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York Region council at odds over planning future

Newmarket, Vaughan mayors square off over ending 'status quo' amidst housing crisis
20220210-York Region HQ-JQ
York Region's headquarters at 17150 Yonge St.

York Region council is conflicted over the future of the regional planning department and how well it is responding to the ongoing housing crisis.

The region is preparing to transition many of its planning responsibilities to lower-tier municipalities due to provincial legislation, Bill 23, but with staff intending to maintain a lesser role to monitor and provide comments on regional matters in planning, Vaughan Mayor Steven Del Duca protested at a meeting June 29 and said the region should not continue to cling to the status quo.

“There should be recognition by all the status quo is not working,” Del Duca said, adding the province as a whole is not building enough housing. “We have a housing supply crisis, and we need to get on with this, and we need to move in a direction … I don’t think it’s right for us to continue down this path.”

Bill 23 introduced an overhaul to municipal planning aimed at speeding the process up, in part by transferring roles and responsibilities to lower-tier municipalities instead of the region. A memo from staff highlighted a transition process underway at the region. Although the region is losing approval authority, the memo said staff will continue to advise, make comments, and participate in the planning review process on issues such as water servicing, transportation and growth management.

“We understand very clearly that regional council is no longer, or planned to be no longer, a planning authority as early as 2024,” CAO Bruce Macgregor said. “What we have to continue, of course, is the planning for the regional services — in particular, infrastructure.”

Del Duca cited statistics showing the provincial population has expanded by more than 500,000 over the past 365 days, with housing development not keeping up, with about 70,000 homes built in that time frame.

“I don’t know how any reasonable person can look at that scenario and believe that is a status quo worth defending, for any of the participants in that ecosystem,” he said.

Mayor John Taylor pushed back and said the idea municipalities and their processes are at fault for the housing affordability crisis is a false narrative.

“I don’t think it’s even 10 per cent true. It’s far more complex,” Taylor said. “To start with the premise that we can solve all that if we can only get some of the regional planning staff or municipal elected officials out of the way, I just completely disagree … I think what (regional staff) are doing is they’re clinging to good planning.”

The exchange led to a lengthy discussion with most of the regional council weighing in, ultimately referring the matter to lower-tier municipal planning departments for further comment.

Vaughan has notably resolved to explore independence earlier this month as the province prepares to review regional governance.

Taylor, in contrast, has said the two-tier structure serves the town well. He said the discussion was good but added it is similar to the ongoing one around regional governance.

Rather than focus on governance or planning structures, Taylor said, municipalities should find ways to innovate in the building. He cited several initiatives from Newmarket, including an as-of-right allowance of basement apartments in Newmarket and rezoning previously protected Shining Hill land for new housing.

“Those examples are challenging the status quo, not arguing over whether regional planning is involved a little bit, or a fair bit, or a lot, or whether we’re a service board or a regional government,” Taylor said.

Chairman Wayne Emmerson said the region cannot service everything without more debt. The region is working to increase sewage capacity to build housing, but that is expected to take years to complete.

“We have a lot to do,” Emmerson said. “Why we’re talking about governance is beyond me. You all got a lot of work to do in your local municipalities to build housing.”