Yakabuski pledges to work with County of Renfrew in modifying Official Plan – By Debbi Christinck

The County of Renfrew Official Plan has created quite a stir locally with punitive restrictions on development and a lot of frustration from local residents, but a meeting last week between Renfrew-Nipissing-Pembroke MPP John Yakabuski and county officials shows a glimmer of hope for change on the controversial plan.

The MPP, who is also the minister of Natural Resources and Forestry, has promised to take the county concerns to Toronto and has already spoken with Premier Doug Ford and other senior cabinet ministers about the local concerns and granting the county the opportunity to make amendments to the plan at a local level. He has been promised the county will be given this flexibility and now he will take the other requests back to Queen’s Park. A former small businessman and lifelong resident of Barry’s Bay, he said he knows the challenges faced by municipalities and residents in the area.

“I recognize as well as anyone development is of paramount importance for municipalities to increase their assessment,” he stated. “We are not living in the same constraints as the Golden Horseshoe. We need plans commensurate with the quality of life in rural Ontario.”

The county official plan, which has been in the development stage for several years beginning before the Ford Conservatives came to power, was approved recently and returned to the county with some major and minor changes which county officials felt would stifle development in the area. The backlash from the elected was fast and furious and when a meeting was planned with Mr. Yakabuski, there was the desire to not only reach out to him as the MPP for the riding, but also in his capacity as Minister of Natural Resources and Forestry and a part of cabinet of the government in power.

The ZOOM meeting last Thursday, which included not only senior county officials, Warden Debbie Robison, members of the planning staff and members of Mr. Yakabuski’s office, was quite productive, he felt.

“It was made clear the county had significant concerns about the plan and the timing in when they received the plan in the initial stage of the pandemic when everyone’s focus was on the pandemic,” he said.

There were several concerns raised by the county and they will all be delineated in a letter to make it easier for him to pass on to the government, he said. The first request was for a deferral of the implementation of the plan, which was a request which originally stemmed from Bonnechere Valley council.

The second request was for an exemption, granting the county the right to make exemptions. Mr. Yakabuski said he had already spoken to Minister of Municipal Affairs and Housing (MMAH) Steve Clarke and Premier Ford on this issue. Both said they would accept this request.

“When the request is received and they go through the process, it will be granted,” he promised.

The final request was to deal with the “unfinished” discussion on the plan with provincial officials from the government.

“It is the county’s position there were unfinished discussions,” he said.

In his position as minister of Natural Resources and Forestry, Mr. Yakabuski will also be having some discussions on the boundaries which were established in the county mapping.

“I will look at how those were arrived at,” he said. “Any issues dealing with my ministry, I have questions on how those boundaries were established.”

One of the areas of frustration are the deer wintering yards which were established, but there are also other mapping issues, he said.

Mr. Yakabuski said he felt the meeting with the county went well and the issues were made clear. He said he will pass on the required documentation to his cabinet colleagues on these issues of dispute.

“I do believe we will find a way to make this workable for the good people of Renfrew County,” he said.

Cooperative Effort

Warden Robinson said she was very pleased with the conversation with Mr. Yakabuski and his staff.

“He was wonderful. He did not question our concerns. He could relate to them,” she said. “He shares our concerns and will do everything possible for us.”

The warden said the county was caught a bit off guard by the province approving the plan 10 days into the declaration of a State of Emergency in the province in late March. County staff were busy in planning for the pandemic and there were staff working from home. As well, county council wanted the planning department to have time to make a thorough presentation on the official plan, so when the plan was presented in late May, there was quite a bit of frustration at what the province had removed from the county’s version of the plan. Giving the example of Killaloe, Hagarty and Richards, where much of the township has been turned into deer wintering yards, she said it was easy to see why Mayor Janice Visneskie Moore was upset.

“How do you move forward?” the warden said. “Now you can’t sever your property because you are feeding deer?”

“People were upset and wanted to know where we go from here,” she added.

The county had also been working on the plan for some time, including the open houses where hundreds of people showed up, so to have much of this disregarded was very frustrating.

Warden Robinson said Mr. Yakabuski will be acting as an intercessor for the county and taking the request to have the plan implementation delayed to January 1, 2021.

“We have at least 88 planning and development applications which were started or in the preliminary stages,” she said.

Having them go through the process with the “old” plan would make more sense.

The other requests for the ability to make amendments and for a sit-down meeting with MMAH staff about the plan and the Provincial Policy Statement are also crucial, she said.

“I believe a conversation can happen and will happen,” she said.