Mu­nic­i­pal lead­ers need a back­bone

The Hamilton Spectator - - OPINION - John Roe

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.

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