Housing bill threatens funds for parks and rec, city fears

The City of Ottawa has drafted a letter to the Ontario government asking it to remove parts of a sweeping housing bill that could make it more difficult for the city to build new parks and recreation centres. 

Bill 108 meant to spur new homes, but Ottawa sees 'one-size-fits-all' solution

Ottawa's chief planner says under Ontario's proposed system for collecting fees from developers, the expansion of Millennium Park in Orléans wouldn't have happened. (CBC)

The City of Ottawa has drafted a letter to the Ontario government asking it to remove parts of a sweeping housing bill that could make it more difficult for the city to build new parks and recreation centres. 

Ontario tabled its More Homes, More Choice omnibus bill on May 2.

The bill changes how municipalities are allowed to collect money from developers for so-called "soft services" such as libraries, recreation centres and parks.

"I cannot imagine the Richcraft [Recreation Complex in Kanata] being built under this model. I can't imagine Millennium Park [in Orléans] necessarily coming forward the way it's being built," planning and infrastructure general manager Steve Willis told Ottawa's planning committee on Tuesday.

According to staff's interpretation of the bill, the city would no longer be able to save up development charges to pay for large projects.

"I would wish to be wrong about that, but that's why we highlighted this as one of the most significant issues... because it applies to every single ward every single community throughout the city," Willis said.

Steve Willis, the city's general manager of planning and infrastructure, says the new bill would make it hard for the city to build recreation centres and parks. 0:40

No 'one-size-fits-all' solution

The letter needs to be endorsed by council and signed by the mayor at the June 12 council meeting.

It explains how the city agrees with the PC government's overall idea of boosting housing supply, but is concerned a "one-size-fits-all" solution will have a "negative effect" on communities outside the Greater Toronto Area.

The letter says it's "contrary to the spirit of streamlining" to ask the city to come up with an entirely separate process to collect new "community benefit" charges, instead of sticking with the existing system of development charges.

The new system would be especially problematic because the new community benefit fee would be set at a percentage of a land's value — and land is worth much more in the GTA than elsewhere.

"So any community that doesn't have Toronto-area land values will end up with a much lower amount of money we're allowed to collect, yet it costs us the same amount of money to build an ambulance post as it does in the City of Toronto," Willis pointed out.

City reps could head to Queen's Park

The city also worries the Ontario bill will mean it collects less revenue through development charges to pay for new infrastructure, and argues in the letter that Ottawa's fees, set at five to seven per cent of the price of new house, are "reasonable".

In a rare move, council will also be asked to send representatives to Queen's Park to make the case in person if Bill 108 is debated at a standing committee. Those officials could include planning committee chair Jan Harder and rural affairs chair Eli El-Chantiry, along with Willis and city lawyers.

Mayor Jim Watson will also be asked to invite Steve Clark, the Minister of Municipal Affairs and Housing, to Ottawa for a face-to-face meeting to discuss Ottawa's concerns about the housing bill.

Plan 'takes the politics out of planning'

Clark said his ministry wants municipalities to have a "vital revenue stream" to build communities that have all the facilities they need.

The proposed new community benefits system, he explained by email, "takes the politics out of planning."

Ontario's municipal affairs minister, Steve Clark, says the new system for collecting money from developers to build libraries, recreation centres and other facilities would "take the politics out of planning." (Frank Gunn/Canadian Press)

One tool that cities use, in particular, has been criticized for its lack of transparency. Section 37 of the Planning Act allows them to negotiate with developers for money in exchange for granting taller buildings. The City of Ottawa also counts on collecting fees and a certain proportion of parkland (or money) from each development. All three tools are affected by the new bill.

"We are consulting on the best way to replace the current system of 'let's make a deal' planning with a system that puts people and communities first. We firmly believe that growth must pay for growth," Clark wrote.


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