Politicians in St. Marys have approved amendments to the town’s official plan, paving the way for a long-awaited set of policy changes designed in part to address a local housing shortage over the next two decades.
The amendments were unanimously approved during a council meeting Tuesday evening.
“Although this has a been a long, arduous process, … I think it addresses a lot of the concerns of the public,” St. Marys Mayor Al Strathdee said. “Not everything … on the wish list got approved, but we were able to accommodate a lot more than, say, where we were seven or eight years ago. I think this is a very good document.”
Overseen by the province, official plans are documents that provide a long-term outline of how a municipality’s land should be developed. They’re typically prepared with input from the public every 10 years after a major overhaul or every five years after a minor amendment.
For the past several months, planning staff in St. Marys have been considering a number of policy tweaks to address a housing shortage estimated to require about 1,800 new dwellings in order to keep pace with growth between now and 2044. The town southwest of Stratford is expected to continue growing at a rate of about 1.5 per cent per year, reaching a total population of about 10,500 over the next 22 years, according to a staff report.
Some of the development guidelines approved by councillors this week include increasing maximum height and density limits to four storeys and 90 units per hectare in some areas. In addition to encouraging developers to consider building a wider range of housing options, the amendments will also allow leeway in areas previously off limits, including the development of residential units on the ground floor of new commercial buildings in parts of downtown outside of the core.
In that case specifically, “we’re hoping that (policy) will provide some additional impetus to bring more housing into the downtown,” planner Mark Stone said Wednesday. “Bringing people who can walk to the downtown, live close by, that’s a huge factor ensuring that downtowns thrive.”
Addressing the need in St. Marys for more diversified housing options in general was an “extremely important” part of the process to update the town’s official plan, Stone added.
“What we’re trying to do is improve the situation where if you’re an employer in town, you’re confident your employees can live locally,” he said. “We’re also trying to create a situation where a person, a family, can live in St. Marys their entire lives if they’d like to, and don’t feel like they have to go somewhere else because they don’t have the housing choices that they need.”
Balancing out policies encouraging intensification are enhanced policies to protect the character of neighborhoods when considering lot size, lot coverage, building heights, and other variables during the development process, Stone said.
“I think (the amendments to the official plan) set out the rules of the game more clearly,” he said. “What these policies do is make it very clear the expectations when there is an infill or intensification application and that’s not just for the developer, that’s for council and for residents.”
An overview of the town’s official plan amendment process and the final document can be found online.
The changes have been forwarded to the provincial government for final approval. Stone is hopeful officials will sign off on the document within the next 120 days.
“This updated official plan has now a wide range of additional policies that are intended to at least at the local level try to address the affordable and attainable housing problem that we see everywhere,” he said.