Process begins for Official Plan and zoning review

By Ken Kellar
Staff writer

Work is underway on developing a brand-new Official Plan for the Town of Fort Frances, as well as a comprehensive review of its zoning by-law.

At Monday night’s meeting of Town of Fort Frances council and administration, Justyna Garbos of WSP Canada Inc., the company that is working with the town to develop the new plan, presented an overview of the work that will be undertaken over the next few months to develop the new plan and review the zoning by-law.

Garbos, who is serving as the project lead and working alongside other members of WSP Canada and town of Fort Frances transportation superintendent Cody Vangel, explained that the town’s official policy and zoning by-law are part of a chain of regulating documents that step down from the Ontario Planning Act and Provincial Policy Statement. Where the Ontario Planning Act is the most broad of the documents, the Official Plan and Zoning By-law each become more specific and fine-grained in terms of what they encompass and regulate.

“The Official Plan is kind of your guiding document that has the vision, principles and policies for managing development within your municipality,” Garbos said.

“It must adhere and have the content that is specified within the Ontario Planning act within it, and the Planning Act speaks to the process around how an Official Plan is created, how it eventually gets approved, and it does have requirements for engagement and input with the various stakeholders: technical agencies, indigenous communities, and the local population as well. At a more detailed level as far as managing development is your Zoning By-law.”

The Zoning By-law, itself a legal document, regulates the use of land within the municipality, along with buildings and structures on the land. As such, it is intrinsically tied to the town’s Official Plan and uses that framework to manage potential conflicts between incompatible land uses, as well as the properties themselves. Examples of items regulated by the zoning By-Law would be the permitted uses for a building, the height and massing of a building, property setbacks, and lot size and width, among others.

The town’s current Official Plan dates back to 2011, and received approval from the Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing (MMAH) on December 3, 2012. As a 10-year-old document, the plan is “ready for being opened up for review and refresh” according to Garbos. The review and update is in accordance with Section 26 of the Planning Act and 2020 Provincial Policy Statement, and will ensure that the town’s official documents are reflective of what the province requires of municipalities.

“As part of these updates, there will be community engagement,” Garbos said.

“We will be reaching out to external agencies that might have an interest to have all of those interests reflected in the new documents. At the end of the process here will be an opportunity for the incoming council to adopt a new Official Plan.”

Once completed, the process would not need to be done again for another 10 years as the resulting Official Plan will be brand-new, as opposed to simply a revised version of the existing plan.

In order to put together a new Official Plan, the project team has designated six separate phases of the process that encompass briefings to council, like the one on Monday night, and several opportunities to meet and hear from community members, stakeholders and local Indigenous communities. From these phases, the project team is expected to deliver several documents to accompany and inform the creation of the final plan and zoning By-Law, including a Community Background Report, Policy Recommendations Report and new or updated policies that will consider the town’s 2018 Asset Management Plan and the input gathered from the town and other sources.

The overall process is long and fairly complicated, so Garbos noted they have several plans and opportunities to involve the community and others by creating a Community Engagement Program that will bring in an advisory committee to provide background information, technical input at key milestones and feedback from meetings.

“Part of the engagement program is to build awareness around the project, to get residents excited about this update and make them informed of what it means to them individually, to their communities, to the places they live, work and play in,” Garbos said.

“To build that awareness we will be using the tools at our disposal, which include the town’s website, existing social media channels, to get the word out and solicit feedback at key milestones. We’ll also be running newspaper ads for the Statutory Public Meetings and optional engagement tools that we could use include buck slips and tax bill or other municipal communication to residents, radio ads, if the need arises and it would be appropriate.”

Additional participation methods for the community could include in-person and online surveys, a dedicated email and mailing list, and project branding. Garbos noted the team also has a duty to consult with Indigenous communities and representatives.

The project team is committed to ensuring the Engagement Program is providing communication in a way that is accessible and age-friendly, which Garbos said they would take into account when it comes time to develop specific communication strategies.

The rough time frame provided for the project will see an In-Person Open House and public survey sometime in early Fall of 2022, with the final draft policy and recommendations report ready for the late Fall of 2022. The resulting products will need ministerial approval before being adopted by the town.

Once Garbos had completed her presentation to council, Councillor Doug Judson sought clarification on how customized to each individual municipality the process of creating the official plan is when WSP Canada Inc. undertakes these projects. Garbos noted the initial planning work is relatively similar, and the individual or specific needs of each municipality begin to shine through once the team starts to receive and process the feedback submitted through surveys and open houses.

“This is where the engagement and communication program becomes of utmost importance, because it’s through those local contacts and residents, those that live and reside in the community, where we get that insight into what will work in the Town of Fort Frances,” she said.

“Being a consulting firm, we have other municipal clients, so we can propose or recommend best practices that we see in similarly sized and located municipalities. We do have colleagues at WSP who have considerable northern Ontario experience and experience in Indigenous engagement, so we will be soliciting them at those key points to make sure we set ourselves up for success.”

Judson also voiced some concerns over the potential for a project of this magnitude to miss marginalized or under-represented groups, and said he feels the project team may have to hunt for input from people who may not otherwise speak up.

“A lot of the people whose needs need to be addressed by this process are not typically people who we hear from very often,” Judson said. 

“They’re people who are struggling with housing, lower socio-economic status, that are looking for the community to be more responsive to some of those needs than it has in the past.”

Garbos said she’d welcome recommendations of local advocacy groups or housing cooperatives that the team could then speak to in order to ensure as many different groups in town are represented through the Official Plan.

“We need to kind of put our feet on the ground and knock on a few doors to get our messaging out,” she said.

“There’s certainly flexibility in our approach to make sure that those underrepresented voices are reflected in these really important documents.”

For more information about the Town of Fort Frances New Official Plan and Comprehensive Zoning By-Law review, go to the town’s dedicated webpage at