Aon at the heart of Port Hope's discontent

First published:
July 18, 2001

This is the summer of Port Hope’s discontent. Cobourg’s was last year when residents debated a proposal to develop Wal-Mart. Residents in Port Hope are debating a proposal by Aon Inc., a Peterborough-based firm, to develop 2,423 units for an adult lifestyle community. Like Wal-Mart, this is a defining moment for the community.

Aon’s proposal brings to light the incredible weakness of the planning system, as did Wal-Mart. As opponents fill public meetings trying to have concerns addressed, a bigger problem is looming.

Mayor Rick Austin praised developer Ross Smith in an interview this week. Austin has toured other projects done by Aon in Peterborough. He spoke with pride about the economic benefits of the project during construction and the jobs in the geriatric health field following the completion. It also fits nicely with the vision of council, which is to see the town grow to a population of about 25,000 – a decision made during a recent politician’s retreat, Austin said.

Town planner Spencer Hutchinson said the town decided a decade ago it was going to grow in the west end. With the annexation of lands from the former Hope Township, it has taken a decade to bring this parcel to this stage for development. A previous proposal to develop 619 single-family homes never got off the ground. Legally, there is nothing major standing in Aon’s path, he explained.

“The decision to grow was made when the annexation took place,” he said. ” We can’t go back.”

This is not what opponents want to hear. However, Austin is clear that concerns are being heard. He said a majority will be addressed, in particular the traffic issues. But he was quick to add, the roads are public and anybody can use them.

While the nuts and bolts issues can be negotiated, there is an aspect to all of this that is deeply disturbing.

This subdivision is going to bring lots of retirees and empty nesters into the community. On the face of it, that may not be a bad thing. From the municipality’s standpoint, there are lots of benefits.

These GTA refugees often have lots of disposable income. They don’t demand a lot from the municipality like baseball diamonds, ice rinks, soccer pitches or similar things. Instead they will support things like the Capitol Theatre, a circus museum, a new library and parks to walk their dogs. That may seem like a mean-spirited caricature, but that is not the intention.  Different demographics wants different services. People who come to live in an adult lifestyle community envision the community’s needs differently than say people who might move into a subdivision of single-family homes. Those people want schools, arenas and youth centres.

Neither politicians nor citizens have articulated this as a direction for the next 10 to 25 years. The proposal is developer driven. The implications are dramatic.

The Port Hope many people knew during the 1950s through to the 1980s was a strong industrial presence and many middle-class, working families filled the town. The closing of Dr. Hawkin Public School is a dramatic reminder of the demographic changes taking place.

Austin said he wants to see a shift in the property tax base. Currently about 60 per cent of the taxes are paid through residential taxpayers, while about 40 per cent is paid through industry and commercial. He wants to see that imbalance changed so business pays the larger portion. How does this kind of development help reach that goal?

Lots of people talk about a balanced approach, but does this kind of development attract young, skilled workers needed to bring industry to the town. But if the local economy is going to be made up mainly of service-sector commercial business, like antique shops, health food stores and trendy gift shops, then it doesn’t matter. But let’s get somebody on the record stating that as the future for the town.

A direct result of attracting retirees and empty nesters may mean there is no need for an economic development officer. Maybe the position should be replaced with a senior’s activity co-ordinator.

What is more disturbing is the vision of some of the opponents, who clearly do not want any development. It’s almost as if we are in mediaeval times and the town should start building a wall around Port Hope to stop anybody else from coming in. But no one should want a town that is a movie set. The goal should be a diverse, sustainable community.

Developers are not the antichrist. Port Hope is also not an enclave for the wealthy. There needs to be responsible development. Nobody should have their lives disrupted or their homes devalued. Nor should the environment be devastated or important heritage arbitrarily lost. The tradeoffs need to be carefully considered and publicly articulated.

The best way is to have strong principles enshrined in a community document. Not some technical document like the official plan – although they should be the driving force behind it. Secondary plans need to be measured against a larger vision. Fighting over plans on a case by case basis is divisive and always shortsighted.

A growth study is underway. A new official plan will follow soon after. Maybe before any of this is done, council should have a community visioning session that is inclusive and in-depth enough to create a series of principles for the town. It could involve everyone – school children, teens, families and seniors, business, farmers, the whole enchilada. It would energize the community, rather than divide it.

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