Consultant reports find planning ‘waste’ at city halls
Homebuilding has slowed in Waterloo Region
Local governments take three times longer than required to approve new homes despite aiming to build homes faster.
The province has directed municipalities to process development requests in 90 or 120 days. But on average, local governments take 227 or 396 days to do this — five to nine months longer than required.
The Record filed a Freedom-ofInformation request to obtain two consultants’ reports completed in 2020 and in 2021 along with internal emails by municipal planners referencing the reports.
This is because governments let applications sit while nobody works on them, consultants found in the reports. “The activities that have contributed to this waste have evolved over the years and have become standard,” consultants wrote.
By legislation, municipalities have 90 days to revise zoning and 120 days to revise an official plan, if a developer asks to build on a parcel of land by submitting a request that changes the use of that land. If timelines are not met, developers can seek a refund of planning fees and seek approval directly from the provincial planning tribunal.
For example, consultants found the City of Waterloo’s five-stage process for changes to its official plan takes 280 days, despite the 120-day deadline.
Studying every minute of Waterloo’s process, consultants found 12 days in which someone is actively working on an application. For 268 other days the request sits, waiting to move forward. This includes waiting time for approvals, notice time for meetings, and allowances for comments by other agencies.
It’s not uncommon for waiting to
account for 95 per cent ofthe time it takes to process a development application, consultants found.
To measure planning delays, local governments hired consulting firm Leading Edge Group to track 113 development requests to alter zoning or official plans in six municipalities between 2017 and 2020. Only 20 requests were processed within the required timelines, none ofthem in Kitchener, Cambridge o r Waterloo.
"It tells us what we generally already know;' said Larry Masseo, a professional planner who is president of the Waterloo Region Home Builders' Association. "My personal experience and my gut tells me in many cases, if not most cases, the process is longer than it needs to be."
This is a problem because "the quicker the approval, the quicker you can get into the ground to start building and bring to market," he said.
"All of this is just a red herring," said Kevin Thomason, an environmental advocate with the grassroots group Smart Growth Waterloo Region. "Good planning takes time and we need to get things right."
Thomason argues homebuilding is delayed not by slow municipal planning, but by developers not building on land already approved for homes.
Kitchener, Cambridge and Waterloo have been told by the province to add 70,000 homes by 2031, to fix a housing shortage that has reduced affordability. Construction is proceeding at just over halfthe pace needed to meet this target.
Consultants found that three rural townships in the region process development requests faster than the three cities. The townships of Wellesleyand Wilmot met a 90-day legislated timeline in two-thirds of requests to alter zoning.
Townships move faster than cities because they get fewer requests, developments tend to be less complex, governments are smaller with less time needed to prepare for council meetings, and because a township planner can typically control requests without further reviews or hand-offs.
"Much can be lea.rned from the townships," consultants wrote, pointing to the need in Kitchener, Cambridge and Waterloo to streamline the hand-off of development applications from one person to another. North Dumfries was not part ofthe study.
To speed development approvals, consultants recommended adopting standard planning processes across the region. This includes standard checklists, forms and submission requirements, standard circulation times, common software to track requests, standard public presentations and standard planning analysis.
Consultants said cities could shave 130 days off the time they take to revise official plans, mostly by eliminating or reducing waits between tasks. However, this "ideal state" would still exceed legislated timelines by 21 to 50 days, depending on when the clock starts ticking on the application process.
Municipal planners had a mixed response in 2021, according to emails.
"I am not sure ofthe value or need to develop a standard benchmark on turnaround times," Woolwich planning manager Jeremy Vink wrote.
Kitchener planning director Rosa Bustamante wrote that "the compressed timeline and ideal state does not match the majority ofour applications which are becoming increasingly more complex and often requiring additional public engagement."
"I recognize that providing the data provides ammunition to the development industry to validate their concerns," Wilmot development director Harold O'Krafka wrote. "Basically, we have no intention of modifying our processes to a standard process if it has the effect of increasing processing time."
Waterloo planning manager Natalie Hardacre questioned "the practical ability to implement the report recommendations , and whether or not they are realistic." She questioned if provincial timelines "can be reasonably achieved inafair, open and transparent planning process."
By spring 2022 municipalities stalled on what to do after consultants showed a path to speedier approvals. Regional planning manager Amanda Kutler pointed to competing priorities and staffturnover.
Waterloo announced this year it intends to speed its planning approvals by trimming public consultation, compressing timelines, delegating certain approvals to staff, reworking internal procedures, and hiring two more planners.
Even with these changes "it will b e extremelychallenging" to meet legislated deadlines, policy planner Dominik Simpson warned council.
Townships move faster than cities because they get fewer requests
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