Opinion: Phillip H. Carter on Bill 23

By Phillip H. Carter

Phillip H. Carter is a Port Hope Architect and winner of the ACO 2020 Eric Arthur Lifetime Achievement Award.

Bill 23, passed by the Ford Government, disguises several long-held Conservative Party ambitions under the cloak of much needed affordable housing. Two of these ambitions are the expansion into the Greenbelt areas and the dismantling of the Ontario Heritage Act. There is no evidence that either of these actions will have any impact on meeting the immediate need for affordable housing.

Expansion into the Greenbelt

Bill 23 intends to expand land resources for housing development into the long protected “Greenbelt” surrounding the GTA. This need for more land is not borne out by reality. All municipalities within the GTA have vacant land zoned for housing, often with secondary plans in place and infrastructure available. Yet the developers have held off building on these lands in hopes that inflation, greater demand and lower interest rates will increase their profitability. In Port Hope, for instance, we have had over 100 acres of land zoned for residential development since 1998, yet it has not been built upon in over 20 years. Land freed up by expanding into the Greenbelt is not needed.

New development requires infrastructure such as roads, sewers, water, transit and other community services. Meanwhile, there are huge areas of our municipalities already serviced. Large parking lots, one-storey malls and under utilized industrial lands, all areas where community infrastructure is already in place, could be used for housing. Abandoned industrial sites and buildings can be redeveloped into residences rather than be demolished. This is also a sound green strategy since “the greenest building is the one that is already built.” Financial incentives, such as grants for.clean-up costs or re-development incentives could make these properties into valuable community assets rather than eyesores.

In short, there seems to be no justification for opening up protected Greenbelt areas when there is already an abundance of readily buildable land within our communities.

Ontario Heritage Act

Bill 23 proposes changes to the Ontario Heritage Act on the premise that its “red tape” and restrictions impede development. There is absolutely no evidence to back up this assertion. To use the affordability housing tag to fundamentally dismantle the Ontario Heritage Act is also not borne out by reality.

Heritage designation under Part IV and Heritage Districts under Part V of the current Act have not deterred development. In fact, many developers have used Heritage to add caché and charm to their otherwise mundane projects. The bureaucracy of processing heritage applications can be time-consuming, sometimes due to the reluctance of municipalities to employ dedicated heritage planning staff and sometimes due to the reluctance of developers to provide adequate heritage impact assessments.

In the case of Heritage Conservation Districts, Design Guidelines are a requirement of the Act. Most guidelines that I have written or reviewed do not in any way deter development but rather direct development in an appropriate manner consistent with the heritage character a municipality wants to retain. Developers have actually found that this direction has led to desirable and profitable developments. The Bill, therefore, does not need to tamper with the Ontario Heritage Act, as it does not deter from providing affordable housing.

In fact, many municipalities have recently enacted bylaw changes allowing “coachhouse development or additional units within existing residential structures. Heritage guidelines actually encourage this development which allows small up to 1000 square feet units within existing stable residential heritage neighbourhoods with infrastructure and services already in place. This approach would be much more likely to provide additional housing than any changes to the Ontario Heritage Act. This practice could also be expanded further by giving financial incentives to encourage homeowners to explore this attractive option. Such incentives would also help owners conserve and maintain their valuable heritage properties.

Take Acton On Bill 23