It’s not the sexiest issue in local politics, but land use planning determines the very nature of our towns. So go along for the ride here for a minute or two. On Monday night’s Pelham Town Council agenda was a curious motion, made by Councillor Marianne Stewart and seconded by Councillor Lisa Haun, entitled, “Request to Region of Niagara to Delay Official Plan Update.”

In a nutshell, Councillors Stewart and Haun want Niagara Region to pause work on updating its Official Plan—or “OP”—the document that’s the roadmap for almost all land use policies.

Why? Mostly, they say, because Niagara residents haven’t been consulted enough about it.

In fact, if Niagara had consulted us any more, we would have been within our rights to seek a restraining order for stalking.

(See Regional Councillor Diana Huson’s list this week of how often and how seriously this consultation happened—starting long before COVID.)

How Town Council voted on this motion we don’t know, since the Voice was going to press as the meeting got underway.

What we do know is that it’s a really bad idea.

The Stewart-Haun motion appears to be an effort to accomplish one thing while pretending to be about another thing—diverting attention from what that thing actually is. It’s municipal Three-card Monte.

It appears the motion is actually designed to throw up roadblocks to completing a new Official Plan here in the Town of Pelham. It is well known that the Town, as with other local governments in Niagara, was asked to defer any work on their own “OP” until the Region’s plan is complete. This makes sense. Local plans are subordinate to and must be in accordance with the Regional Plan, and the Regional Plan has to give “consideration” to Provincial Planning Policy. That’s basic, top-down governance.

In fact, if Niagara had consulted us any more, we would have been within our rights to seek a restraining order for stalking

But if the Stewart-Haun motion is successful, and the Region’s plan is delayed, the domino effect would see a further delay to Pelham eventually updating our own plan. At this point we get into pure supposition: given Councillor Stewart’s almost flawless track record of voting against infill development, one might conclude that derailing a modern Official Plan in Pelham that encourages this sort of thing is her actual goal. Channeling Charlton Heston, by god, last century’s planning policies will have to be pried out of Pelham’s cold, dead hands.

Modern policy mean greater density, yes. It also means greater affordability. The middle-aged reader with children is invited to turn to page 7, and observe the starting price of $850,000 for townhomes coming to Pt. Robinson Road. If we want our children to have a chance in hell of being able to afford living in the town they grew up in, the current council’s intransigence on development must end.

Maybe Lieutenant Columbo could suss-out the true motivation for the Stewart-Haun motion, but the exercise seems futile. The Voice has learned that the 735-word concoction arrived on the Town Clerk’s desk fully cooked—ironic, considering its half-baked contents. Stewart won’t tell the newspaper who actually drafted the text. The Voice is aware that she and some other councillors have long been receiving guidance on the down-low from former, fired, Town of Pelham staff—starting even before council was sworn into office in 2018. One has to question the wisdom of taking tips from disgruntled former employees—as well as wonder at what motivates those who provide such advice. (The Voice understands that one former staffer believed they were a shoo-in to replace CAO Darren Ottaway after his dismissal in early 2019—and did not react well when the hiring committee politely but firmly said thanks, but no, even to an interview.) If ex-staff’s goal is to stir the pot to the point of council civil war, mission accomplished.

The Voice has asked the Town’s two Regional Councillors—Huson and Mayor Marvin Junkin — whether they support deferring the Region’s completion of its Official Plan. Neither does. This means that if the Gang of Four uses its majority to pass this motion then it will be opposed at Regional Council by Pelham’s own councillors. Now that’s some fine, dinner-theater family drama.

“I will not support this motion,” Junkin told the Voice. “It has been over 50 years since the Region has had a comprehensive study done of our entire Official Plan.”

On the red herring of insufficient public consultation, Junkin recalled the summer of 2019.

“Even before COVID, residents responded more to online surveys than to open houses held in municipalities. I attended an open house in Niagara Falls where only six residents appeared. That summer the Region held five open houses and total resident attendance was 132. During that same time, over 500 people answered surveys online.”

What’s more, the Region has no incentive to go along with the Stewart-Haun move, given that the Province is requiring its new Official Plan next calendar year, and Regional staff have been working on it for more than two years.

There are greater tragedies in the world than disagreements over planning policy. This is going to make Pelham look silly—Keystone Cops tripping across the Regional stage, feedback theatrically echoing on Zoom. It’s another example of why we should not have permanent voting blocs on our Town Council. If councillors could or would communicate a little better with each other, they might find some neutral ground, but once one side stakes out a position, the other seems determined not to agree—not because their position is the better one, but to dogmatically support their fellow bloc members.

And really, it cannot be that four people agree on everything, all the time.

 

Editor’s note: On Monday evening, the motion passed.