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Council takes time to ponder Development Charges

By Stew Slater
Staff reporter

St. Marys Town Council was informed, unequivocally by a representative from B.M. Ross Engineering, that the town will definitely need a second water tower to accommodate existing and future needs.

But at a Public Meeting into a proposed increase in the town’s Development Charges on Tuesday, Nov. 27, there was less certainty offered regarding the short-term necessity of a big expansion in the Thomas Street wastewater treatment plant.

Both the second water tower and the treatment plant expansion were identified earlier this year in a Master Servicing Plan created by Stratford-based engineering consulting firm Burnside. According to Gary Scandlan, representative from a third consulting firm — Watson and Associates — that wrote the proposed Development Charges bylaw amendments, the release of the Burnside report was a major reason why changes were made in the proposal between the original “background study” and the most recent proposal.

A year ago, Watson and Associates came up with a proposal to significantly increase the town’s Development Charges, originally called “Lot Levies” until provincial legislation created the new name in 1989. The charges were last set in St. Marys in 2004.

Legislation calls for public consultation into proposed changes, and the Town conducted a number of meetings with builders and developers over the past several months. The public consultation process culminated in a Public Meeting as part of Council’s regularly-scheduled meeting on Nov. 27, with Scandlan making a brief presentation outlining the process.

The new proposal calls for a phased-in increase, starting by jumping from the current $2,600 per single-family dwelling to $5,000 on March 1, 2013, and eventually rising to $7,180 by January, 2015. They would apply only to residential developments; no fee would be appied to non-residential developments.

“The Development Charges background study has a one-year active usefulness . . . If we go past that, it’s not a big deal but we would probably have to go back and revisit some of the figures,” Scandlan told councillors.

This didn’t sit well with some councillors. Told they had a Dec. 4 deadline for them to approve the proposal and still fall within the one-year time frame, both Stephen McCotter and Bill Osborne said they didn’t want to feel pressured into a vote.

“This is really the first time that we have had a good look at this (most recent) proposal,” Osborne cautioned. And, later in the meeting, McCotter said he valued the reputation Watson and Associates brought to the table when it was contracted by the town last year to come up with a renewed Development Charges bylaw, but he personally questioned the validity of some of the Burnside report’s Master Servicing Plan recommendations.

About a dozen members of the public were in attendance — all of them representing either residential development companies or the building trades. Osborne brought a number of their concerns to Scandlan even before they had a chance to speak, reading from letters sent over the past few weeks to members of Council.

“I really do appreciate some of the great questions that Council has been asking,” said Thamescrest Farms representative Craig Linton, once he was given a chance to address the Public Meeting. “It’s really refreshing to hear that.”

One big topic of discussion — both among councillors as well as the developers and builders — was inflow and infiltration into the town’s stormwater management system. Over the past few months, councillors have consistently pressured Town staff to come up with some way of quantifying how much preventable leakage there is into the municipality’s storm sewers. And, as CAO Kevin McLlwain stated at the Nov. 27 meeting, some progress has been made, thanks in part to assistance from B.M. Ross.

The engineering firm’s Matt Pearson, who was asked by McLlwain to attend the Public Meeting to address to topic, confirmed “you’re treating cleaner water than you need to.” Examples of preventable sources of leakage include incorrectly installed private sump pumps, but also the town’s own poorly-maintained utility hole covers.

“A lot of the costs are going to be attributed to lack of maintenance,” Pearson commented.

Linton was one who pressured Council to ensure the proposed Development Charge included no responsibility for paying for measures to decrease inflow and infiltration. “Curing the consequences of neglect at the expense of developers is simply not fair,” he said.

Responding to the pressure, however, McLlwain said at least one area of town has been identified as a source of excess inflow/infiltration. And it’s not an older part of town; it’s what the CAO described as a two-to-four year-old development.

Pearson, meanwhile, countered there is some justification in including a portion of inflow/infiltration measures in the proposed Development Charges, given that water going into to the new development has to run through those pipes just the same as the water going to existing developments.

Questioned about the projection for sewage plant upgrades, McLlwain said the ability of the town to tackle some inflow/infiltration should allow it to hold off for a few years. But that doesn’t change the fact that, compared with the one year-old background study proposal from Watson and Associates, the most recent Development Charges proposal includes an additional $700 per fee related to water (the new water tower) and wastewater.

Councillor Don Van Galen wondered about the logic behind not charging anything for non-residential development as a means of attracting industry.He said home construction is a very significant industry in St. Marys, and if an increased Development Charge leads to a decrease in housing starts, Council could be blamed.

“Housing in this town is a big part of providing employment and a regular tax base,” Van Galen said. “I think we should be very careful about pushing the charges where we start to lose the competitive edge that we’re carrying now. We need to encourage this industry when we consider those rates.”

Council opted not to move forward with a vote before the Dec. 4 Watson and Associates deadline.

But, in response to Van Galen, Mayor Steve Grose cautioned that “whatever (costs the Town incurs for servicing) you don’t put in the Development Charge is paid for by the existing tax base. We are going to have to do something with it . . . I think we have to find the happy medium.”

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