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Some city councillors have 'grave concerns' about Rama Road project

Council to hear from township before deciding whether to oppose MZO request; 'Circumventing the rules around environmental regulations is a large concern'

An Orillia councillor wants his colleagues to join him in formally opposing future requests by Ramara Township for a ministerial zoning order (MZO).

Coun. Jay Fallis introduced a lengthy motion during Monday’s council meeting, in which he called on his colleagues to ask that any further requests for an MZO relating to the ambitious Rama Road corridor project be rejected.

His motion cites the potential for “significant impacts to the City of Orillia's economic development and planning,” insufficient consultation, the use of an MZO to bypass environmental regulations, and concerns about the project’s effects on Lake Couchiching, which Fallis noted is “a major source of drinking water for the City of Orillia.”

Mayor Steve Clarke asked Fallis if he objected to the use of MZOs only as they related to the environment. He pointed out Fallis supported an MZO when there was a push to fast-track a decision on turning the former YMCA building into youth transitional housing.

“Certainly, circumventing the rules around environmental regulations is a large concern,” Fallis responded.

The Rama Road corridor project — which calls for a number of residential and commercial developments — is not on the same level as the YMCA matter, he said, which involved “small site changes.”

“Different circumstances warrant different answers,” he said.

Coun. Mason Ainsworth cautioned council about overstepping its bounds. There is a need for “positive interaction” with neighbouring municipalities, he said, adding if Ramara wants to go in a particular direction, “I don’t think it’s for us to say they shouldn’t be moving in that direction.”

“If we want to make decisions in Ramara Township, we can move to Ramara Township and (run for council there),” he said.

Fallis didn’t see the matter as being that simple.

“My beef is not a particular planning matter in a particular municipality,” he said. “This does impact Orillia. Lake Couchiching is a major water source for us. What are the implications of this project on our water?”

Coun. Pat Hehn agreed.

“This is going to affect us,” she said. “The water from Lake Couchiching is also our water. If they do something that’s going to damage our water supply, we need to be aware of it.”

Hehn hasn’t seen any water treatment plants in the Rama Road corridor plans, which is “quite a grave concern.”

If the project goes through as planned, it could lead to thousands of new residents and hundreds of hotel rooms. That would result in an increased demand from Ramara residents for doctors, Hehn said, but she added the township does not contribute to the Orillia and Area Physician Recruitment and Retention Committee.

“If they’re wanting to bring in all these extra people, they should be contributing,” she said.

Ramara also has not financially supported the Orillia Recreation Centre, Coun. Ted Emond said, despite the township not having a rec centre of its own. That demand would also increase with the population as a result of the Rama Road corridor project.

“They'll be using our facility, our library, our hospital and health-care provisions,” he said.

Still, Emond was among council members who weren’t ready to endorse Fallis’s motion yet.

He suggested postponing until council has had the chance to hear more from Ramara about why it wants an MZO instead of going through the regular planning process, what measures it has taken or plans to take to address concerns from environmental groups, and what information those groups have to back up those concerns. Written clarification would be a “a good start,” he said.

It was decided Mayor Steve Clarke would work with staff to determine the best time and format to get more information from Ramara and Rama First Nation. Fallis wants it to happen within a month.

“We don’t want to be in a situation where we’re having a discussion after the MZO has already been approved, because then it’s pointless; the debate is over,” he said.