Municipal leaders need a backbone
There were hearty cheers across the province when the Wynne government lowered its axe on the muchmaligned Ontario Municipal Board this week. But we say hold the applause. While municipalities have won greater control over their future than ever before, everything depends on how they use that new power.
If they have the backbone to stick up for their own planning policies and the interests of the entire community, Ontario’s cities and regions will be better places in which to live.
But if city halls routinely cave in to pressures from small groups of residents shouting “not in my backyard,” it will be harder to build the new homes and businesses Ontario needs. Of course, it needn’t happen this way. For years, critics have complained the unelected, unaccountable OMB too often rode roughshod over the wishes of residents and democratically-chosen politicians when ruling on projects, siding instead with deep-pocketed developers.
In response to those concerns, the Ontario government is introducing sweeping reforms that will cede more power over local planning to citizens and their municipal councils,
As a starting point, the board will be replaced by the new, much less powerful Local Planning Appeal Tribunal.
While the board made decisions based on courtlike hearings that included lawyers, witnesses and evidence, the new tribunal would work mainly with written submissions.
This tribunal, moreover, would only be allowed to rule on whether a development proposal adhered to a municipality’s official plan and provincial planning policies. And unlike the board, the tribunal would lack the power to approve its own version of the development from scratch.
In theory, many of the reforms make perfect sense. They could result in faster, less costly decisions where the legitimate objections of residents carry greater weight than at present.
But no one should forget that few days pass without another news story about angry residents fighting tooth and nail against a proposed development in their neighbourhood.
They don’t want more crowding or traffic. They don’t want property values to sink.
They don’t want highrises. They don’t want townhouses. Many people don’t want any change, period.
What’s often overlooked in past critiques of the board is that municipal politicians regularly used it as a cover that allowed them to nobly stick up for their constituents in public, while privately knowing the proposed development conformed with the municipality’s own policies and should proceed.
Better to let the board do what was right, take the heat and get re-elected, they reasoned. The politicians will soon lose that cover. What happens next depends on the willingness of politicians to go against the wishes of a vocal, highly organized group of residents when doing so upholds the community’s planning policies and results in wiser, more sustainable growth for all.
Let’s hope the fall of the board is not followed by the rise of the NIMBY.
The province itself recognizes this danger and in future will allow municipalities to ignore public appeals of projects being built near transit hubs and, possibly, transit stations. Power to the people, it seems, has its limits.