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Region must heed local priorities

Woolwich council has the right idea in criticizing regional government for its heavy-handed approach in developing a new official plan. What it needs to do, however, is step up the language: now is not the time for niceties. The region should be told to back off in no uncertain terms.

In doing so, the township is certain to find allies in the other municipalities in Waterloo Region. The other rural communities – Wellesley, Wilmot and North Dumfries – share a mutual interest in preventing encroachment, for instance. Cambridge, the most testy and sometimes reluctant member of the group, has a longstanding desire for more autonomy.

In its written comments about the regional official plan (ROP), Woolwich has requested more planning control be put in its hands. The rationale is that local governments, not the detached regional level, are better placed to decide what’s right for their citizens. The priorities set by Woolwich should come first, not be constrained unduly by centralized power at the largely unaccountable upper tier.

The broad outlines of policy could be set at the region, with proper input from the municipalities, but the details and actual decision making must remain local. This is especially important in the townships, which risk being overwhelmed by a regional council dominated by the cities, a reality of representation by population.

We’ve already seen debates arising over industrial land. Kitchener and Waterloo are running out of it. Cambridge is unhappy with regional intentions. And all eyes are on Woolwich, which has hundreds of acres of potential employment lands, both around the airport and further north on property owned by Thomasfield Homes. To date, the township does not share the priorities and sense of urgency others in the cities have expressed.

That’s just one issue. In discussing the ROP, the stockyards area of St. Jacobs has been another sore spot. Mercedes Corp, a major landowner, and others have chafed at the restrictions proposed by the region. Woolwich planners sympathetic to local concerns have not seen their concerns reflected in subsequent drafts of the official plan.

Councillors have supported what amounts to pushing back against unnecessary control from the upper tier municipality.

In the big picture, the planning staff’s report on the ROP calls for a reduction in duplication and overlap of planning responsibilities between the region and individual municipalities. There need to be more distinctions between the work done at the two levels of government, Woolwich planners argue.

Currently, much of the work done for zone changes at the municipal levels is just repeated at the regional level. Such tasks and decisions should be left to the municipality, which is much more accountable to applicants – a Woolwich resident can’t get that from the region.

Local planning issues belong in township hands, where services are more accessible to residents, and where the decision makers have a stake in the community, Woolwich maintains.

“The area municipality goes through an approval process, and then it goes through the same thing at the region – the question is ‘why?’” director of engineering and planning Dan Kennaley has said in reviewing the ROP. “At that point, it seems to be a bit of a waste of time and energy and money.

“The idea is to get planning closer to the people it affects.”

Waterloo Region officials should take note.

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