The County system

Counties are federations of single-tier municipalities with council membership delegated from lower-tier municipal councils. There is no legislated division of authority that applies to all counties: the package of services delivered by counties varies from one county to the next.

Cities and towns are administratively and politically separated from the counties that surround them. Orillia and Barrie are separated from Simcoe County (similarly, Guelph is separated from Wellington County). Unlike regional municipalities such as Halton, Peel, or York, counties do not control water, sewer, or stormwater servicing and require Provincial approval for any County Official Plan Amendment.

In Simcoe County, the upper-tier council is composed of the mayors and deputy mayors of the lower-tier municipalities, with the warden elected by the council from its own membership. Although representatives from the separated cities of Orillia and Barrie do not sit on the county council, they are represented on county committees that deliver services to their residents.23

The current division of responsibilities between Simcoe County and the lower-tier municipalities is shown in Figure 3.24

Figure 3: Division of Responsibilities between the County and Lower-Tier Municipalities

County of Simcoe

Lower-Tier Municipalities

  • Ontario Works
  • social housing
  • children's services
  • homes for the aged
  • land ambulance and emergency planning
  • solid waste management
  • county roads
  • museum and archives
  • forest management
  • tourism
  • Geographic Information Systems
  • subdivision approval authority
  • condominium approval authority
  • water and sewer services
  • local roads
  • public libraries
  • recreation services
  • fire and police services
  • land use development (zoning by-laws)
  • licensing
  • building inspection fees and permits

Restructuring in Simcoe

The adoption of the Simcoe County Official Plan in 1998 resulted from a decade-long municipal reform process.25 Population growth and associated servicing requirements was putting pressure on the relatively unsophisticated administrative authorities of many Ontario counties. Reviews of the county government system in the late 1980s found that many services delivered at the local or provincial level could be better delivered at the county level, that differentials in tax rates and political representation had become unfair, and that competition between municipalities had led to poor development outcomes.26

The Consultation Committee to the Ministry of Municipal Affairs (1989) recommended that responsibility for land use planning be shared between the county and the municipalities. Each county would be required to adopt an official plan by 1994 to which all local official plans would conform.27 These reviews led to 10 Ontario counties undertaking studies to assess their long-term needs and propose restructuring plans.

Simcoe was the first county to implement a restructuring plan.28 After drafting a strategic plan in 1992, the County decided to prepare an Official Plan that would define county-wide objectives, including "environmental protection, resource management, economic and community development, transportation, and cultural and visible heritage."29 Between 1990 and 1994, amalgamations and annexations reduced the number of lower-tier municipalities from 32 to the present 16.30

These changes took place before the election of the Progressive Conservatives in 1995. The Province's Who Does What Panel (1996-1998) favoured consolidating lower-tier municipalities into stronger, more viable units, rolling the separated cities into the counties' political and administrative structures and making county councils directly elected. None of these changes were instituted in Simcoe.

A critical unresolved issue is that representation on county councils does not reflect population. Despite the recommendation of the 1989 Consultation Committee to adopt representation by population, lower-tier municipalities are still equally represented on county councils.31 In the past, several municipalities have sought city status in order to separate from counties in which they were underrepresented.32 In Simcoe County, the largest of all Ontario counties by population, town and township populations range from 8,316 for Penetanguishene to 28,666 for Innisfil, a ratio of almost 1 to 3.5. Eight of the 16 municipalities in Simcoe County have populations over 15,000 and could therefore apply to separate from the County.

As Simcoe's population grows and the County provides more "urban" services, it behaves more and more like its regional municipality neighbours. Should a regional municipality structure be proposed, however, Orillia and especially Barrie would no doubt resist integration with the County.

The Challenge Posed by Barrie's Growth

Barrie's population has grown at a rate of 65% over the past decade, with no sign of slowing. It is estimated that Barrie's urbanized land area will accommodate seven more years of growth at current densities.33 Hemson Consulting estimates that within its present boundaries, Barrie will be 42,450 units short of projected demand by 2026.34

Historically, Barrie has annexed land when needed from neighbouring municipalities. Since 1954, the City's borders have changed nine times through annexation of lands from neighbouring townships.35 In 1996, the Province changed the rules by which an annexation can occur. Today, boundaries can be adjusted within all counties using a triple-majority system. For Simcoe, this means the proposal must be supported by a majority of the municipalities involved, having a majority of the electors, plus a majority vote in County Council.

In 2002, Barrie commissioned the Greater Barrie Local Government Review,36 which, among other recommendations, called for Barrie and Innisfil to form a single city, separated from the County. Innisfil strongly objected to a merger with Barrie.37 Although the annexation issue has been contentious, the November 2003 election brought a new mayor to Barrie and an apparent new spirit of cooperation between the two municipalities.

In March 2004 Barrie launched a new downtown plan which uses financial incentives to attract developers to the City's vacant downtown lots.38 This plan may signal a shift toward encouraging more compact forms of development to manage growth.

Whether they are addressed through annexation of parts of the County to Barrie, integration of Barrie into the County, or through cooperative arrangements, the growth management challenges posed by Barrie cannot be ignored.

Simcoe's Official Plan

In 1998, with the adoption of the County Official Plan, the County became the approval authority for subdivisions, condominiums and local official plans. County approvals can be overturned or halted by the Province, but the County and its staff operate the approvals process in the first instance. The 16 municipalities in the County have their own official plans,39 each of which must conform to the County Official Plan. The County Council approves all amendments to local official plans passed by local councils.

The County has delegated subdivision and condominium approval authority to Clearview, Oro-Medonte, New Tecumseth, and Midland. In these cases, the County retains a commenting role on conformity with the County Official Plan. Other municipalities have not sought these powers because they do not want them or they lack the human resources to implement them.40

In addition to the Simcoe County Official Plan, parts of the Township of Clearview are governed by the Niagara Escarpment Plan and small sections of Adjala-Tosorontio and New Tecumseth fall under the Oak Ridges Moraine Act. The separated cities of Barrie and Orillia are not governed by the Simcoe County Official Plan.

The Development Approval Process

Since all municipal institutions are creatures of the Province, the Province has the power in principle to overturn any municipal decision. In practice, however, the Province's role is reactive. The County and local municipalities process all development applications, while provincial ministries merely exercise a commenting role. The County has many opportunities to intervene or refuse a proposal. If a proposal is clearly incompatible with the stated planning policies, the County or municipality can turn it down even before a formal application is submitted, at the pre-consultation stage.

Developers apply directly to the County only if an amendment to the County Official Plan is required for the development to proceed. The approval of "ordinary" development takes place entirely at the local municipality level. If both the local and the county official plans require amendments, then applications must be made at both levels.

Once an application is made, it is circulated to affected agencies for comment. Extraordinary applications are circulated to the provincial Ministries of the Environment, Municipal Affairs, and Transportation. The application may also be sent to school boards, neighbouring municipalities, utilities, conservation authorities, and County roads officials. Developments are approved only if they meet the conditions set by the commenting agencies.

The County's vision for growth

The Simcoe County Official Plan articulates a long-term vision for growth and sets out four land use designations:

  • Rural and Agricultural Areas;
  • Greenlands;
  • Special Development Areas;
  • Settlement Areas.

Lands designated Rural and Agricultural are not to be the focus of development, although small-scale residential development is permitted in some circumstances. Some municipalities permit recreational, seasonal, or limited-service "lifestyle" communities in Rural and Agricultural areas. The County has indicated that the Rural and Agricultural designations will be separated in the next revision of the Official Plan to better protect farmland from development.

Greenlands are considered vital to the natural heritage of the county. Stringent environmental impact standards are applied to development on Greenlands.

The Special Development Areas designation covers major economic generators such as Casino Rama and the Lake Simcoe Regional Airport.

The Official Plan directs new development to existing designated settlement areas in order to promote compact development and to protect farmland and natural areas. The County Official Plan lists all existing Settlement Areas, but does not specify their boundaries (section 5.1). Existing Settlement Areas can be expanded only by amendment to municipal official plans.41 Some municipalities have created settlement area sub-classes.42 The County Official Plan also requires that local municipalities undertake growth management strategies and designate a 10- to 20-year supply of land for urban development.43

The County retains control because municipal OPAs must be approved by the County. The County can refuse an OPA if the project is not justified by growth projections, if servicing is inadequate, or if adjacent uses are incompatible (section 4.1.1).

In section 3.6, the County Official Plan permits development outside settlement areas in two cases:

  • Country Residential Development: Small-scale subdivisions are permitted outside Settlement Areas if the development does not cause the municipality's projected proportion of rural growth to be exceeded and the development is justified within the context of the local and County Official Plans. Country residential developments are not permitted adjacent to existing settlement areas or other country residential developments.
  • Recreation Districts: local municipalities may designate Recreational Districts containing commercial and residential activity in the rural portion of the Rural and Agricultural and Greenland areas. Development in Greenland areas is "discouraged" and either full or communal water and sewage servicing is preferred.

To date, country residential development has consisted typically of small-scale projects and has had little effect on the big picture of servicing or population location. There is some concern, however, that Recreation Districts could become a back door to large-scale development outside settlement areas.


Servicing capacity is a major constraint on new development. Through the PPS, the Province recommends providing full sewage and water service in both urban and rural areas and only where plant capacity is available to accommodate it. If full servicing is impossible and site conditions are suitable, communal services or on-site individual services are permitted (section

The PPS also requires "at least a 3-year supply of residential units with servicing capacity in draft approved or registered plans." The County Official Plan amplifies the PPS by stating that: "Limitations respecting the availability of municipal water and sanitary sewage treatment capacity to service up to the 20 year growth projection shall not restrict planning and designating sufficient lands for such growth. Where such limitations exist at the time that the plans are being prepared, policies shall be included in the plan or secondary plan that require phasing of the development in accordance with service availability" (section 4.1.4).

For proposals to create or expand a Settlement Area, the County Official Plan requires that the local municipality secure an "analysis of servicing feasibility, transportation facilities, agricultural land quality, natural heritage features and functions, hazard lands, resource development and its potential and cultural heritage and archaeological resources" (section 4.1.2). It also states that "the secondary plan or official plan amendment for settlement expansion or establishment shall indicate proposed land uses, major streets, road, storm water and utility services, population density and staging of development over a period of 10-20 years" (section 4.1.3). Since the local municipalities are in charge of servicing, the County does not directly review or approve servicing plans.

23. County of Simcoe. Website. <>.
24. County of Simcoe. Website. <>.
25. The Simcoe County Council adopted the new Official Plan on October 28, 1997. The Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing approved it on April 1, 1998. The publication date of the most recent consolidated version is June 2000.
26. Government of Ontario. Patterns for the Future: Report and Recommendations of the Advisory Committee on County Government to the Ministry of Municipal Affairs, 1987, and Government of Ontario. County Government in Ontario. January 1989.
27. Government of Ontario. County Government in Ontario. January 1989. 32-33.
28. Government of Ontario. Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing. "Who Does What Panel Recommendations on Local Governance," website <> December 6, 1996. Similar two-tier restructuring processes took place elsewhere, notably in Wellington County (approved 1999) and Peterborough County (still in draft form).
29. County of Simcoe Official Plan 2000. s. 1.3.
30. See the Appendix for a chart detailing municipal boundary changes since 1990.
31. Government of Ontario. County Government in Ontario: Report of the Consultation Committee to the Ministry of Municipal Affairs. January 1989. 25.
32. Government of Ontario. County Government in Ontario: Report of the Consultation Committee to the Ministry of Municipal Affairs. January 1989. 11. The report cities Pembroke and Barrie as examples of towns that have separated from their counties on this pretext. Any town or township with a population of 15,000 or over may apply to the Ontario Municipal Board for city status and separation from their county. The OMB's decision requires approval from the Ministry of Municipal Affairs (17).
33. Eric Hodgins, Planner, City of Barrie. Interview. September 26, 2003.
34. Hemson 2004b. 6-7.
35. Meridian Planning Consultants. Greater Barrie Area Local Government Review: The Challenge of Managing Growth, prepared for the City of Barrie January 2002. 10.
36. Meridian Planning Consultants. Greater Barrie Area Local Government Review: The Challenge of Managing Growth, prepared for the City of Barrie January 2002.
37. Its own report, Managing Growth and Protecting Innisfil's Communities, argued that increasing densities and releasing unneeded industrial lands for residential or other development within Barrie's borders would lengthen the timeline within which Barrie could grow within its existing boundaries.
38. "New Downtown Plan for Barrie" Novae Res Urbis, Greater Toronto Area Edition. (7:14) March 31, 2004. 1, 5.
39. See Appendix for a list of Official Plan adoption dates. The Township of Severn has not yet adopted a post-amalgamation Official Plan and operates under five OPs and five zoning by-laws.
40. Nathan Westendorp, Planner II, Simcoe County. Interview. September 26, 2003.
41. Section 4.10.11 of the County Official Plan states that: "Local official plans shall require official plan amendments for the following developments: settlement expansions, country residential subdivisions, country recreation facilities which include significant building developments and/or alteration or are greater than 160 hectares in size, business parks, shoreline developments, airports, new waste disposal sites, and aggregate developments, except where existing approved local municipal official plans do not require an official plan amendment for new or expanded aggregate developments."
42. Wasaga Beach, for example, has a Country Club Community class, which permits developments based on communal water supply and individual sewage disposal systems containing single detached dwelling units and recreational land uses. (Town of Wasaga Beach Official Plan, Draft Dec. 2002), s. 5.2.7.) Innisfil has a Shoreline designation intended for recreational and small-scale cottage development.
43. As a part of the regular updates to their population projections, Hemson Consulting has been hired by the County to assess the land supply in designated Settlement Areas with respect to servicing capacity and ability to contain the County's future growth.