Monday, March 31, 2014

Lemonade from the Town’s 32 Acres

Council recently approved an agreement to sell 7.8 acres of the 32 acres of Town-owned land at Regional Road 20 and Rice Road. Because we successfully completed the East Fonthill Secondary Plan and worked together with a developer for a new Medical Centre and Retirement Home, we agreed to sell for $375,000 per acre ($2.9 million) plus applicable servicing costs. (Please click here for agreement.)

You may recall that in March 2005, a previous Town Council purchased the 32 acres from Westerra Equities and borrowed $3.6 million ($112,021 per acre) to pay for it.

While this transaction predates my service as Mayor, I understand that the concept was to consolidate most Town services – arena, indoor pool, soccer and baseball fields, Town Hall, Library, and a multi-purpose facility – onto the property.

The purchase was also contentious because many thought that the Town overpaid. For example, the 2004 property appraisal assumed full water and sewer services; in reality, water and sewers weren’t installed for another three years. The appraisal also assumed 8.2 acres of commercial lands (valued at $188,000 per acre) and 23.4 of “business park” ($91,000 per acre); in reality it was all designated “business park” and zoned as agriculture. Finally, similar adjacent lands sold for far less just days ($88,000 per acre) or weeks ($66,000 per acre) before.

After I became Mayor we started paying down the loan’s principal. As of December 31, 2013, the Town has invested $1,984,212 in principal and paid $980,447 in interest with $1.6 million owing on the loan. (For detailed financial information, please click here.)

Some might say that they knew that the property would be worth far more in the future.

In reality, however, nothing was guaranteed.

You see, at the urging of a majority Landowner’s / Developer’s Group, that previous Council deferred approval of a Secondary Plan for East Fonthill in April 2006. When the Province changed all municipal planning in June 2006 – just as had been warned – the Plan needed a total overhaul.

Then, in September 2006, that Council gave control of the overhaul to the Landowner’s Group.

So, how did we fix the mess? In 2007, Council hired an expert to work directly with the Landowner’s Group to complete the required studies and guide their work. When it became clear that the work was stuck in the mire, Council retook control in 2011 and acted quickly, approving the Secondary Plan in April 2012. After the Region approved it in October 2012, it was appealed to the Ontario Municipal Board (OMB). Those small issues were settled in October 2013 and the OMB finally approved the Plan on January 30, 2014.

With hard work, vision, and determination we made major progress and turned “lemons” into “lemonade.”

We will continue to ensure more progress regarding this property over the coming months.

Monday, March 24, 2014

What Type of Growth for Pelham?

As I have written about before, Pelham has a few lands available for new growth – the largest being the “East Fonthill” area.

While much of the nearly 450 acres of East Fonthill lands have been farmed for years, the entire area was added to the Urban Boundary by an appeal to the Ontario Municipal Board (OMB) in 2000.

Recent questions in local media about whether property owners should be allowed to develop on those lands would have been asked and answered during the OMB’s weeks of hearings nearly 15 years ago.

When the OMB gave those approvals back then, one thing became inevitable – that growth would occur in Pelham.

What wasn't inevitable was the type of development – how it looked, how it felt, how many people living and working in the areas.

The OMB’s East Fonthill decision, for example, required the Town to undertake a more detailed planning process – a “Secondary Plan” – before allowing development to proceed.

The Town started to carefully develop the Plan in 2001; this included significant public sessions and hearings. The community wanted East Fonthill to include “…a full range and mix of housing types, a linked open space network that includes a variety of types of public parks, …protection of existing environmental features, and the community structure…[to] maximize connectivity within the community itself and to the Town Centre.”

More recent additions to the Plan include “walkability and cyclability”, the potential for community facilities, and the protection of the recently revitalized Fonthill Downtown.

After working diligently for many years, Council approved such a Plan in April 2012. After the Region approved it in October 2012, it was appealed to the Ontario Municipal Board. Those small issues were settled in October 2013 and the OMB approved the Plan on January 30, 2014, making the Plan a reality.

What’s next? Other public planning approvals – a draft Site Master Plan, zoning, site plans, neighbourhood plans – are required before finalizing development and shovels hit the ground.

And, Council wants your help on these next phases of deciding the type of development.

As I wrote about last month, with the help of Nationally-recognized urban designers and planners, Council developed a draft Site Master Plan for the commercial / mixed use area of East Fonthill (the northern part along Regional Road 20). We are seeking your feedback on that draft plan. Did we get it right? Have we reflected the wishes on the community on the type of development? What can we do to make it even better?

Please help Council improve these plans and ultimately the type of development that will occur in Pelham. Only with your help can we fulfill one of our major strategic goals: “Maintain our small-town feel as we grow.”

Please review the East Fonthill draft Master Plan and other documents at

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Taxpayer Relief? Not Now...Maybe Later

What started as a simple idea -- giving folks tax relief now instead of over the next four years -- turned into a debate about the authority of Regional Council.

During our finance committee meeting on February 19, Councillors approved Staff recommendations to allocate $13.7 million (M) in surpluses from 2013 into various reserves, including: $0.75M to Contingency Reserve; $0.75M to Niagara Regional Housing to mitigate a Federal funding loss; $0.85M to top-up Social Assistance Reserve; $3.9M to fund future waste management capital projects; $1.0M to Improvement Initiative Reserve (for cost saving measures); and $3.3M to Taxpayer Relief Reserve.

The $3.3M to the Taxpayer Relief Reserve was to “…be used in the operating budget" to provide a buffer against tax increases over the next four years. The reserve would allow future Councils to increase overall spending greater than increases in property taxes.

While one Councillor (Petrowski) suggested that some of the surplus be "given back to taxpayers" in 2014, he didn't try to amend the recommendations during our Committee meeting.

Upon reflection, his comments resonated with me as the Region's Budget Chair.

Why hold on to $3.3M of people’s money now when we are to "give it back" in 2015-18 anyway?

Having just had a visit from the credit rating service, we knew that the Region’s reserves are in good shape.

We are also expecting significant operational savings as we implement a new financial management system, reorganize the Region, and identify additional efficiencies.

In addition, not taxing residents and businesses $3.3M in 2014 would “hold our feet to the fire”; it would remove the temptation of spending the funds on non-priority initiatives and force us to justify any future tax increases.

So, at the February 27 Regional Council meeting, Councillor Heit and I tried to amend the motion and to use the $3.3M to reduce the 2014 Regional tax increase.

What happened? We debated our amendment for two-hours; some Councillors favoured the proposal, a few suggested we keep half, and some wanted to hold on to it all.
Then, immediately after Council voted to "call" the vote on our amendment, Staff said that we couldn’t because it would be a “reconsideration” of our Surplus / Deficit Policy.

Undaunted, I argued that the Surplus / Deficit Policy is administrative because it “…applies to all regional departments” and not to Regional Council. Further, the policy outlines the clear role of Staff (to recommend) and of Council (to approve/disapprove).

In the end, the majority of Council voted that the amendment was a “reconsideration” of the policy, required a week’s notice and two-third’s of Council to even contemplate!

That's how the straightforward idea of giving people tax relief now got stuck in the machinations of your Regional government.