Municipal Affairs minister moves to finalize Witless Bay's Town Plan

     With the Witless Bay council hamstrung because it doesn’t have enough councillors who are not in a conflict of interest to adopt a new Town Plan, the process is finally being handed over to residents to decide.
     Residents will be given a chance this week to review two versions of the Town Plan and to vote by plebiscite sometime next week as to which one to accept.
     The Department of Municipal Affairs will hold public meetings at the Southern Shore Arena for residents to review the two plans though it’s unclear how much guidance they will receive as to what is in them. Both plans are fairly complicated and while similar in many respects, weigh in at over 200 pages each, plus supporting maps that outline the various zones for housing, recreation, commercial and other uses in the town.
     Municipal Affairs Minister Keith Hutchings said he has ordered the plebiscite because council is unable to deal with the plan. He mailed a letter to all households in Witless Bay on Friday, but with the main Post Office closed on Monday because of Labour day and no effort to advertise the hearings in local media, it’s unclear whether residents are being given enough notice of the three dates at which they can review the two plans before voting next week.
     Mayor Sébastien Després did not respond to a request for an interview. But he did note at Tuesday’s council meeting that all the dates outlined in Hutchings’ letter for reviewing the two plans have been changed and that a new letter is going to be issued.
     “This is an action of Municipal Affairs,” Després said. “It does come from the Town.”
     The new letter is necessary because of mistakes in the original one. Hutchings referred to the Town Plan submitted in 2013 as having been submitted in May 2014.
     That incarnation of the plan, known as Version A for the purpose of the plebiscite, is the document that was submitted by the previous council, reviewed by Municipal Affairs and sent back to the Town for ratification. It essentially allows development of many family-owned lands in the town under the regulations and guidelines that have been in use for years.
     Version B of the plan, which the current council submitted in December 2014 after taking back the original submission and making substantial changes to parts of it, prohibits development of privately-owned and Crown land in a number of areas, including near The Tolt and the area between Mullowney’s Lane and Ragged Beach by zoning the areas Recreational.
     In his letter to residents, Hutchings said that if they vote for Version A, registration of it will proceed faster than if they vote for Version B, because public hearings were held on the first plan, as required under the Urban and Rural Planning Act, but weren’t held on the rejigged version. However, he has since changed his stance on that too. Whichever plan is chosen by residents, a hearing by a Commissioner will be necessary, he said Tuesday.
Hutchings said he is reluctantly intervening in the process, which has dragged on now for about three years.
     “I called them (the councillor) in on August 31 and said, ‘We’ve gone through an extensive process in the past year, since last October when some issues arose as a result of a conflict,’” Hutchings said Tuesday. “I’ve tried to work with officials and the Town to expedite this and get it to a point where we can get a plan adopted for the Town, unfortunately through our efforts we haven’t been able to get there.”
     With two councillors having had their seats vacated because of conflict of interest allegations, a third facing a Friendly Hearing on a similar charge and a fourth councillor voluntarily declaring a conflict of interest, only three members of council are left to vote. That’s not enough for a quorum. Hutchings said council asked for permission to vote on the plan without quorum, but he rejected that request.
     It makes better sense, he said, to let the residents choose “democratically” which of the two plans they prefer. “I’ll take that plan then and move it forward, adopt it for the Town and then on a go forward basis that plan will be a working document for the Town,” said Hutchings. “In the future it could be amended in accordance with the regional Urban and Rural Planning Act and we’ll proceed from there. But it seems right now we’ve gotten to a point where we don’t see a way forward to getting a Town Plan for Witless Bay.”
     Hutchings said he has heard from many residents on the issue.
     “For this reason I am taking the steps as outlined above,” he said in his letter. “I know that you, as residents, are invested in the future of your town and this plebiscite provides you with the opportunity to move your town forward.”
     Both versions of the plan are based on the assumption that the town will grow by about 250 new houses over the next 10 years. The purpose of each proposed plan is to guide how that development takes place. In version A, lot sizes in residential zones have been set at just under a half acre and at three quarters of an acre in areas zoned Residential Rural. In Version B, lot sizes remain at just under a half acre in Residential zones, but have been increased to a full acre in Residential Rural zones.

Posted on September 11, 2015 .