Ready, set, grow: The challenge and promise of a bigger, better Kawartha Lakes

By Trevor Hutchinson

Thousands of people are coming. Will we be ready?

Speak to any four people in the City of Kawartha Lakes about the prospect of growth and development and you are likely to get at least as many opinions.

Some will no doubt abhor the idea of more people, more traffic and less of the tranquility that they either grew up with or came here to enjoy. A business owner might say we need to grow and we need to grow fast to increase economic opportunity and wonder how we can increase employment. A parent with young children might suggest that we are growing too old as a community and ask about much-needed community amenities.

Still others might simply ask, ‘‘When is the Walmart coming?”

Contributing Editor Trevor Hutchinson.

It’s the question Mayor Andy Letham gets the most and one that he hears in every area of our vast city. “I’ve been asked that question in seniors homes and while visiting public schools,” jokes the mayor.

For a lot of us, the Walmart saga has been a touchstone — a filter through which we judge both the pace and possibility of growth and development ever since an optimistic developer erected a ‘coming soon’ sign 13 years ago in a field that still looks more like a nature preserve than anything else. For some the Walmart saga is the gateway drug to complaining that our City can’t get anything done. But the facts — always more nuanced than emotion — tell a different story. The site required an extensive investment in infrastructure (the northwest sewer trunk). All the planning and zoning work required for that development has long been completed by the City. The development is out of the City’s hands — it’s now a matter between a private developer and their negotiations with other private companies.

If anything, the Walmart saga has given us a slow motion look at the complexity of growth and development. Growth requires public infrastructure and private capital. It requires coordination of a bunch or interconnected issues.

There’s one thing we can be sure of though. We are going to grow, and that change will happen a lot faster than a certain big box development. And while we might not self-define this way, we are considered by the Province to be in the Greater Golden Horseshoe, and we have been tapped for growth. A lot of growth. So whether we like the idea or not, it’s something that we all have to think about. To help wade through this, The Lindsay Advocate interviewed city officials, the Mayor, our MP and MPP, and consulted other experts to look into the growth that is coming to our communities.

Why do we have to grow?

Even if we decided, for some reason, that we didn’t want to grow, it wouldn’t stop growth and development from happening. And that’s because of our geographic location. As Richard Holy, Manager of Planning for the City of Kawartha Lakes, explains, “[The] KL offers an affordable opportunity for residents to experience homeownership and recreational opportunities. We will continue to grow based on our proximity to Durham Region and the GTA in general as people choose KL either as a place to raise a family or as a place to retire.” And with Highway 407 getting closer, we will be even more accessible. “Future highway improvements by the Province for Highways 35 and 7 will benefit Lindsay as well as the City as a whole through improved connection to the Highway 407,” adds Holy.

But it’s more than an issue of economic migration based on land prices. Our city has been identified as an area for future provincial growth in the provincial master growth plan. A Place to Grow: Growth Plan for the Greater Golden Horseshoe — the province’s “strategic, long-range, comprehensive and integrated approach to build thriving and affordable communities across Ontario” — identifies growth targets for our city. It envisions a population of 100,000 people by 2031 and 107,000 by 2041. Think about that for a second: Based on the 2016 census, we had 75,431 residents. This planning document (which compels the City to make official plans and bylaws around those targets) calls for a 32 per cent increase in our population in just 22 years, with more growth predicted after that. Most people contacted for this story don’t think we will actually hit those provincially set targets, but clearly growth is in our future.

And when you do the math that might not be such a bad thing. The CKL covers a massive geographical area with 5,400 ‘lane kilometres’ of road to maintain, not to mention all the infrastructure in our settlement areas and all the amenities that make this a pretty cool place to live. But the only way to have municipal taxes stabilize, or even increase less is to expand the tax base. As Mayor Letham explains, “when we grow, it helps spread the cost over a larger tax base. With growth, there’s extra costs, so we need to keep those costs under control, and offset the costs for the overall benefit of taxpayers. Businesses benefit with growth. Those who want to raise a family also want to see growth and new amenities.”

It might not be quite as dramatic as a “grow or die” scenario or maybe it is. Simply put: we are not only scheduled to grow, we have to grow.

Where are we going to grow?

Most areas of our very diverse city are planned for massive growth. As the mayor explains, “It’s not just Lindsay that is targeted for growth. The rural communities are also targeted for growth through our secondary plans. The new growth plan is allowing KL to grow in a healthy way for a community our size. We will eventually get to the growth plan numbers, just not at the timeline the province has set. We need to deliver controlled, reasonable, responsible growth.”

Those provincial targets (again, which all of our planning must be based around) are quite something though: over 11,000 new residents in Lindsay by 2031; over 1,700 new residents for Bobcaygeon; over 1,300 for Fenelon, almost 800 for Omemee; and 360 for Woodville. That’s over 5,900 new homes in Lindsay alone.

For any of this growth to happen, we have to finish our planning processes which involves the rather confusing state of our Secondary Plans. As Holy describes, that work is nearly done.

“We have an approved Official Plan for the City of Kawartha Lakes that has been in effect since June 8, 2012; however, it remains the subject of various appeals to the Local Planning Appeal Tribunal (LPAT) that are being resolved. While the Secondary Plans for Lindsay, Bobcaygeon, Fenelon Falls, Omemee, and Woodville similarly remain at the Tribunal, City Staff are working to resolve issues with all appellants. This should result in the approval of a new planning framework within the next 1-2 years.”

Then of course there will be growth coming from seasonal residents in almost every area of the city who decide to transition to full-time residents. This might involve the City ‘assuming’ roads and will definitely require working out winter maintenance and garbage pick-up in areas that were previously only seasonal. Letham thinks that given the amount of property tax that these people pay, such things aren’t a really big ask, noting that, “we would benefit from this.”

“We would need to change to accommodate their needs as much as possible. Many people have bought here and are transitioning to retirement.”

However more permanent residents along our lakes and rivers has to be thought out. As Holy notes, “While we encourage new development throughout the City, we need to be mindful that new development is contemplated with environmental protection in mind to ensure that our lakes are protected for the long-term.”

How will we grow?

You don’t have to drive too far from the CKL to find cities that did not manage growth very well. Many people and experts, perhaps unfairly, cite Barrie as an example where unrestrained suburban growth ended up creating complex ‘livability’ issues. So the question we must ask ourselves is how do we grow, smartly?

Contaminated brownfields could be leveraged to do more. Photo: Sienna Frost.

The accepted wisdom in urban design says that intensification and increasing density is the smartest, least expensive and environmentally friendly way to grow. In other words, growing up before growing out. That approach — while it will no doubt create disagreements — has a lot to recommend it. The city has a 20 year supply of land within the urban settlement borders. And as discussed in a recent story in The Lindsay Advocate, the development of brownfields is another opportunity where density can be increased to the overall benefit all of our citizens.

Growing with a subdivision model requires more infrastructure and has other long-range costs, like busing costs. “Lower density forms of development do require more infrastructure that will ultimately be maintained by the City. We are [aware] of these long-term costs and therefore strive to increase densities where possible to more effectively utilize our infrastructure,” notes Holy.

Will we be ready for increased density? Taller buildings and other changes to some of our settlement areas — that haven’t really changed dramatically in decades, if ever — will come as a shock to some of us. We will no doubt disagree from time to time. But this is exactly where good planning comes into play: It’s about getting the mix right, in the right areas.

“The key to integrating new growth in our community will be to intensify in appropriate areas. Intensification is context-based: in some cases, this means smaller lot singles or town homes whereas in other cases it could result in apartment buildings of various heights,” explains Holy.

And it’s the small details, combined with an overall vision, that will make the difference and result in good urban design. We will want to ensure that building location and placement, landscaping, lighting, accessibility, and exterior design are all considered. “This will be important in managing intensification and ensuring that higher densities are compatible with their surroundings,” adds Holy.

Rebecca Mustard, manager of economic development.

But our growth won’t just be through intensification alone. There will be new developments on ‘greenspaces’. According to Holy, we have between 600-700 hectares of greenfield area available for future residential development in our five settlement areas.

Are we growing too old?

Rebecca Mustard, manager of economic development for the city notes that Ontario is growing old and “Kawartha Lakes is not only following that trend, we have higher than average statistics.” Adds Rod Sutherland, director of corporate services, “we have the second highest proportionate population aged 65+” in the entire province.

To be clear, this is not to suggest that having a high proportion of seniors is a bad thing. Seniors offer a lot to our community, as Letham sums up nicely.

“There are many benefits to having older people here. They are contributing to our community in volunteerism, giving hours and wisdom…we can’t look at that as a negative. The senior care industries (also) have economic value.”

Having an older population does have policy and planning implications though. The City incorporates population trends and all its related costs and programs. Sutherland adds that all planning “should encompass consideration of an aging population considering such issues as affordable housing; supportive housing; employment (supporting service industries); development services (active transportation, accessibility requirements); health care (supportive housing, home services, long term care); and transit.”

But if we are to have a vibrant community that will continue to prosper, we will need to ensure that we attract and retain younger people and young families. And the amenities wanted and needed by younger people can be different than those of our older residents. Of course one of the biggest things we need to do if we are to lower our median age (or at least stabilize our age demographics) is we will need to grow employment.

CKL Mayor Andy Letham. Photo: Erin Smith.

Can we grow jobs?

In the view of the Mayor, we are starting to see healthy residential growth. What is required is more industrial and commercial growth. It is for this reason that Council has established a development charges (DC) Task Force, which is currently examining reducing development charges to spur more economic growth. That task force is still seeking input from the public.

The City, through its Economic Development Strategy identifies five key clusters (agriculture and food, culture, tourism, specialized manufacturing, and engineered products) as targeted growth opportunities to increase jobs and businesses. Mustard notes that these sectors “have a strong and growing existing business base and they bring wealth from other areas into our economy.”

The conversion of cottage properties to year-round residences will also improve our economy notes Mustard. “Currently many of our businesses rely on revenues made in the summer months, so more permanent residents will balance out revenues throughout the year,” she adds.

Of course, increasing employment won’t necessarily mean Lindsay re-emerging as a factory town. The nature of the worldwide economy, and in fact, of work itself, has changed. Mustard notes that 20 per cent of all freelancers in the country live in rural communities, adding that, “more people are able to work remotely and the number of solo-preneurs (people who work for themselves) is also growing.”

What do we need to grow?

If we are to capitalize on the employment trends that Mustard notes, and if we are to benefit from the knowledge/culture economy, we will need better and faster internet. But this too will take public money. The mayor (who has been doing a lot of work on this file as chair of the Eastern Ontario Wardens’ Caucus) explains:

“Unless governments get involved, the private companies won’t invest. It’s growing so fast, it’s impossible to keep up with the demand for access. KL has committed to almost $1 million for the project in Eastern Ontario over a few years.”

More people will mean the need for more of all the services the City provides. Holy says that this will require expansion of our emergency and government services to accommodate service demands. (Which certainly seems to underscore the need for a fully equipped hospital like Ross Memorial – not a watered-down, merged version with Peterborough Regional Health Centre.)

If we are to attract and retain young families, we will need to continue to build our recreational and cultural capacity, including parks. We used to do this by having a five per cent levy on residential development and two per cent on commercial/industrial development, but not only has the City been looking to change that, the provincial laws that govern this have recently changed.

Who gets to decide where and how we grow?

One would like to think that our community itself will decide how and where it will grow. We have mechanisms in place that seek community input at every level of the planning process. However, the passage of Bill 108, the More Homes, More Choices Act in June of this year has shifted the planning landscape, and many people are questioning what the law sets out to do.

Critics, including the mayors of several large cities, decry the changes to the Local Planning Advisory Tribunal (LPAT, the body formally known as the Ontario Municipal Board or OMB) which is the ultimate arbiter of contested planning decisions. According to Tim Gray, executive director of Environmental Defence, says that the most recent version of the LPAT was the result of reforms to the old OMB which “had a long history of ruling in favour of developers who could afford to outspend municipalities.”

The Association of Municipalities Ontario (AMO) shares some of this concern stating, “this move will take authority away from local councils and reverts…to an appeals process known to have a legacy of delays.” The AMO also disapproves of the capping of development fees. Municipalities used to get the development charges in advance of an approved development. Under the new legislation, a municipality will receive that money over six years, and over 20 years if the development is for affordable housing. As the AMO states, “this change will reduce the amount of revenue municipalities receive from development charges. It will also increase administrative burden for municipal governments.”

This all might seem like bureaucratic detail, but the effects on our city could be real. Let’s imagine that, as Letham states, we don’t want to expand and grow at the expense of our agricultural land as agriculture and food is still our biggest local industry. We have codified that approach in our official plans. Previously, any appeal to the LPAT would be decided upon using what the local plan states. Now the LPAT has returned to de novo hearings — or starting from the beginning; it can rule against a municipality, regardless of their plans.

Critics like Gray are concerned asking, “What would the fantasy legislation for a developer look like?” It would look like Bill 108. “It is a complete erosion of planning procedure and everything we have learned about good planning. If a municipality wants to stop sprawl and the high service costs that go with it, they will have to lawyer up and take on a billion dollar developer.”

The mayor seems less concerned, stating: “Each time a bill gets passed, some are in favour and some aren’t. Common sense usually prevails. I am not concerned about where we can grow and develop. We have many years supply of serviced land within our urban boundaries. Every city is different, so every mayor has their own concerns.”

Letham is in favour of the changes that cap development fees and allow flexibility in density, and says that lower density figures “are more realistic for our community and better reflect how we will grow over the next few years.”

“I don’t believe the soft development charges should be part of growth development charges. That should focus more on infrastructure. I like the concept, but it is difficult to comment on until we know what the community fee charges will be. If we don’t collect enough, the shortfall passes to the tax base, which is already under extreme pressure.”

Bill 108 not only limits the control we can ultimately exert over growth, it also guts our environmental protection. Gray considers it as “effectively a repeal of the endangered species act. Now, anything that gets in the way of developers will be overridden.”

Leah Barrie, the City’s policy planning supervisor seems to share at least some of that concern.

“Overall, the changes bring the potential for encroachment onto sensitive lands, where development would otherwise undergo a comprehensive regulatory review and be subject to restrictions or prohibitions. Development that is expedited into protected areas could benefit existing land owners, but may be at the expense of our wildlife, ecology, natural heritage systems and drinking watersheds. In addition, any potential on loosening development restrictions comes with the potential for sprawl. It will be important to balance competing interests.”

How will we figure this out?

That could be the million dollar question. Certainly citizen involvement and community advocacy will have to play apart. An engaged citizenry that is involved in the planning process will be paramount, especially with the new provincial legislation. So, too, will the processes and indeed the manner in which we disagree with each other. Because change, by its very nature is disruptive. There will be winners and losers in this process and we are going to have to figure this out together.

Letham remains positive, though.

“We have been working so hard over the last five years to put the base in place, to define our foundation of who we are, so that we can start marketing ourselves, because we can handle the growth. We are almost firing on all cylinders – we have the right people in place, capacity in place, now we open ourselves to the market and get to work. We’re seeing developers come with applications (commercial, residential) almost every week. We never used to see this. We’re on the cusp of doing what naysayers think will never happen. I’m very excited and optimistic.”

Perhaps we can together achieve the optimism that Mustard, too, espouses, who says that communities and economies “are dynamic, constantly changing.”

“Growing does not have to mean an increase in buildings, people, businesses or traffic. Growing can also mean adapting, improving, increasing resiliency. We are going to grow in population and jobs and this is healthy for Canadian communities, but equally important, we are also going to grow in our resiliency, ability to adapt and chart our own future.”

Here’s hoping that through being informed and active, we get to chart our own future, a future that is probably going to look different — and be a lot bigger.

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