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Provincial anti-sprawl rules face major Hamilton test

May 22, 2009

Next month will see two major tests of Hamilton’s response to provincial smart growth legislation as developers seek approval to convert scarce industrial employment land to two more big-box complexes. Protecting employment lands is a central feature of the last five years of Ontario’s anti-sprawl legislation, but Hamilton councillors appear likely to grant both rule exceptions.

In response to widespread concern about the effects and cost of sprawl, the McGuinty government has intervened strongly to direct municipal planning activities. Since 2004, they’ve strengthened the Provincial Policy Statement, established a million-acre protected Greenbelt, and imposed the Places to Grow growth plan for the greater golden horseshoe.

A key piece of the latter legislation focuses on the protection of employment lands – the new term for industrial areas which over the past decade and more have been the favoured location for big box developments – especially when located along major highways and their interchanges.

In the Hamilton area, that trend has generated the Meadowlands, the big box complex at the join point of the Linc and the Red Hill Valley Parkway, a Meadowlands East’ on Rymal Road at Upper Centennial, and two Meadowlands-sized projects now under construction at Clappison’s Corner. Plans for an additional big box development at the 403 and Aberdeen are currently before the Ontario Municipal Board (OMB).

Provincial planners argue that frontage on major highways should be preserved for industrial employment for easy trucking access and to limit the movement of heavy vehicles along city streets. City staff and their consultants have tended to agree, but a majority of city councillors apparently don’t.

Last year, a comprehensive review of Hamilton’s employment lands prepared by consultants and endorsed by city planners, concluded that the city has a significant shortage of employment lands and shouldn’t be converting any of them to other uses – especially when approximately a third of the city’s workforce commutes to jobs outside Hamilton.

But when the draft policy went before council in March of last year, councillors ordered four blocks of industrial land shifted to the category of available for conversion. The rejigging brought together four councillors who don’t always agree – Chad Collins, Dave Mitchell, Tom Jackson and Lloyd Ferguson – each of whom had a big box proposal in their ward.

Next month, the first two of those proposals come forward for formal rezoning and official plan amendments. And the council decisions appear may just be the first stage in a prolonged battle that is ultimately decided by the OMB.

On June 2, Mady Developments will seek zoning and official plan amendments to allow a big box retail complex on the south-west corner of Fifty Road and the QEW in Winona. The 439,975 square foot development would include 3025 parking spaces and would be anchored by one of the largest Wal-Mart stores in Canada.

On June 16, Smart Centres will present their plans for another Wal-Mart and associated retail and office development at the QEW interchange with Centennial Parkway. The 470,000 square foot facility would occupy the former sites of Fox 40 International and Waxman Recycling.

Both areas are currently zoned for industrial employment. Places to Grow says conversion of such lands is only permitted after a comprehensive review that shows “there is a need for conversion” and “the lands are not required over the long term for the employment purposes for which they are designated.”

The city’s comprehensive review concluded that all of the Fifty Road site, and most of the Centennial Parkway site should be retained for employment uses.

“We’ve got to keep everything we’ve got and we have to designate some additional supply to achieve the provincial employment forecast allocation for Hamilton,” Hemson consultant Anthony Lorius emphasized to councillors. “There really is no need to convert employment land to achieve other city planning objectives, particularly the city’s planned residential or commercial structure.”

As noted above, councillors disagreed, although not unanimously. Mayor Eisenberger, and councillors Bratina, Merulla, McHattie, and Pasuta asked to be recorded as opposed to part or all of the amending motions.

The official decisions on the two applications will take place at the June meetings – in a forum legislated by the province that allows any resident to speak for or against the proposals. And any that do, including the proponents and the provincial government, may then appeal the decision to the OMB.

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