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Sep. 21, 2019 | Saturday
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UPDATED: Some residents not satisfied with official plan being 'rushed' by council
Austin Kirby, a member of the Agricultural Advisory Committee, shares concerns about portions of the Official Plan and its impact on the farming community. (Brittany Carter/Niagara Now)

A new official plan for Niagara-on-the-Lake has finally been approved by town council but at least one area resident thinks council rushed the decision.

Austin Kirby, a member of the town’s agricultural advisory committee, said she had been working with council to address the farming community’s concerns with the final draft of the new plan.

In a special meeting Thursday evening at the community centre, council made some revisions but adopted the final draft of the official plan, a detailed land-use policy document that outlines the town’s intentions for potential growth and development. It’s been 25 years since the town had a new official plan.

Though Kirby said she couldn’t comment on what eventually was approved after the marathon six-hour special session because she hasn’t seen the final document, she said she hopes her committee’s concerns were addressed.

“In my opinion, as a former councillor, I think that was an inhumane process to try to deal with a document, in less than 24 hours from the time they had seen the last comments from the consultants,” she said.

Councillors received the final draft barely one day before the meeting at which the document was to be debated.

“It was an unfair process, but it was the process they agreed to,” Kirby added.

However, she did offer kudos to council members, who despite not having a farming background, took time to learn the issues and educate themselves on the agricultural community’s concerns.

“To be quite honest with you, they tried hard to address our concerns … They are not from a farm background so they wouldn’t understand perhaps the changes that needed to be made to address the issues, but I give them a lot of credit because they tried to learn for sure,” she said.

Lord Mayor Betty Disero was “ecstatic” that the new plan was approved. It was a top priority for the councillors elected last fall.  

“It’s the right thing to do,” Disero said.

The vote to adopt the plan was almost unanimous, with one opposing vote from Coun. Stuart McCormack, who said he didn’t think there was enough time to properly review the document before moving forward.

“There was a relatively short period of time, 24 hours, that we were given to review the document. In my previous career (as a lawyer) I was used to a situation in which we had clarity about crossing the t’s and dotting the i’s … I didn’t think we had enough time to do that,” McCormack said in an interview Friday.

Though Coun. Clare Cameron said she shared McCormack’s sentiments about the limited time to review the revised draft, she agreed it was time to make a decision.

“I do feel it’s unfortunate that after all of that effort, there were only 24 hours and about 35 minutes for council and the public to see all of the documents we were discussing last night. That’s a concern but I’m feeling good that we were able to move past that,” Cameron said.

Disero said there was more than enough time to go over the plan, the initial draft of which was completed in December 2018. 

Council and town staff have been working with planning consultants from Planscape to create and revise the official plan. The new plan, which still requires approval by the Region of Niagara and the provincial government, will replace that last official plan – adopted a generation ago, in 1994.

“It’s easy to ask questions. The difficulty is making decisions. I’m very proud of council for making decisions. I’m thrilled that we were able to work together to finally get this done,” Disero said.

Cameron, who is deputy lord mayor, said her concerns were addressed while council meticulously combed through every section, adding that each councillor was given that opportunity.

“I’m feeling very good about the level of effort that’s been brought over the past eight months,” Cameron said. “To pull together comments from the public, all the public that’s made comments, I think there’s been a really good level of engagement,” she said.

Despite requests by the Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing in February to put some planning decisions on hold, Disero said she pushed for a conclusive decision in order to outline a clear view of where the town is headed through the official plan.

With the looming uncertainty of possible forced amalgamation by the provincial government, she said it is important to define the importance of Niagara-on-the-Lake’s unique traits, including agriculture and heritage.

“If we don’t do it, someone else will tell us who we are,” Disero said.

“We are going to be adopting this tonight … this is not going to be an exercise in getting another draft. We’re not having another special council meeting to deal with yet another draft … I want to finalize this, tonight,” she told councillors.

Disero said the concerns of the agricultural community were a “top priority” in the revision process.

A motion was passed to include ponds, swales and drainage ditches as working farm areas and part of the agricultural infrastructure.

“We wanted to really express through our official plan the importance of our agriculture, what they need to function, so that’s why we thought it was best to identify what the farming community in Niagara-on-the-Lake needs,” she said.

Cameron noted, “Now, it’ll go to the province, it’ll go to the region. They’ll make whatever amendments they want. We might go back to square one, but at least it will allow the agricultural community the opportunity to make their arguments to those levels of government,” she said.

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