Surplus Farmhouse Severances

Or maybe more accurately: Surplus Farmhouse Severances and/or Village Boundary Expansions.
I think it’s time to talk seriously about the issue of surplus farmhouse severances in Zorra Township and Oxford County: we lose too many family homes, and then families, to this issue.
If you are not familiar, this is what usually happens:
A farmer buys an additional farm, but doesn’t need the house on it.  For a short time they rent it out, but eventually it needs a major repair, or has a bad tenant, or (quite reasonably) the farmer decides they don’t want to be a landlord.  So the house comes down.
As we lose these houses we lose our tax base, and our ability to provide services to ourselves, without corresponding property tax increases.  We lose families.  We lose people who have lived here for decades and contributed, and continue to contribute, to our community.  Senior’s are forced to “move into town” at exactly the time of their life when they could be helping to look after their grandchildren (currently “Canadian families spend almost one-quarter of their income on child care”), and when they could be getting care and help from their children late in their own life (“The number of Canadian seniors requiring continuing care will rise by 71 per cent by 2026”).  That’s not right.
As our population remains static we also lose the justification (rightly or wrongly) under current funding formulas for the Provincial government to provide us with services: like emergency rooms and schools.  That’s not right.
Rural areas are protecting our farmland from our own development, but urban areas (including Oxford’s own communities of Ingersoll and Woodstock) are asking to annex rural land from neighbouring municipalities to expand their own “growth areas” (http://www.heartfm.ca/news/local-news/county-considers-land-deals/).  As a result of our protection of farmland, we have a reducing tax base and correspondingly reduced ability to provide services to ourselves and fund our own development.  Other branches of government like school boards are then also encouraged (by current Provincial policies) to only support schools in the “growth areas”, and not in our existing rural communities.
I’m not talking about developing Prime Agricultural Land into subdivisions, I have voted, and will continue to vote against that; but we can’t keep up the cycle of surplus homes being rented for a few years and then torn down.  We need a balance that allows and encourages families to stay in rural communities like Zorra that they want to stay in, and start businesses here, and send their kids to school here, like they always have.
I know a common argument is that “city people” will move to the country and complain of farm noises, smells, etc., but I’ve talked with Township staff and the complaints just aren’t there.  And if the complaints do come, I think there is a straightforward answer: don’t move to Zorra if you don’t like farms, that’s what Zorra is about.  We need to be crystal clear that the “right to farm” is important in Zorra (http://www.omafra.gov.on.ca/english/engineer/facts/05-013.htm).  When I campaigned I made it clear that “nobody better ever call me to complain about the smell of manure”.
Rural people deserve a sustainable tax base, with associated services.  Rural is different from, not inferior to, suburban/urban.  We need to stop ‘worshiping at the alter’ of urban/suburban growth.  Farmers should’t be penalized with less education and health services for protecting the land that feeds Ontarians.  That’s not right.
It’s not right, but to some extent it is in our control.  We need to find a better balance between protecting farm land and keeping families living in our community.  Maybe it’s surplus farmhouse severances, maybe it’s expanding village boundaries, but we need to change something.  If we don’t use the tools at our disposal, someone else will, and our opportunity to affect the outcome and have some control over our own future will be taken by others.
It would be a shame if through protecting our farmland we denied ourselves services, only to have another municipality annex hundreds of acres of the same farmland to support their own growth.
Tell me what you think.
Here are some links to news stories:

Schools ARE Municipal community assets (even if we Municipalities don’t own them)

Schools are owned by our communities.

That may seem obvious and over simplistic, but I think it’s a good starting point.  They are community assets.  They are created by our tax dollars to educate our children.  But they educate them in more than simply the curriculum.  They educate our children where they live, they teach them how to socialize and integrate in their communities. Our communities.  Their communities.

Where you went to school says a lot about your world view.  It informs you of who your community is, what’s available to you, who your neighbours are: in many ways school is a large part of an individual’s definition of what their community is.  This is especially true of rural single school communities.  The schools in these communities are often the most common meeting place and the first place that young people meet and get a sense of what defines their community.

The problem is our Municipalities don’t have any say in where our schools are.  There is little public access to the decision making process of where schools will be built or closed.  It is entirely driven by the Ministry of Education’s funding formula, and School Boards, who have little choice but to follow it.  But surely our MPPs and Minister’s are accountable?  Ask them.. the answer you will get is that such decisions as school openings and closings are “a local School Board issue for Trustees to decide”.  Ask a Trustee and they will tell you that while such decisions are technically the School Board’s to make, their hands are ultimately tied by the Ministry’s funding formula.  Some School Boards have even been “punished” by the Ministry of Education by not receiving expected funding in subsequent years because they did not close “appropriate” schools in previous years.

School Boards plan and propose school locations and expansions with little input from Municipalities that are directly affected by school locations.  There are annual meetings between the Thames Valley District School Board (TVDSB) and the Municipalities, which is a huge step forward, but because of the “silo” funding of education these meetings are basically the School Board telling the Municipalities what they ARE going to do, not a meaningful consultation or exchange of ideas.  Municipal Planning Departments expend huge amounts of time and resources evaluating potential development in the short, medium, and long term with the intent of controlling development in ways that are constructive and beneficial to the needs and wants of their community.  Schools absolutely fit this category: large buildings with hundreds of people coming and going every day by foot, car, and bus for decades.  Schools have a large and long term impact on our communities from a Planning perspective.

In London the TVDSB recently approached the City’s Planning Committee to propose a school in the north east of the city abutting the City’s current urban growth boundary.  Several London Councillors spoke against the proposed location as they felt it was not consistent with the plan for there to be no growth to the entire area immediately to the East of the proposed school site.  The request for permission from the TVDSB is an urgent one as funding from the Ministry of Education is contingent on Planning Permission, and time limited.  So effectively a gun is held to the head of London’s Planning Department, the Planning Committee, and Council: it may not be the best location, it may not even fit in your plan, but if you don’t approve it you may not get a school at all and condemn hundreds of children to many more years in portables…

At the same time the TVDSB has attempted to listen to the communities in the South East Summerside area and postponed amalgamations in order to make a more community friendly solution, a position supported by most in the community and consistent with London Planning, but this is all delayed awaiting Ministry funding.

All of this is ridiculous: we have excellent Planning Departments in our Municipalities who do a fantastic job of evaluating and balancing the various needs of our communities and could do the same for school locations.  There is Council oversight of these Planning Departments by elected Municipal Councillors.  But because of the “silo” that education capital funding exists in, there is actually a disincentive for School Boards to consult with, if not utilize this service: School Boards get money to consolidate and build schools from the Province regardless of Municipal input (or the lack thereof).

It’s time our Municipalities had a better say in where our schools are: schools ARE a part of the Planning process, they ARE a central part of our communities, they ARE about more than “the three Rs”, they ARE the first place our children are educated about what their community is and how they define it.  Schools are Public assets that are too important for us not to use every tool we have to best fit them in our communities.

The Province needs to change the way they handle this.  Public funds shouldn’t be spent in such fragmented ways.  I think people have a right to expect that different levels of government would cooperate to spend tax dollars in the most coordinated and efficient way and not be counterproductive.  Yes, this would be hard, but that’s no excuse.  The Premier’s Community Hubs Framework Advisory Group (https://www.ontario.ca/page/community-hubs) is evaluating the potential benefits of such cooperation and advising the Premier directly.

But while we’re waiting for that…

School Boards and Municipalities need to do a better job of sharing our Strategic Plans related to operational and capital budgets.  School Boards need to do a better job of sharing their plans with respect to Student Achievement with Municipalities.  Municipalities need to do a better job of sharing Economic Development and Planning with School Boards.  Just because the Province expects us to behave as if we are in separate “silos” doesn’t mean School Boards and Municipalities have to behave that way: we can, and should, do a better job of managing these Public assets, especially in single school rural communities.

It starts with Councillors and Trustees: we need to do a better job.

Splash Pad / Skate Park

To be clear: I am in favour of a splash pad / skate park in Thamesford.  However…

While I support the splash pad and skate park in Thamesford, I do not support it in the 2016 Capital Budget.  I will be arguing that money be planned for it in the 2017 Capital Budget, pending the outcome of the “Recreation Master Planning process”.

I do not think these decisions should depend on having a “good Council” or “good Councillor” on the “right side” of an issue.

One of Council’s main responsibilities is to provide long term “good governance” to the Township and one of the key ways to do that is to give consistent guidance to staff to facilitate the right circumstances for such decisions in the long term.  In this way residents can count on consistent criteria for ALL such discussions and decisions in the future, and not JUST the one they happen to be involved in at the moment.

Let’s not forget that while people in the Thamesford community in particular are asking for these facilities now, there are other parts of the Township that may want similar facilities in the future.

As such, I would like the splash pad / skate park decision to be made in the context of the new Strategic Plan (http://www.zorra.on.ca/Portals/8/Documents/Strategic%20Plan/Final%20Strategic%20Plan.pdf).

One of the key Action Items in the new Strategic Plan is Item V1.1 under “We are a vibrant community” which states “Undertake a Recreation Master Planning process…”.  I think the splash pad / skate park needs to be a part of a bigger, more comprehensive recreation plan for Zorra which will then also address the needs of resident attraction and retention plan and business development.  As such it needs to be done right, and in the context of the larger Strategic Plan.

From the research I have done, and seen at ZRAC (http://www.zorra.on.ca/Our-Township/Committees/ZRAC), the location of a splash pad / skate park is critical to its success or failure.  Without some expert guidance on the size and location of the splash pad / skate park I think it would be irresponsible to proceed.  Especially when such expertise and guidance is on it’s way…

The new Recreation Programming Coordinator will be starting on March 7 and she would be responsible for this Recreation Study.  Staff have put a lot of time and effort into finding this person, and I feel strongly that we should use her expertise to guide this study and the implementation of a splash pad / skate park in particular.

If we are going to build a splash pad / skate park, and spend a lot of money doing it, we need to do it right.  If that means waiting a year for the appropriate expertise, research, and studies, then I think that is the responsible thing to do.

So, while I support the splash pad and skate park in Thamesford, I do not support it in the 2016 Capital Budget.  But I will be arguing that money be planned for it in the 2017 Capital Budget, pending the outcome of the “Recreation Master Planning process”.

 

Zorra’s Strategic Plan

Zorra’s Strategic Plan will be presented to Council at the January 12 Council meeting for consideration, and I am hopeful that it will pass at that time.  It would then be used for the remaining three years of this Council and would have to be readopted, modified, or scrapped by the next Council.

Screen Shot 2015-11-30 at 9.31.55 AMI know that not everyone is excited by Strategic Plans, but I am…

I think it will be a great tool for Council and Staff to consider, evaluate, and prioritize new initiatives.  From there they would be fed into the budget process accordingly.  It should also help guide Council decisions on specific planning issues, and bigger longer term planning issues (like surplus farm house severances which I will be writing a future blog on…).

Screen Shot 2015-11-30 at 9.28.02 AM

These are commitments that Council and Staff will be obliged to consider and achieve for all new issues for the remainder of this Council term (3 years).  They are a “lens” through which we will look at all issues, opportunities, and challenges: “how does this fit in the strategic plan?”

One thing I am not happy about is the level of public input on the plan.  Staff have worked hard to get public input, asking in the Village Voice, Zorra Now, on the website, Facebook, Twitter, and holding three public meetings (Thamesford, Embro, and Harrington), but not a lot of people came out (thanks to those who did, your input WILL be incorporated).  So, please try to make some time next Tuesday and come to the Council meeting (Tuesday January 12 @ 9:30am) where the Strategic Plan will be considered, public input could still be received.  Or, contact your Councillor in the meant time.

If you are not happy about this plan, or are happy but want to add more, there is still time to have your say.

Here’s a link:

http://www.zorra.on.ca/Our-Township/Strategic-Plan

 

First Blog post!

I’m starting a blog!

I’ve never done this before, but a Facebook Post or Tweet is not always enough for some complex issues (Strategic Plan, budget, Walker Landfill proposal, surplus farm house severances, recreation plan, etc.), and I know not everyone wants all the detail on all the issues; so, for those bigger issues I will use this blog.

On Facebook and Twitter I will post a link to the Blog article and leave it to you whether to click on to it or not.  I can’t yet say how often I will write blogs, it will be an experiment.  Hopefully it will be useful to you.

Let me know!

Marcus Ryan
Councillor Ward 3

Mobile: 1.519.301.1634
mryan@zorra.on.ca
FB: Marcus Ryan – Zorra
Township of Zorra
274620 27th Line
P.O. Box 306
Ingersoll, ON  N5C 3K5
Ph. 519.485.2490 or 1.888.699.3868
http://www.zorra.on.ca
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