Alberton approves zoning criteria for group homes

Peggy Revell

Group homes will be permitted in both rural and rural-residential zoned areas of Alberton—if they meet certain criteria—now that the municipality’s council has approved changes to zoning bylaw following a June 23 public meeting.
“We considered this real thoroughly over the last six months or so, and this we feel is going to benefit the municipality 100 percent more than it has in the past,” said Alberton reeve Mike Hammond during the public meeting held prior to council approving amendments to zoning by-law #2002-39 which extended group homes as a permitted use in the rural residential and rural zones in the township—if certain criteria is met.
The amendments came almost a year after the township began reviewing its zoning bylaw pertaining to group homes after Weechi-it-te-win Family Services sought to relocate its Training and Learning Centre (TLC) there from Watten Township.
Under the updated bylaw, council has actually increased the amount of possible land where a group home would be allowed from just “rural-residential” to “rural” zoned areas as well, noted Reeve Hammond.
But other changes to the bylaw include such amendments as adding a restriction that the lot size must meet the minimum regulations for the applicable zone, and requiring a site plan control to “ensure that the size, scale appearance of the facility is compatible and integrates seamlessly with the existing residential structures and uses.”
As well, use of land for a group home is now permitted “only where it can be demonstrated that it can be undertaken without any adverse long-term impact to the environment, neighbouring properties, or the rural character of the neighbourhood.”
Another amendment included a policy whereby a group home could use land “where it can be demonstrated that there is a need for same to be established in the Township in order to serve present and future residents of the regional market area, as same defined in and governed by the Provincial Policy Statement, in which the Township is located.”
Under the newly amended bylaw, the definition of a crisis centre, dwelling unit, and group home has also been further clarified.
Setbacks from the natural gas transmission pipelines for rural, rural residential, business park industrial and open space zones were also amended, as per the request of the gas companies
The issue of land use and group homes first arose last summer when an Alberton resident requested a zoning bylaw amendment that would have seen a portion of their land located along Highway 11/71 re-zoned from “business park” to “institutional,” so Weechi-it-te-win could purchase the property for the TLC’s new site.
Alberton council eventually voted down the re-zoning request in August, reasoning that the proposed use of the land did not sufficiently conform to the township’s official plan and the intentions behind the “business park” zoning currently in place there.
Council also noted at the time there was “a clear mandate from the constituents [that were present at public meetings]” that a significant portion of Alberton residents did not want a group home of any kind in their township.
But it was also observed that under the existing zoning bylaw, a group home could be established in land zoned as “Rural Residential” without council having a say in the matter.
So council passed a resolution and interim control bylaw that prevented the “establishment or operation of a group home” on any land designated as “Rural Residential”—which would be in effect for a year—while they investigated whether or not “the group home use can be legally eliminated from the zoning bylaw” and “whether the most appropriate means of resolving issues with the group home use is to eliminate it as a permitted use or to modify and/or impose conditions related to the use,” as well as several other “planning and legal issues” related to the same.
The bylaw zoning changes approved at the June 23 meeting came as a result of the planning report put together over the past year.
“Please be aware that this matter concerns land use planning only and your comments must be limited to land use only,” warned Reeve Hammond as the public meeting got underway.
“The Ministry of Municipality Affairs and Housing as well as case law and Ontario Municipal court decisions have made it clear that people zoning is illegal—so comments concerning who may use property will not be allowed and will be disregarded by council,” he added.
Of the dozen who were in attendance, Alberton resident Dorothy Friesen was the only one to speak up with any concerns about the proposed amendments.
Friesen and her late husband, Melvin Stoltzfus, had appealed the township’s interim control bylaw to the Ontario Municipal Board, arguing that it “ha[d] the effect of excluding certain institutions (referred to generically as group homes) from operating in the Township,” was exclusive, and that the township must “strive to be more inclusive and expand and broaden its thinking in terms of business opportunities,” as outlined in the May decision by Justice of the Peace Seaborn.
Their appeal was ultimately dismissed, as “there are no planning expertise that sets out valid land use planning grounds to support the appeal, as currently constituted.” Justice of the Peace also “urge[d] the Township to consider carefully the objections and submissions of Ms. Friesen and the participants as their concerns are real.”
“Did you take into account the concerns that the OMB said were valid and real, and if you did, how are those concerns addressed in the bylaw,” Friesen asked council at the public meeting. “Did you intend in this bylaw to show your willingness to work, and provide a welcoming committee, is that part of the concern when you put the bylaw together?”
Friesen also asked council how they would ensure that the criteria under the proposed site control plan would not be applied prejudicially.
“Because the criteria is actually vague and it could be subject to widely different interpretations and [possible] prejudices,” she said, questioning how council will decide on if a facility “integrate seamlessly with existing structures and uses in the neighbourhood.”
Decisions will be based on provincial guidelines and policies, said Reeve Hammond in response to this question.
“If it looks like what the rest of the neighbourhood does, it’s seamless,” added Coun. Mike Ford about his interpretation. “But if a group home or a crisis centre were to go up and the next thing you know there’s a 10 foot concrete wall for security? That’s not seamless.”
“Ideally—an effective group home—it blends in with it’s surroundings,” he said, pointing to the various assisted living homes throughout Fort Frances which all fit in with their settings.
Three-storey buildings which obstruct people’s views is another example of how a building may not “blend in” with the surrounding area, he said.
“There’s no way in my opinion that [seamlessly] could be used to exclude somebody,” Ford reasoned. “Because when you’re doing the site plan—if you tell them it’s not seamless well they can go back to their architect, and say ‘this is the type of building we want, it has to blend in with where it’s at.’”
“It’s not an unreasonable control that’s being enacted—and you can make anything fit seamlessly,” he said, adding that group homes are “all about reintegration into communities.”
Friesen also questioned Council about the part of the bylaw amendment concerning the “long term impact” on the environment, neighbouring property and “rural character” of the neighbourhood, and how an institution would demonstrate that there would be no adverse long term impact “to [council’s] satisfaction.”
Septic fields were one of the examples of evaluating the adverse long-term impact, said Coun. Ford, when considering the number of residents who would be living at a location.
“Can the watershed in the area accommodate a septic field of that size? The septic field has to be effective enough not to contaminate other ground water supplies,” he said, listing other possible factors such as the water table, waste disposal, or if construction would significantly affect flora or fauna habitat.
As for “rural character,” Coun. Ford described that as “basically anything that doesn’t look like a city,” pointing to how for him, this includes larger lot sizes and greenery.
“Chances are, in Alberton, in my foreseeable future of being alive, having curbed sidewalks, sewer and water? I cannot really see that happening. And that’s part of the rural character,” he said, pointing to how residents have said that part of what they like about Alberton is that they have space “to be them.”
The draft bylaw was drafted “slightly before” the decision from the OMB came out, Coun. Ford also stated, “So the OMB’s decision weighed nothing on us on how we drafted this.”
Council would not answer whether or not under the new bylaw Weechi-it-te-win would be allowed to set up the TLC in Alberton, saying any decision would depend on the review of a submitted site plan.
“We can’t do what if’s—it’s unrealistic to make a decision on a ‘what-if’—it’s a variable,” stressed Coun. Ford. “That’s where having a site plan, by having a site plan into this amendment, it addresses ‘What ifs.’”
“We are making it easier for future people sitting around this table to make it easier for decisions for when stuff like this does come up, so we don’t have the fiasco that we had last time, we don’t have all this animosity,” he said. “It’s in black and white, we follow our policies and procedures, that’s the way it is.”
“We have put significant time and effort in to reviewing our zoning changes. We have what we feel is fair to all parties involved, and it takes the ‘you and me’ out of this, it’s a black and white document. This is what we follow. We all read it, this is what we follow. It’s a map, it’s a plan. It takes the variables out of it.
“In my personal opinion, I feel very confident with the document that we the council have created, I feel that it will be an excellent tool for the future of this township,” he stressed.