This edition of Township Watch is again being sent to current members and some past members. If you are the latter, we would love to have you once again as current members. You can join through our web site (www.muskokaratepayers.ca), or by contacting us at 705-765-0022. Memberships renewals will be valid through December 2013.
In our Township Watch of December 2012, we reported that the Township of Muskoka Lakes had received an application for Attainable Housing that had already been approved by the District of Muskoka. The Township of Muskoka Lakes is the only municipality in the District of Muskoka without "rent-geared-to-income social housing" or "affordable housing". Attainable housing is desperately required. To achieve a vibrant economy we require both producers and consumers at every level. Ours is becoming heavily skewed towards the upwardly mobile, retirees and seasonal residents. We need a full time population capable of delivering necessary goods and services, which will decline as fewer and fewer people can afford to live here year round.
Unfortunately, this project which would have been of great benefit to our Township has been "quashed before it begins". With the author's permission we are circulating to you the developer's version of what has occurred. Mayor Murphy's response is posted immediately below Mr. Knight's letter. Further information can be found in the December 26th edition of the Bracebridge Examiner, including a letter to the editor written by former District Councillor Mary Grady, as well as in the December 19th and January 2nd editions of What's Up Muskoka.
Dear Members of Muskoka Lakes Council,
It is with regret that I report that the Muskoka Artisan Lofts development planned for 1001 Grey St, Bala has been canceled. (ed. note - 1001 Grey Street is a side street off 169 opposite Oliver's)
The development was to include approximately 2,000 sq. ft. of exciting retail art space and three residential two bedroom apartments. The project promised to be a best practices example of how attainable housing can be successfully integrated within the community. The plans had been thoughtfully prepared after studying successful examples of similar projects in other tourist based communities in Canada. Developers and operators of two similar projects were involved in the design process, as well as a local architectural firm with significant experience in this realm. The proposal won considerable praise at District Community Services and was selected through an RFP process to be recommended to the province to receive $100,000 in Investment in Affordable Housing program funding. Such funding would be a first for the Township of Muskoka Lakes.
As a requirement of the provincial program, the proposal was designed to meet existing zoning by-laws for the property and required only minor amendments to the previously approved site plan in order to complete Planning Act processes. Specifically, the required amendments were the addition of a number of windows on the south (MR 169) elevation of the building design approved last Summer. Under the current approvals, there are no windows at all on the wall that faces the main street. By all accounts, the proposal represents a significant improvement to the Bala streetscape.
In keeping with standard protocol for site plan applications, I requested a site plan pre-consultation meeting which was scheduled for last Wednesday, December 12th and was attended by Councillors Nishikawa and Burgess, Mayor Murphy, new CAO Chris Wray and Interim Planning Director David Pink. Typical site plan processes of a minor nature often take place at the staff level, but in my experience, Muskoka Lakes highly politicizes site plan processes (which is not a public process) and so I requested the relevant members of Council attend as well. The purpose of the meeting was to discuss these minor improvements and to determine the manner in which the site plan amendment application may be brought forward.
It quickly became evident in that meeting that Mayor Murphy was fiercely opposed to the proposal and that she was prepared to pursue a number of unsavoury avenues outside of the planning realm in order to quash the project.
Mayor Murphy indicated she would not support the project because she did not approve of the internal layout of the building. Interim Planning Director David Pink advised that the township had no jurisdiction over the interior of the building in the site plan process, but that was to no avail. She quickly dismissed discussions surrounding the innovation in design and that the project mimicked a similar award winning project in Collingwood. Instead, Mayor Murphy stated that "no one wants retail on the second level" and that "as the former CFO of a retailing company" she was the authority on retail design. I plead that frankly, since it is my financial investment and my project (not to mention my sole legal right), I ought to be the one to make the determination as to the interior design of the space. Alice reminded me that she was "the Mayor!" and as such, it would be her who would make such determinations, notwithstanding any planning policy justification or legal jurisdiction to do so.
Mayor Murphy also expressed a lack of support for the project because she felt the project was inconsistent with the official plan, stating that the predominant use in the C3 zoning shall be for retail and general commercial activities. David Pink confirmed that while these statements do exist in the official plan, the relevant law is the existing zoning by law in place for the property and that the C3 zone does not require a predominant commercial use that, in fact, a proposal which was solely residential in use would meet the requirements of the by law. Again, in spite of any planning policy justification or legal jurisdiction, the Mayor indicated she was firmly opposed to the proposal on the basis of the statements in the OP.
This is particularly puzzling, because the zoning by law for the property was signed by Mayor Murphy only a year ago. I asked Mayor Murphy, if the planning principles from the official plan she continues to exert are so crucially important as to kill this project why were they not incorporated into the zoning by law? I did not receive an answer to my question. Indeed, excerpts from the October 11th 2011 Committee of the Whole meeting indicated: "In response to Committee's concern regarding the possibility of staff housing, Mr. Fahner indicated Committee could limit permitted uses, and / or eliminate residential uses." Clearly Alice did not feel so strongly about this issue a year ago to heed Mr. Fahner's advise. Having ignored the issue at that time, it’s difficult to understand why it is so significant now, except as an (uncompelling) argument to attempt to quash the proposal. If Mayor Murphy were truly supportive of attainable housing, I expect she would stand behind the zoning by law she so very recently ascribed her signature to.
Finally, in an attempt to quash the project, Mayor Murphy continues to attempt to suggest impropriety in the awarding of the provincial funding because of my volunteer activities as a member of the Muskoka Attainable Housing Advisory Table ("MAHAT"). MAHAT Chair Coleman and District Community Services Chair Williams both confirmed to Alice that MAHAT had no involvement in the RFP process. They both confirmed that the process was transparent and legitimate. Yet, when I asked Mayor Murphy pointedly in our meeting if she was now satisfied in that regard, she indicated that she was not and that she would raise the issue with Council, should a site plan application on the project be put forth. As Mayor Murphy is herself well aware, the perception of a conflict can be as harmful as an actual one. Mayor Murphy's clear willingness to convey that perception is an egregious disservice to me personally, my business, the Muskoka Artisan Lofts project, senior District staff and the good works of the Muskoka Attainable Housing Advisory Table.
It is for these reasons that I have abandoned the project. While I am reminded by others that she is only one vote, Mayor Murphy's lawless, bullying approach is so unorthodox as compared to the other six municipalities in which I carry on my development business that, frankly, I don't want to invest any (more) money within Muskoka Lakes while it is under her leadership. I suspect in many aspects, this satisfies her mandate. While Alice publicly points to the township's strategic plan as evidence that she is, in fact, supportive of attainable housing, her conduct behind closed clearly is not. This is a consistent challenge for those of us who work in the affordable housing realm, but it is unfortunate, because the people of Muskoka Lakes deserve better. Alice ought to represent all members of the Muskoka Lakes community. So for the suppliers, construction trades people, retail employees, arts community, cottagers, surrounding businesses and housing recipients who would all have benefited from this exciting project, I am sorry.
Thanks to David Pink and Councillors Nishikawa and Burgess for their efforts to steer the discussion in a proactive way. I encourage all Council members to investigate this matter further with CAO Wray who took very thorough notes throughout the meeting and I thank all Council members for your continued contributions to our community. I appreciate how difficult your jobs are, I am optimistic for a brighter future for Muskoka Lakes in spite of current predicaments and I look forward to returning to work in Muskoka Lakes when the environment has changed.
Greg Knight B.A.,
It is my understanding that you are in receipt of correspondence today from Mr. Knight, regarding a proposed attainable housing project in Bala for which certain provincial grant monies would be directed through the District of Muskoka. I provide my comments as follows:
As with all planning issues, there is a process, and we need to respect the process.
Mr. Knight is well within his rights to proceed with the project on the basis of the current site plan. Should he wish to alter the site plan, he will need to return to Council, as per the will of Council, expressed on December 3, 2012. As I have indicated a number of times to Mr. Knight, my comments represent my views, and not that of Council.
I am highly supportive of attainable and accessible housing, as is TML Council, recognizing that this is an intrinsic link to the economic health of our community and residents. How can we not be given the real financial challenges facing our seasonal economy and so many of our constituents?
Further, the Township seeks to promote vital commercial cores in our urban communities, as reflected in our official plan which states that the predominant use of the C3 zoning shall be for retail and general commercial activities, including offices, dining establishments, and places of entertainment. Accordingly, approval was provided last year to allow the property to be rezoned from single family residential to commercial, with specific reference to the construction of a yoga studio. This construction did not progress, and an application has now been brought forward by Mr. Knight which will shift the primary use of the property from commercial to multi-residential.
I am not supportive of housing, other than ancillary, in the core commercial corridors of our urban communities. I view this as short term reactive planning and not reflective of the development of successful and walkable retail-focused areas that are critical to the long term financial health of our communities. This view is consistent with our Official Plan, but unfortunately our C3 zoning has not yet been appropriately updated.
There is no doubt that attainable housing, and financial incentives related thereto present important and critically needed opportunities to our communities.
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