You’ve likely heard the stories—stories such as citizen group loses battle to stop sprawl from destroying wetlands. Or city plan for a mixed-housing neighbourhood overturned to allow a developer to build low-density homes instead.
It’s all too common in Ontario—decisions about planning that contradict what local residents want, what municipal councils advise and that undermine the intent of Ontario’s Greenbelt and Growth Plans.
Who makes these wrongheaded planning decisions? The Ontario Municipal Board (OMB)—an unelected quasi-judicial land-use appeals body that is undemocratic and unaccountable.
The OMB is broken and badly in need of an overhaul. The good news is that this fall, there’s a chance for some much needed repairs.
Earlier this fall Ontario launched a review of the OMB. Public town hall meetings were held across the Greater Golden Horseshoe (GGH) region, including one in Toronto, where citizens spoke up about how the OMB process prevents citizen participation, unfairly favours developers and creates financial risks for citizens who dare to participate. The public comment period closes on December 19.
Toronto ratepayer groups echoed the message pointed out by citizen groups at every town hall meeting: participating in an OMB hearing is costly and frustrating and doesn’t respect local planning decisions.
Ratepayer groups—made up of local citizens—are tired of planning decisions made by municipal councils with full public consultations being overturned by an unelected OMB board member who doesn’t understand their neighbourhood, and in many cases doesn’t understand provincial policies.
The OMB is an arm of the provincial government, meant to serve all Ontarians. But the way it operates clearly is not serving the interests of all Ontarians.
Planning is and should be a public process. The trouble is once a planning issue is appealed to the OMB, the public can be shut out due to the time and expense of participating in an OMB hearing. Hearings often take weeks and require pricey lawyers and planning consultants. Not surprisingly, the process favours wealthy development interests. Citizen concerns are not top of mind.
Adding insult to injury, ratepayer groups that manage to fundraise and participate in a hearing may find that if they lose the appeal, they are penalized substantial cost awards, often thousands of dollars, just for participating in what should be a public dispute resolution process.
The expense of OMB hearings has led some municipalities to negotiate settlements with developers instead of participating in an OMB appeal. These settlements are another way that citizens are shut out of what should be a public process.
The biggest losers in the current equation are local residents, the character of communities, the environment and prime farmland. Too much farmland, sensitive watershed areas, including wetlands, forests and woodlots, have been destroyed due to OMB decisions that did not respect the spirit of Ontario’s Greenbelt and Growth Plans.
Across the Greater Golden Horseshoe, OMB decisions continue to perpetuate 1950’s sprawl that is eating up some of Ontario’s best farmland at an alarming rate. Simcoe County, Waterloo, York Region and other communities are losing farmland and wetlands for more sprawl due to OMB decisions that undermine community decisions and the province’s Growth Plan, which was established to curb runaway sprawl.
So what’s the solution?
The City of Toronto is so fed-up, it wants to opt out of the OMB process altogether. Under its own set of rules called the City of Toronto Act, the city is looking to manage planning disputes by establishing a local appeals body to hear its land-use planning appeals.
But what about the rest of the province? It’s clear Ontario must fix the OMB to protect forests and wetlands from sprawl, ensure citizen voices are heard and uphold community plans for livable neighbourhoods.
The process must change so the OMB no longer sides by default with the development industry, but looks at issues holistically, ensuring that other values Ontarians care about are considered, including community integrity and environmental protection. And as attendees at the recent town hall meetings made clear, the OMB must be fixed so its decisions uphold local and provincial planning policy. There is also a need to increase the qualifications and diversity of the Board members.
The town hall meetings confirmed that Ontarians are passionate about the need to reform the OMB. Now it’s time for the province to take long overdue action and fix the broken Ontario Municipal Board.
Make your voice heard before the province’s consultation closes December 19. Have your say at FixtheOMB.ca and visit the Ontario’s government’s website which outlines various ways to participate in the OMB review.