August 16, 2021 · Categories: News

The 2019 Landowners Survey and the SMLRA Report

In the summer of 2019, a joint SMLCA/SMLRA survey was sent to the 785 Six Mile Lake landowners to solicit input regarding future development on the lake. In part, the questions focused on the current building Gross Floor Allowance (GFA) restrictions in the Georgian Bay Township Zoning By-Law.  There was a response of 430 landowners, comprising 54% of the population. The results of the survey are posted on our website, https://sixmilelake.net/pub/survey/SML_2019_Landowner_Survey.pdf  .

Subsequently, the SMLRA hired Mr. Todd Weatherell, a professional planner, to interpret the survey results and provide an opinion on how to make them actionable. This can be found at https://smlra.ca/2021/05/12/sml-land-owners-survey-planners-report/ . We appreciate that they took the initiative to help implement recommendations from the survey.

The SMLCA Board of Directors believe that every landowner should carefully read this report in order to understand the proposed Official Plan and Zoning By-law changes, and how they could affect future development on Six Mile Lake. Our concern is that the changes outlined in the report do not accurately reflect the type of change indicated by the survey responses. To that end, we will be hosting virtual public Town Hall meetings and surveying our membership to determine what action our members feel the SMLCA should be taking on this subject. In the end, we want to accurately report our membership’s opinions to the Township because they are an important input to any Official Plan and By-law Amendment.

 Interpreting Survey Results – Chocolate, Vanilla or Strawberry

If you ask a data analyst, they will tell you that the numbers in a survey response are reflective of the opinions of the respondents, but they may not necessarily provide a definitive direction. For example, if one hundred people in a room want ice cream and 34% want chocolate, 33% want vanilla and the remaining 33% want strawberry. What do you do? You could force 66% of the room to eat chocolate because it has one more vote than the other choices, but you would will have a majority of unhappy people. Perhaps there might be a more creative solution like Neopolitan flavour. The point is, it is important that we don’t interpret survey results as we would an election or referendum. If there is a tie, the question has simply not resulted in a definitive answer.

Question #9 in the survey asked, The scale and massing of a proposed building or renovation on our lake is limited by lot coverage, setbacks, width and height restrictions outlined in the Six Mile Lake portion of the Official Plan and Zoning Bylaw 14-75. Given these restrictions, how do you feel about the rules establishing a maximum GFA on Six Mile Lake (as referenced in questions 7 & 8)?” One third said leave it as it is, another third said abolish it, and the remaining third said keep it but modify it. At best we don’t know what to do with GFA. At least, we know that two thirds of the population said to keep it. Whereas, the Weatherell report calls for the abolition of GFA. We don’t disagree that the current system has its flaws. However, only one third of the survey respondents (145 people) called for the removal of GFA. In short, the Weatherell report recommendation is contrary to what the landowners survey indicated. Survey responses to other questions that deal with GFA sizing regulations also do not indicate removal of the GFA. Instead they seem to indicate that there could be a better way to limit cottage size that is unsuitable for Six Mile Lake.

Implications of Visual Impact

The Weatherell report has done a wonderful job (pp 4-7) of compiling pertinent planning policy guidelines in the Official Plan, the Six Mile Lake Community Plan, and the Zoning By-Law. The one feature that resonates through all three sections is the importance visual impact and careful planning plays in preserving the natural Character of the lake.

In addition to the removal of GFA limits, the report also recommends removal of cottage width restrictions for lots with frontage less than 30 m. (98.4 ft.). This means if you have a 30m wide lot, rather than currently being limited to 25%, or a building 7.5 m (24.6 ft.) wide, you could build a 20m (65.6 ft.) wide cottage. On its own, a building this wide is not necessarily a problem. However, a potential shoreline vista dominated by 65 ft. wide cottages side by side is why visual impact is such an important feature in our Community Plan. It is understandable that a cottage owner would want as many unrestricted views of the lake as possible, but as cottage width increases, more trees are removed to open up lake views and this makes the building more prominent as it is viewed from the lake.

Although the Weatherell report only mentions visual impact in relation to a dwelling’s size, there are other environmental and Character-related impacts resulting from larger shoreline developments, , including social and environmental carrying capacity stresses on our lake.

Fewer Minor Variances

The Weatherell report states that the proposed changes will “eliminate numerous minor variances.” At first glance, this seems like a positive thing. Who wants to go to the expense and trouble of applying for a minor variance? However, if you remove the need for a minor variance, one would not need to conform to the current visual impact rules or site plan agreements, which control how many trees will be cut down between the cottage and the lake. While there is a tree cutting By-law in place, the site plan agreement is far more effective, because it addresses the situation before the trees can get cut down, as opposed to a By-law that fines you for an infraction, but only if someone else complains. Speaking personally, I am the last one that wants the Township breathing down my back, telling me what to do with my land, and my cottage. I also think most people are reasonable and don’t need to be told what to do. But rules are usually there for good reason. We have speed restrictions on our roads and highways designed to keep us safe. If we had no speed limit, there would be those who would drive as fast as possible, ignoring the safety of others. For the same reason that is why we have By-laws, to preserve the natural look of the lake and protect the shoreline trees that help keep our water quality pure.

We would like to add that when there is no minor variance required, there is also no public meeting and there is no ability for neighbours to be aware of proposed construction in their neighbourhood or for or other residents to voice an opinion. To some not having to hear complaints from a neighbour might appear as a benefit, but consider first the examples that follow under lot coverage.

Lot Coverage

The third proposal in the report suggests we change the way the current 8% lot coverage formula is calculated in order to reflect the size of the entire lot. Possibly, the biggest problem with the current By-law is that it is hard to understand. Why not just simplify the lot coverage formula to make it easier for you and I to grasp? Upon closer examination however, the current By-law is well considered. The Township Official Plan clearly states that the purpose of having a shoreline residential zone is to protect the shoreline, both visually and environmentally. The current By-law acts as an equalizer, regardless of the depth of your lot, you are only allowed to develop 8% of it within 60 m, (197 ft.) of your shoreline. This does not mean you cannot develop the rest of your lot, it just keeps you from placing everything within the shoreline portion of your lot. With the proposed change, if you had for example, an average width lot that was considerably deep, you could potentially have coverage of 8% of the entire lot within the first 60 m. (197 ft.) of your shoreline.

Another problem with Weatherell’s proposed plan is that lot coverage only determines the footprint size of the dwelling. For example, the report states that a cottage on a one-acre lot could potentially have a building footprint as large as 3485 sq. ft. However, if GFA controls were removed, one could add a second story and a full walkout basement, resulting in a building as large as 10,452 sq. ft.! The current gross floor area definition restricts a dwelling on a lot that is less than an acre to a GFA of 2045 sq. ft.

For larger lots, even larger dwellings could be built. For example, a 2-acre lot could potentially have a building as large as 20,908 sq. ft. In fact, the only limits to building size would be property size, height and a maximum width of 40m (131.2 ft.). With no minor variance required, there will be no public meeting and no input from neighbours on the lake.

We understand that we could easily be accused of being alarmist or negative, but that is not our intention. Rather, we believe that you should be aware of the possible outcomes from the recommendations in this report and that you do your own homework.

What change can we see from the survey results?

The survey answers do indicate a desire to relax (increase) the current GFA restrictions, and certainly some change needs to take place. So, what does the survey really have to say about change? Questions #10, #11 and #12 deal with the definition of how one calculates GFA in areas like basements and covered outdoor spaces. This is one of the ways the restrictions could be relaxed.  Within the survey answers, the most conclusive direction was found in question #12. 71% of respondents were in favour of the removal of covered entrances and roof overhangs from the GFA calculation. In question #10 an almost two to one (61% to 37%) majority indicated that basements should not be counted in GFA calculations. But this is where more questioning might be appropriate. Did people mean anything below the main floor including full finished walk out basements or did they mean traditional below grade basements used for storage etc.? Question #11 indicated a small majority (55% – 43%) favoured exclusion of outdoor attached structures such as garages, porches, screen porches, and sun rooms. This tells us something, but what if we split the options out into individual questions? Perhaps a larger group would remove garages, verandahs and porches but fewer would remove sunrooms.

There were no doubt sound reasons for including these areas into the GFA calculation when the By-law was last changed, so perhaps rather than removing them we might instead look at increasing the maximum GFA limit. The question is, by how much? It is for these reasons that we feel we need to ask more specific questions to obtain direction from our membership.

Another option might be relaxing some restrictions by removing roof overhangs, covered entrances and other non-habitable areas and adding a little bit to the GFA cap.

In Summary

The 2019 survey results highlight the fact that there are problems with some of the current building size controls, particularly with the definition of what counts as allowable GFA and how it relates to habitable living space. The survey calls for relaxation. We think Weatherell’s report does not point us in the right direction because it removes those problematic controls rather than finding a way to relax them. Furthermore, it seeks to change other controls such as building width and lot coverage that were never even considered in the survey.

Currently, there are four different restrictions to building size – lot coverage, width, height and GFA. As these all interact with one another, it is appropriate to consider whether all are necessity as they are, or whether the objectives of the Zoning By-law can be achieved more simply. However, it is essential that any proposed amendments do not imperil visual impact and shoreline protection measures which will ultimately affect the natural Character of Six Mile Lake.

We do not believe that deletion of section #F.5.9.7.3. of the Township of Georgian Bay Official Plan, which would eliminate GFA restrictions on building size entirely, is in accordance with the 2019 survey results. Instead, we believe a workable solution to control the size of shoreline residential dwellings and satisfy the concerns of the community can be found by re-defining the elements of GFA.

As mentioned at the outset, we will be conducting meetings this summer, to educate our membership on these and other issues relating to development so that landowners can have their say in helping us find that better way to implement the survey results. We welcome your input. Stay tuned.