Changes to the province’s rules for development approvals have led the Town of Collingwood to propose some rule changes of their own, one of which will clear dormant files off the desks of planners after four months.
The town's planning staff have turned their attention to the files that are lingering on their desks without making progress, and have pitched council on a new process to close developer application files that have been inactive for months, particularly since the province says municipalities now have to refund fees for applications that take too long.
A report presented by the town’s senior planner, Mark Bryan, included a list of reasons the town should be formalizing a process for closing files that have been inactive for months and requiring applicants to reapply when they are closer to building what they propose.
“Dormant files present risks,” said Bryan during a June 5 committee of the whole meeting of Collingwood council.
Not only do they require staff time to maintain, but dormant files can also end up costing the town money if an appeal is made for indecision, and under the new provincial planning framework, the town could be obligated to return application fees if certain timelines aren’t met.
According to Ontario legislation that takes effect Jul 1, 2023, municipalities have 60 days to make a decision on a plan of subdivision application, 90 days for a zoning bylaw amendment, and 120 days for an official plan amendment. After those deadlines, the applicant is eligible for a refund of the application fees ranging from 50 to 100 per cent depending on how many days pass without a decision.
According to Bryan’s report, in situations of land speculation, a landowner may make an application to the town far in advance of any intended building project for speculative purposes such as increasing the value of the land, or to lock in development charges, or to get an application in before legislation or municipal official plan changes.
“The town addressing dormant files sends a message to the development community that quick action is expected, moving to shovels in the ground as soon as possible,” states Bryan’s report. “If proponents are not prepared to work with the town to review and process their applications quickly, they should delay their application submission.”
Currently, the town has no formal process to close files that have been dormant, nor does it have a definition for what constitutes a dormant file, said the town’s director of planning, Summer Valentine, in an email to CollingwoodToday.
“Without a process in place or definition related to file inactivity, files would remain open until the point of decision, unless they were voluntarily withdrawn by the applicant,” wrote Valentine.
Based on the staff proposal that was presented to council’s committee of the whole on June 5, a dormant file would be defined as one with four consecutive months of inactivity on the applicant’s end. Staff would also send a warning to the applicant after three months of inactivity warning them of the closure policy and their application status. A file would not be considered inactive if an applicant was waiting on information or comments from the town.
“We wouldn’t penalize a developer based on staff delay,” said Valentine during the meeting.
She also told council that while some municipalities already have a policy in place to close dormant files, most, if not all, will be working on one with shorter dormancy periods in light of the provincial changes to planning rules via the build more homes act.
Being able to close dormant files and require reapplication from the developer also helps make sure applications are reviewed against current planning policies and standards. A development application that takes a long time may also come with reviews that are no longer appropriate based on the community values and priorities, as well as municipal planning bylaws, of the day.
According to the staff report, there are currently between five and 10 planning application files that would be considered dormant under the proposed system. More than half the town's applications for subdivision plans, zoning amendments, site plan amendments and control agreements, and official plan amendments are from pre-2021.
While council was generally supportive of a process to close dormant files and free up staff time to work on files that are proceeding through the process expeditiously, some councillors were concerned that closing a dormant file would be a staff decision and not a council one.
Councillor Deb Doherty and Deputy-Mayor Tim Fryer said the decision might be better as a council vote, though it would slow down the process, which might end up being counter-productive.
Sonya Skinner, chief administrative officer for the town, sought to put their minds at ease by reminding them the decision to close the file based on four months of dormancy is straightforward and doesn’t commit the municipality to anything, instead it would be staff suggesting applicants re-think their proposals in order to bring them to the building step.
“This is about something not happening,” said Skinner. “And there still exists in this proposal the ability for unusual things to be elevated to council.”
The committee approved the proposal for closing dormant files, but asked staff to report back at the end of the year on how many files were closed through the process.
Council will still have to ratify the committee decision before the process is technically approved.