Cities will get more power in OMB over­haul plan

The Hamilton Spectator - - FRONT PAGE - JEN­NIFER PAGLIARO

The prov­ince plans to com­pletely over­haul the On­tario Mu­nic­i­pal Board, sig­nif­i­cantly lim­it­ing its power over land-use plan­ning for the first time in more than 100 years.

The OMB name and, more im­por­tantly, the ex­ist­ing process that has been called “se­ri­ously flawed” by res­i­dents groups will cease to ex­ist if new leg­is­la­tion to be tabled this month is ap­proved.

The two big­gest changes would in­clude mak­ing good on a decade­old prom­ise to cities to let them plan their own fu­tures, and help­ing cit­i­zens who have said they are “woe­fully un­pre­pared” to par­tic­i­pate on equal ground against de­vel­oper in­ter­ests.

The prov­ince, which was con­duct­ing a co-or­di­nated re­view un­der the At­tor­ney Gen­eral’s of­fice and the Min­istry of Mu­nic­i­pal Af­fairs, plans to an­nounce the pro­posed changes Tues­day morn­ing.

The new name — the Lo­cal Plan­ning Ap­peals Tri­bunal — is a largely sym­bolic move by Premier Kath­leen Wynne’s Lib­eral govern­ment as part of a pitch for a fresh start to land-use plan­ning is­sues.

The OMB acro­nym has long been a spec­tre for city plan­ners, lo­cal coun­cils and com­mu­ni­ties that have protested over an of­ten fraught process in which the provin­cially ap­pointed body has be­come re­spon­si­ble for plan­ning neigh­bour­hoods.

Most sig­nif­i­cantly, the planned re­forms will see the cre­ation of a true ap­peals body.

As present, when a city coun­cil re­jects a devel­op­ment ap­pli­ca­tion, the OMB has the power to over­rule that de­ci­sion. OMB hear­ings are con­sid­ered “de novo,” mean­ing “as new.” Be­cause of that, an ap­peal is of­ten a do-over — a sec­ond chance that al­lows for city de­ci­sions to be dis­re­garded and devel­op­ers to seek a dif­fer­ent, more favourable de­ci­sion from the OMB.

In­de­pen­dent re­search, al­though limited, has found that the board de­ci­sions have favoured devel­op­ers.

But un­der the pro­posed leg­is­la­tion, the ma­jor­ity of ap­peals must be fo­cused on whether the city failed to fol­low its own rules or ad­here to pro­vin­cial poli­cies. That would stop at­tempts to use the OMB as a way to cir­cum­vent city de­ci­sions.

Any sig­nif­i­cant new in­for­ma­tion raised dur­ing an ap­peal would have to be sent back to the city for re­con­sid­er­a­tion.

Though some ex­cep­tions would ap­ply, the prov­ince has not yet spelled out those rules.

The prov­ince also plans to cre­ate a pub­lic sup­port cen­tre to pro­vide plan­ning and le­gal ad­vice and rep­re­sen­ta­tion to in­di­vid­u­als and res­i­dents’ groups for free.

Cur­rently, cit­i­zens are of­ten un­rep­re­sented at ad­ver­sar­ial, court­like hear­ings or ratepay­ers’ groups must lobby their mem­bers for do­na­tions to raise the thou­sands of dol­lars needed to cover the cost of a plan­ner and lawyer, who are of­ten up against a team of hired pro­fes­sion­als rep­re­sent­ing devel­op­ers.

A sim­i­lar govern­ment-funded cen­tre al­ready ex­ists for those fight­ing dis­crim­i­na­tion at the prov­ince’s hu­man rights tri­bunal. It’s not yet clear what the ini­tial bud­get for the plan­ning ap­peal sup­port cen­tre will be.

The pro­posed changes fol­low a pub­lic con­sul­ta­tion launched last fall that gave crit­ics hope for mean­ing­ful re­forms.

In De­cem­ber, Toronto city coun­cil sub­mit­ted a long list of rec­om­men­da­tions to the prov­ince aimed at curb­ing the OMB’s power.

It in­cluded sup­port for an end to “de novo” hear­ings as one of many ways to show more def­er­ence to lo­cal de­ci­sion-mak­ing.

“The de­ci­sions of mu­nic­i­pal coun­cils once ap­proved, re­gard­ing the im­ple­men­ta­tion of pro­vin­cial poli­cies and plans, should be rec­og­nized and given the ap­pro­pri­ate weight they de­serve,” se­nior plan­ning staff wrote in a re­port to coun­cil.

Devel­op­ers, who have ben­e­fit­ted fi­nan­cially from the OMB process, say the ap­peals body is nec­es­sary to curb “Not In My Back­yard” — or NIMBY — at­ti­tudes among res­i­dents, es­pe­cially in neigh­bour­hoods slated for in­ten­si­fi­ca­tion.

The in­dus­try says the OMB is just fol­low­ing pro­vin­cial poli­cies that gov­ern their de­ci­sions and that most devel­op­ers are not try­ing to skirt city de­ci­sions. But as a Toronto Star se­ries out­lined this year, ar­eas like Yonge-Eglin­ton and KingS­pad­ina have far ex­ceeded growth tar­gets set out by the prov­ince.

The OMB is the prov­ince’s old­est tri­bunal and has been one of the most pow­er­ful boards of its kind in North Amer­ica since 1906 (It was orig­i­nally called the On­tario Rail­way and Mu­nic­i­pal Board. It be­came the OMB in 1932.)

Though re­forms were made in 2006, in­clud­ing al­low­ing the OMB to “have re­gard” to lo­cal de­ci­sion­mak­ing — the ar­chi­tects of that pol­icy, city staff and Wynne her­self now say the changes did not have the in­tended out­come.

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