Ramara Development Special Council Meeting Preview

By John swartz

Orillia council meets today at 2:30 p.m. for a special council meeting with one agenda item – a request from Ramara Township to the province for a minister’s zoning order (MZO), which would speed along development by one developer on three sites adjacent to Lake Couchiching.

The item first surfaced January 18 when councillor Jay Fallis served a notice of motion designed to put the City on record objecting to the use of an MZO. The motion proposed by Fallis states MZO’s have been “commonly used to by-pass existing environmental regulations.”

The province has used MOZ’s for developments in Vaughan, Whitchurch-Stouffville, Markham and Brampton and other places. Three more sites in Toronto got MZO’s, which a Toronto councillor says ignores local planning and shuts out public input. Fallis outlines the development propose in Ramara would be on the Atherley Sucker Provincially Significant Wetland Complex. He is concerned not just the wetland ecosystem will be destroyed, but water quality in Lake Couchiching where Orillia gets it’s water from will be affected. The southernmost part of the development is a stone’s throw from the Mnjikaning Fish Weirs, and Fallis wants assurances they are protected.

He is not alone. On the same date Fallis made the notice of motion, the City included 5 letters opposing the use of an MZO. Today’s agenda package also includes a letter from the Simcoe County Greenbelt Coalition opposing support for an MZO.

The Development

The developer, Zoran Cocov, is proposing three components. From south to north along Rama Road they are Harbour Village at The Narrows, Ramara Landing and the Ramara Waterpark Resort. In total, the development would have 7 hotels an Olympic-size sports complex, 8 restaurants, an 8 story retirement residence, three 6 to 10 story condos and 252 townhouses.

The developer has submitted concept plans, but not site plans and technical requirements.

Ramara’s Position

The township requested an MZO November 3, 2020. In a letter to the City of Orillia dated January 18, 2021 Ramara mayor Basil Clarke outlined the township’s case for making the request. The Simcoe County official plan designates the area, also known as the Rama Road Corridor, as an economic employment district. The township’s official plan and zoning call it destination commercial. The township’s Rama Road Secondary Plan and Ontario’s A Place to Grow policy have provisions, “for residential uses to be ancillary to a permitted use, and NO residential unit shall be permitted as a primary residence.”

It is also the case commercial development has to proceed any residential development, which Clarke says makes it hard to get any development commitments. Indeed, over the years since Casino Rama opened, there have been a number of development proposals announced which went nowhere.

Clarke states there is support in principal from the County, (which has it’s own MZO request in play for a new waste facility on the Freele County Forest) and Rama First Nation. He also states there will be environment impact, traffic and archaeology studies done, as well as a functional servicing report. He expects there will be a site plan application showing structures, gradings, drainage, emergency vehicle access routes and parking as described in section 41 of the Planning Act RSO 1990, chapter P.13 (amended 5 times in 2020 alone). That section does not have the same public consultation process as other planning applications under the Planning Act.

Harbour Village at The Narrows phase of development concept

So Why The MZO? Primarily to override official plans and policy in A Place To Grow regarding residential development. Clarke further states the township would not approve site plans until staff and consultants are satisfied from a technical and legislative perspective.

“There are no “short cuts” being proposed to the requirements of any proposed development. The Township initiated this discussion so that any potential commitment to the installation of infrastructure will be done as an overall development project, accounting for the water and wastewater servicing requirements of all development projects, as opposed to each developer exclusively looking at their own proposal.”

In other words, before the township spends any money putting in any pipes, they want some development projects ready to go.

The Objectors

The Simcoe County Greenbelt Coalition (SCGC) sent a letter to Orillia council, which is on the agenda. In it they state despite assurances current planning intentions codified by Ramara Township will apply, granting an MZO makes, “additional studies are moot since they are normally used to inform whether the development should be approved. A(n) MZO approves the development without any requirement to demonstrate it should even be established.”

The executive director of SCGC, Margaret Prophet, states, “Opposing this MZO does not mean that Ramara Township cannot proceed with the developments through the established channels and provincial planning process. Rather, it underscores the preference of the City of Orillia to have the envelopment’s potential impacts properly understood and given due process, which includes accountability and good faith engagement with the public.”

She says MZO’s place development as a first requirement and assumes the effects of development are secondary, if at all a concern. How could anyone know the effects without studies? She states section 41 of the Planning Act does not require any studies. She believes the scale and location of the project are troubling.

She says MZO’s have been used to circumvent provisions of several other acts, some mentioned above, and the Lake Simcoe Protection Act and the implications this case will be used to get around conditions and restrictions which may otherwise be imposed in a local planning exercise.

While acknowledging the Township’s Bylaw #2019.69 would under normal circumstances provide a measure of development control, an MZO would leave only the ability to make cosmetic, inconsequential demands because the location and scale would already be approved.

Furthermore, the appeal process is limited to the developer and the Township, neighbours or other affected parties are shut out of the process. Also there would be an override regarding prohibitions for wetlands and statutory public input is removed – this is despite Ramara’s intent to complete studies as mentioned above.

Other written objections, mentioned above, including from the Orillia Naturalists Club echo concern for water quality of Lake Couchiching.

Bottom Line

One can understand Ramara Township’s years of frustration attracting development along Rama Road. So many announced projects have fallen by the wayside. The desire to make one change, allowing permanent residences, does not at face value seem to be asking too much. However, the three projects are of such a scale, if planned for inside the boundaries of the City of Orillia there would be considerable public discussion, at the very least.

The track record of the province issuing MZO’s is not admirable. In the case of Toronto they were issued without consultation or notice to the City. In other cases considerable community concern and objection was cut off. The minister can make whatever provisions desired, so an MZO in this case can go well beyond a simple change to official plans to allow permanent residence development concurrent with commercial development to outright approving the development in question before Ramara gets to demand studies and an approval process through Township procedure.

Some contend Orillia does not have a stake in development in adjoining jurisdictions. That may be true, but we do after all have a major mall on the boundary with Severn Township which the City had little say in, and the only stick Orillia has is not agreeing to run municipal services across Highway 11 allowing more development.

However in this case, the amount of runoff alone from such a large development will be difficult to control, more so if an MZO circumvents site plan approvals – and we drink that water. Orillia has growth plans too, an MZO against the wishes of the community, or out of the blue, are something to beware of. Council may just make their voice heard on this one.

Video from the meeting will be available later, a link will be provided here.

(Photos by Swartz – SUNonline/Orillia: Images Supplied)


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