).

• Only minimal growth will be allowed for hamlets and rural areas, and new settlement areas will not be allowed.