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Red Tape Red Carpet Rural Business Focus Group Highlights

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This morning we wrapped up our final focus group by spending some time around the kitchen table of Capstone Farm with some of our rural business community members. It was a perfect setting for this group and I’m very appreciative of Vanessa’s offer to host us around her beautiful farmhouse kitchen table.

Our farmers and rural/agricultural businesses are a cornerstone of Burlington’s economy and a core part of our history and identity as a community. We are committed to helping them grow and thrive. There are many unique issues that face this group of businesses and today, we got into detail about what is most pressing.

The group had already done their homework, having met to brainstorm last week in preparation for our session today. This session included families that have each been farming in the area for 150+ years, passed on through generation after generation.

In keeping with how our other focus groups were run, we started with a roundtable discussion on what the main challenges are to starting or growing a business in our rural areas, talked about what is already working, and brainstormed ideas about how to improve things. Since the session was more conversational, jumping from challenge to solution more easily, the structure of highlights will be more fluid than previous blog posts in this series.

Key highlights:

  • Urban planning (where there is much more clarity) vs rural planning (nothing granular) – Rural relies heavily on business/land owner for EIAs, maps, justifying, etc., and detailed planning is downloaded to landowner/farmer (so before we can even do anything creative, we must do most of the work because there isn’t enough clarity around our land use)
  • Regulations that lack clarity or defined “tipping points.” There are a lot of definitions in documents like the OP and beyond that are lacking, such as:
    • “key feature”
    • “natural heritage system:
    • “adjacent to”
    • “existing use”
    • “special events” (and why only 6? And when are EIAs necessary?)
  • Regulations that are so onerous as to favour large scale/big finance and exclude small business (they have the money, staff and expertise)
  • Prolonged timelines are an issue with multiple agencies, most specifically and most often the Niagara Escarpment Commission (NEC), the Halton Conservation Authority, and the City of Burlington. As applications cannot be worked on concurrently, the staged reviews across multiple agencies end up creating a very lengthy timeline. It should also be noted there are many times when NEC exemptions can be granted (and should be obvious at the outset), but still require a full application for review, creating very unnecessary delays and red tape. Can we get more clarity from NEC about what the easy and clarified checklist is, to understand what is going to be exempt so in good faith, they can get started — can we develop an MOU (Memorandum of Understanding) of things that are likely to be exempt?
  • Building Permits: NEC is involved with almost all the lands up here; also, the Conservation Authority is involved too. Mapping has issues and much of it is not ground truth. Used to be able to get a permit in a couple of weeks (back in the 70’s). City of Burlington was felt to really mean “how can I help you get things done” vs now it is more like “here’s what you need to do, polite but not genuinely helpful”. Engineered stamped drawings for agricultural building all-of-a-sudden necessary. Now, things take 3-6 months to process with a lot of additional steps.
  • Second is on the building review side — should be at client’s option — if you are required with engineered stamped/signed drawings — then why is there 30-60 days wait to have it reviewed (it’s like having it reviewed twice) and even at the end of an expedited service they’ve paid for, they came back at the last day to ask for more info.
  • In order to protect farming, we have to protect farmers and let them have other ways to make money on their land and this affects the OP. Everything seems to be a no before it’s a yes. Seems an effort to protect something – but what? Can that even be identified and communicated?
  • Having an SME (Kelly) at the City has been really helpful lately to move through a lot of these processes and suggest alternatives so instead of just hearing “no” it becomes “here is what will get you to yes”.
  • Can there be a pre-consultation option for all 3 agencies before complex projects start the application process? If it’s no – we can get to no faster that way and save lots of people time and money. Could there be a day, biweekly, that all agencies meet and do “speed dating” through a bunch of pre-consults with a form filled out ahead of time to triage and look at fire, public health, NEC, etc.
  • Protect the steward of the land – the land owner – they respect the rural area more than anyone and we need to trust them.
  • Point of Access to Fields has become an issue – Public Works at CoB will come along and re-ditch a roadside and not replace the access as a level crossing with a culvert – its City land ‘right of way’ – who pays for the culvert?
  • Need to review storm water management in rural areas – ditches and culverts that are full of silt and no longer working. There are municipal ditches on private land that land owners aren’t permitted to clean or maintain but need work.
  • CoB interactive maps and zoning maps are not current on the website so it’s not easy to find out when you’ll need a permit. You can’t do any real prework yourself. City doesn’t offer GIS layers on the maps.

OVERALL TOP IDEAS:

  • Let’s create a culture of service at all agencies that is a “YES” mentality. A “Here’s how we get to yes” mentality.
  • More clarity in rules, zoning, definitions in policies and more encouragement of farm diversified use to help support their economic sustainability.
  • Pre-consultation options to save everyone time and frustration.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that while we were talking, Vanessa tended to a small bird that got a bit too close to her living room window and helped get it back in the air after a short break in a cozy and covered kitchen bowl. There’s always something interesting happening on a farm!

Later today, we will have the first meeting of the Red Tape Red Carpet Task Force, a group of business owners and thought leaders who will help distill all the information we have collected in the past two months and identify the biggest opportunities and most logical actions we can take to remove obstacles and help our businesses thrive.

Watch for a recap of that meeting in the coming days along with more information on the Task Force itself.

Sign up for the RTRC Task Force email newsletter version by clicking the link.

Visit prior posts in this series by clicking the links below:

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