Time for town to bring planning in-house

Town staff is currently reviewing the way building and planning services are delivered. This is long over-due. Since Greater Napanee was created, planning services have been contracted out to a firm in Kingston called IBI Group. Most residents have never heard of these people. They are controlling the future of our town but none of their names appear on our ballot.

In most cases, builders and developers are required to reimburse the town for whatever IBI charges and there are no effective controls on the amount they can charge. IBI churns out the billable hours which our hapless builders have no choice but to pay. Planning reports often lead to demands for further studies with unexpected costs and questionable benefits. Much time is wasted shuffling paper back and forth between our besieged planning clerk and the IBI people in Kingston. This is big-city, central-planning applied to our small, rural municipality and our council never gets to provide input until the end of the process when the usual ‘staff recommendation’ appears on their agenda which they invariably approve.

IBI billed our town $155,023 in 2014 and $109,660 in 2015. All of these costs appear either on our tax bills or as an add-on to the cost of new buildings. For these dollars our Town could hire a full-time, resident planner who could do the job IBI now does with time left over to supervise the building and planning staff.  And, more importantly, we could win back control of our future.

Our builders and developers have become increasingly frustrated but, up to now, have been afraid to complain. Some have put plans on hold or have simply moved on; and some are now in open revolt.

Ironically, despite the buckets of money being shipped down the road to Kingston, our official plan and zoning by-law are still the worst dog’s breakfast imaginable.

Every time someone applies to amend the by-law, the defect is not corrected across the board but rather IBI does a band-aid fix, specific to that property. We now have hundreds of these ‘special exception zones’. Our zone map, if you can find one, now looks like a piece of Swiss cheese.

As an example, the original by-law did not permit grain dryers anywhere. Over the years, nine different farmers spent thousands of dollars each to get permission to install a grain dryer. But, grain drying is still a prohibited activity everywhere else.

IBI’s Official Plan writes off our downtown as being ‘in decline’ and even prohibits new one-storey buildings downtown. IBI’s zoning by-law freezes all new development on the perimeter of our urban area. There is no way a developer can determine what will or will not be permitted because it depends on the whim of IBI and it costs $3,000 just to ask.

For anyone in the consulting industry, anxious to generate billable hours, this is the gift that keeps on giving.

We desperately need a new model for doing our planning, one that involves constant feedback to council and staff from the builders and developers and clear communications all around. A fundamental part of the process should involve getting our own, in-house planner whose interest is in achieving good end results with a minimum of delay, rather than fixating on endless CYA studies.

We need a planner who has the respect and confidence of council, our builders and the public at large. Most of all, we need one with the ability and self-confidence to make wise judgment calls and decisions that all three groups will respect. We need one with the ability to take charge of and organize the existing building and planning staff who seem as frustrated as the builders. Council should insist that staff present a new model for doing our planning and not just another band-aid solution to this long-standing problem.

We are told that our town is open for new industry and development but we need to fact-check this belief. Other communities in eastern Ontario such as Loyalist have in-house planning and are experiencing a surge in new development and growth. But, growth has stalled in our town leading to at least nine derelict buildings downtown, some of them fenced off and allegedly in danger of collapse.

The future of our town depends on growth and new development. Without new assessment, new industry and new development charges we cannot fund the amenities we once enjoyed such as an outdoor pool, let alone build an indoor one. We need new industry to provide jobs for our youth and places for them to live; otherwise, our young people will move elsewhere. We need new development to tackle our $73-million infrastructure deficit and fund repair of our crumbling roads, sidewalks and sewers.

We simply can’t keep doing things the same old way and expect different results.

Hubert Hogle,
Greater Napanee

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