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Good data key to sustainable plans expert tells Grey Highlands council

'Ask [people] what they’re actually looking for and push back on some of the assumptions like we’re going to keep doing what we have been doing,' says Jesse Helmer of Smart Property Institute
Sustainability expert Jesse Helmer speaks to Grey Highlands council.

A sustainability expert has told Grey Highlands council to expect higher growth rates in the coming years as demographics continue to change and housing needs evolve.

Jesse Helmer, the senior research association at the Smart Property Institute and a PhD candidate in political science at Western University, attended the Grey Highlands council committee of the whole meeting on May 22 to talk about sustainability, demographic trends and what future growth will look like.

Helmer, a former councillor and deputy mayor in the City of London, told Grey Highlands representatives that demographic shifts and evolving housing needs are going to keep local growth rates on the rise in the coming years.

“I think you should expect it to stay high,” Helmer said of local growth rates. “You’re going to have higher growth rates than you’ve been experiencing. I think it’s not going to go away. I don’t think the pressure is going to let off the next 10 years.”

Helmer said it’s important for municipalities to be prepared for the coming wave of growth. He said having plans in place and updated planning documents and development charges studies are important, along with solid infrastructure.

He said in London, they quickly went from a community experiencing modest growth to suddenly becoming one of the fastest-growing communities in the country.

“It was a bit of a shock,” he said. “Fast growth can sometimes get away from you. Having a plan in place before that happens is very smart.”

He said it can be difficult for small municipalities to keep up, because they generally plan for the levels of development activity they are used to seeing. He used London as an example and said the city completed an Official Plan update in 2016, but the time the updated plan was in place several years later (after appeals) – it was out of date.

“Our mechanisms for planning and growth strategies are being challenged,” he said. “You have to make sure your development charges and infrastructure plan make sense for the community.”

Helmer also said it is incredibly important for municipalities to have good data about where their growth is coming from.

One slide in his presentation detailed where Grey County’s population growth is coming from. Helmer focussed on the intra-provincial migration (Ontario residents moving to another part of the province) numbers that show just as many young families are moving to Grey County as older people looking to retire. He said that this kind of migration pattern creates different needs for housing and servicing.

“I think you do have to pay attention to what people are looking for and ask them. Ask them what they’re actually looking for and push back on some of the assumptions like we’re going to keep doing what we have been doing,” he said, pointing out that Grey County is seeing growth in two big groups – families with kids and retiring people. “I actually think what you’re seeing in the community is different kinds of people are moving into your community for two very different reasons and they’re looking for two different kinds of housing options. If you only focussed on one group – families with kids – you would be really making a big mistake.”

Helmer said it is a trend that should continue.

“These phenomena are not going to go away. You can expect that to stay high – people are going to keep retiring and people are going to keep having kids,” he said.

Coun. Joel Loughead told Helmer that at times it feels like local municipalities are being asked to fix problems stemming from provincial and federal government policies.

“There is an immense amount of pressure on us to handle housing – especially affordable housing. It feels like we’re working to solve a problem that is federal and provincial,” said Loughead.

Deputy Mayor Dane Nielsen said over the past three terms of council, Grey Highlands has been able to project that growth is coming and has worked to get ready for the changes coming.

“We’ve seen the growth train coming and have done our best to prepare for it,” said Nielsen. “We’ve been proactive in seeing what is coming and we’re seeing the advantages to being prepared.”

Mayor Paul McQueen said for many years Grey Highlands grew about 0.5 per cent year, he said now they’re seeing growth rates of two per cent, which is significantly higher than in the past.

“I’ve seen a lot of change,” he said. “With new growth comes new challenges. It’s always evolving.


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About the Author: Chris Fell, Local Journalism Initiative reporter

Chris Fell covers The Blue Mountains and Grey Highlands under the Local Journalism Initiative, which is funded by the Government of Canada
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