You might have heard that the Ontario government has decided to eliminate the Ontario Municipal Board (OMB) and replace it with a much less powerful planning tribunal. The city, and province, have positioned this change as a major benefit to residents of Toronto, and other communities in the province. And, while this is still early days, this development seems to be a very positive one for communities over large developers. However, is the news all good? Especially, for a city like Toronto where growth is inevitable, and high density units are necessary to account for the high price of land?
Until recently, I was of the opinion that the OMB ought to be removed, especially when considering the opinions which have been laid out: that the OMB works in favour of the developers; the OMB neglects the wishes of communities and its citizens. However, over the past few months, I’ve come to realize that its elimination, or reduction in authority, is not what is necessary. Instead, the focus should be on REFORMing the board.
- created in 1906
- is an independent, arms-length, quasi-judicial, administrative tribunal responsible for handling appeals of land-use planning disputes and municipal matters.
- deals with Planning Act appeals
- 2014-2015 the Board was presented with 1535 cases/appeals
- appeals ranged from minor variance changes (i.e. changes to individual properties) to approvals on major construction projects (i.e. new sub-divisions/developments, condo towers)
- The Board’s decisions are based on the evidence presented at the hearing including:
- Environmental, social and economic considerations
- Provincial and municipal interests
- Rights of the individual citizens
- The best interests of the community as a whole.
Officially unveiled on Tuesday (May 16 2017), provincial reforms would strip the OMB of its overarching power(s) while giving local municipal councils much more control over their own planning. The OMB will be renamed as the Local Planning Appeal Tribunal and would be limited to ruling on whether a project adheres to provincial policies and a municipality’s Official Plan while no longer having the power to approve its own version of a development from scratch.
In addition, Municipal Affairs Minister Bill Mauro unveiled the changes and provisions that would:
- Eliminate the current lengthy court-like hearings by moving the new tribunal to largely written arguments, and imposing strict deadlines;
- Limit the new tribunal to reviewing whether a municipality’s decision conforms with provincial policy and its own plans, with the power to send a decision back to the municipality for reconsideration before the tribunal could make a final decision;
- Allow for panels of multiple tribunal members to hear large cases;
- Set up an office to provide free legal help to citizens challenging developments before the tribunal;
- Disallow challenges of entire municipal Official Plans and for two years on new neighbourhood secondary plans.
According to those in the development industry, the Ontario government’s plan to dramatically weaken the OMB will empower those uninterested in further development in their communities (aka Not In My Back Yard, or NIMBY), while making it even harder to get new housing developments or condo towers approved – exacerbating the lack of supply and potentially aiding in the rapid upward drive in real estate prices. Joe Vaccaro, chief executive officer of the Ontario Home Builders Association, commented to the Globe and Mail stating that establishing a new weaker tribunal and leaving power in the hands of local city councils could even undermine the province’s Growth Plan, which calls for greater density.
In a move to address concerns that NIMBYism would impede on the province’s policy goals to high density buildings near new transit lines, a provision was introduced which would allow councils to bar challenges to developments they approve within 500 meters of transit stations.
Here’s the problem: while it is great that more power is put into the hands of communities, there is an inherent conflict which has arisen between the stated objectives of the province and the desires of community members, something which seems to be constantly overlooked. Over the years, the perception that developers win most judgments has become the dogma of many and with respect to how urban development operates and is initiated, however it is the government of Ontario which is responsible for determining what urban development ultimately looks like via its Provincial Policy Statement (PPS) and the mandate of the PPS has been one of INTENSIFICATION.
Therefore, while it’s a good gesture in theory, in practice the removal of the an already weakened board, means little for Torontonians, and other communities because the stage has been set to increase density in the city. Intensification is what is necessary for a city like Toronto to deal with its future, and if communities and developers cannot come to an understanding Condo development will not be the only thing affected.