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Unexpected boundary expansions puts Wellington County in a bind

As part of approving the county's OPA 119, the province ordered urban boundary expansion totaling more than 1,000 acres in some Wellington County towns

EDITOR'S NOTE: This article originally appeared on EloraFergusToday, a local news site operated by Village Media.

WELLINGTON COUNTY – County planners and politicians are grappling with an unexpected move from the province regarding large expansion to urban boundaries of some Wellington County towns that comes with some unknown implications.

The province has expanded urban boundaries in Wellington County by more than 1,000 acres. A vast majority of this is focused around Elora and Fergus but Rockwood and Clifford are seeing some expansion as well. 

This was done as part of  the Minister of Municipal Affairs and Housing’s approval of the County of Wellington’s official plan amendment (OPA) 119, which deals with and manages the county’s mandated population and housing growth to 2051. The county is expected to have 60,000 more residents by 2051, with a majority living in urban centres.

This boundary expansion was not requested by the county and a planning report noted the county and its staff were not consulted or advised of these additions. The county can not appeal the province’s decision.

Sarah Wilhelm, Wellington County’s manager of policy planning, explained in an interview urban boundary expansion was inevitable based on growth targets, but the province has effectively jumped ahead of the county as staff were working on an evaluation method to determine where best to expand urban boundaries through a municipal comprehensive review.

Wilhelm noted the province did not change any land use designation, leaving these lands zoned as prime agriculture, but that’s not to say it doesn’t bring any benefit to a developer as it adds weight to any necessary application. 

“It’s certainly a significant hurdle to overcome to bring lands into an urban boundary under the current rules,” Wilhelm said. 

As of now, urban boundary expansion can only be done through a municipal comprehensive review, but there’s new provincial policy being considered by the province with implications on Wellington County. 

Wilhelm said the proposed policy would allow applicants to request urban boundary expansion at any time. Changes like this are still under review and commenting period by municipalities until mid-June.

“There are some real benefits to not dealing with expansions in an incremental, ad hoc fashion … going through a process to decide the best locations for where growth should be in terms of where the services, the pipes are, but also where the schools are and other things that help us build complete communities,” Wilhelm said. 

Some of the new expansion areas are raising questions on if the province considered how they’ll be serviced. 

As an example, Wilhelm pointed out Rockwood gets its wastewater servicing from Guelph and the county had not identified a need to expand the boundary due to this technical hurdle. 

Centre Wellington Mayor Shawn Watters was similarly puzzled.

“When we’re making decisions, at the local level in terms of these (urban boundary) lines, we always look at how are you going to service these properties? That’s part of our evaluation,” Watters said in a phone interview, adding the local government is best equipped for these kinds of decisions. 

“We never had any conversation with the ministry on these things, we find it curious that it doesn’t seem to us that they understand those limitations that we have when it comes to servicing.”

He pointed specifically at the added boundary northwest of Fergus as likely difficult and expensive to add water and wastewater service to.

“If the whole idea of this is to get more houses and then have more variety of housing, when you have put in expensive infrastructure to service these properties that don’t make any sense, the prices of those houses are going to be a lot higher than you think,” Watters said. 

While this decision leapfrogged over work the county was doing, it also impacts work Centre Wellington is doing too. 

A report found Centre Wellington is about 1,000 acres short of needed growth land. Council later approved hiring a consultant to see how raising intensification targets could reduce the need to sprawl into farmland. 

Watters was concerned over proposed changes to provincial policy, specifically dropping the required 40 residents or jobs per hectare, as making the problem worse. 

“They’re talking about dropping down intensification, well it’s going to contribute to urban sprawl, which I don’t think we want and it’s not smart planning,” Watters said.

The mayor hoped municipalities would maintain some control but added they don’t have the whole story from the province. 

At a planning meeting Thursday morning, Warden Andy Lennox noted it’s at least a positive the land designations didn't change which in theory leave some control for local government. 

“These lands are not yet designated as residential, industrial, commercial, these lands are designated as future developer or greenland,” Lennox said. “That’s still on us, so we get to decide what lands we designate at this stage.”

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