Better Planning for Rural Lots in Grey County by Jim Merriam

One county in rural Ontario is taking steps to deal with restrictions on its future as home to a higher population. Grey County, off the southern end of Georgian Bay, wants to increase the number of lots allowed on rural-designated lands in its municipalities.

Grey is a major cattle and sheep-producing county with hog, dairy and poultry farms spotted across the landscape. Tourism also is a big industry, particularly in the eastern areas of the county. Grey, like most counties in rural Ontario, is made up of a number of communities, both large and small, varying from small city-size to hamlets and townships.

In the past, an overriding planning principle restricted most rural lots, including farms, to one dwelling. Subdivisions were the exception. Full disclosure: Our home is a second house on a farm property that is subject to a 10-year renewable zoning amendment. These restrictions on rural development forced building and growth into villages and other settlements where new houses could hook into at least a semblance of the services available to urban families. That process is in line with government initiatives – both past and present – to drive people towards such services, no matter if more housing made sense in that particular municipality.

That’s how you end up with subdivisions that are nothing but row upon row of three-story monstrosities on the outskirts of municipalities within driving distance of Toronto and other major cities across the province. This approach of squeezing new housing into relatively small areas left certain regions of the province with precious little development and therefore no growth in the tax base. For these municipalities the costs of operations continue to rise at the same rate as municipalities with new subdivisions, industrial developments and an influx of people.

Allowing more homes on strictly rural lots will help to relieve any housing crisis. Such an initiative also will provide an enhanced tax base and make good use of small plots of land.

It is imperative under any such movement that new rural homes do not gobble up agricultural land in any quantity. That can be left to the aforementioned major subdivisions that spring up constantly on the edges of built-up communities.

A county planner pointed out that Grey is better equipped to handle development outside of town and village boundaries because it has different lands designated “rural” and “agriculture”. The rural-designated lands are in the countryside but are not necessarily good for agriculture. These areas are prime for small housing developments. Using such lands for housing also changes the landscape in that not every house is constructed on the edge of a town or village. And not every house is a carbon copy of the one next door.

In other words, rural housing actually can improve assets of a municipality while at the same time enhancing, rather than ruining its ambiance.

Although Grey County is putting the proposal forward, certain areas of the county will be reluctant to approve the kinds of development the county envisions. Blue Mountains, an economically stable four-season resort community within a couple of hours of Toronto, fears the new approach will result in more residential estate lots that could drive up land prices. That has been a problem in the area that features ski hills, waterfront playgrounds and other amenities that tend to attract the big money crowd from urban Ontario. An official of Blue Mountains had this to say on the subject, “It is going to increase the land values in our town even further. There will be no attainable housing in our community at all.”

In a remarkable admission she added, “You can’t afford to live there as it is.”

The new proposal for rural lots should have the opposite effect in other parts of the county that are more remote from urban areas. With more lots it would make sense that land prices would at least stay steady, if not decrease slightly.

As our cities get more crowded and harder to govern, we must move more people and industries to rural Ontario. The alternative is more of the congestion that currently drives city dwellers and visitors to the Big Smoke, crazy.

But moves to rural Ontario must be done in a sensible, well planned way, instead of the haphazard developments that marked our past. Modern septic systems work better than some sewage systems that spill excess into lakes and rivers. Plus, thousands of private wells provide potable water to rural residents on a regular and reliable basis. Those two factors ensure modern services even on the most remote land.

Spreading out developments a bit on land not ideal for agriculture is an idea whose time has come. The Grey County plan still requires provincial approval and the province remains married to the report from several years ago that said rural communities should be left to die a natural death because it’s too hard to provide services and amenities outside of urban areas.

That report, obviously penned by city folks, should have been scrapped years ago. Approval of the Grey County plan hopefully will help move the report further to the back of the shelf.

Meanwhile, other rural municipalities should watch the outcome in Grey carefully for clues that might help them improve their own futures.