A most welcome and long-awaited announcement was made at the end of August by the Ontario Minister of Municipal Affairs and Housing, Linda Jeffrey. Addressing the delegates to the Association of Municipalities of Ontario, she declared her government is planning to reform the increasingly controversial Ontario Municipal Board (OMB).
This fall she is launching a consultation process to enable municipalities, community groups, and stakeholders to help develop solutions.
The OMB is a provincially appointed, non-elected appeal body. It is worth noting it is the only one of its kind in our country.
It has the power to deal with all land-planning issues. Its frequent overturning of local decisions by city planning departments and politicians has become a serious public issue.
OMB decisions used to be appealable to the provincial cabinet. Such an appeal to the cabinet of then-Premier Bill Davis stopped the infamous centre-town Spadina Expressway in 1971 that was just approved by the OMB. Later Premier Mike Harris decreed OMB decisions to be final and only appealable in courts on narrow legal procedural grounds.
A recent outrageous example is the OMB verdict last February on 154 Front St. E., corner of Sherbourne. The site is in the original 10 historic city blocks of the 1793 Town of York, precursor of our Toronto. OMB approved almost tripling the allowable density and height of two condo towers in this area specifically described in city bylaws as an “Area of Special Identity” (see my column May 2013).
Between 2000 and 2006, OMB sided with developers in 64% of cases.
This has led to increasingly loud public and private calls for its abolition or, at least, modification of its sweeping powers.
In June, 2011, Mississauga City Council unanimously voted to simply abolish OMB. In February, 2012, Toronto City Council followed with a vote of 34-5. Mississauga has since modified its call. It now only asks to be exempt when its planning decisions clearly conform to provincial policies.
In March this year Downtown MPP Rosario Marchese of the NDP tabled a private member’s Bill 20 in the provincial legislature. It would exempt Toronto from OMB city planning oversight and allow the city to establish its own appeal body.
Constitutionally all Canadian cities are the children of their provinces.
Cities only have the powers specifically granted by their parents, the provinces. Marchese argues it is time a city like ours, now 220 years old, be treated as an adult. He notes that Toronto is the sixth largest government in Canada, larger in population than six of our 10 provinces.
It has the largest planning department in the country despite cutbacks.
Marchese’s Bill 20 passed second reading this spring with all-party support. It must now go to public hearings in the Finance Committee before third reading. It is doubtful, however, that the government will allow it to proceed much further now that the government is instituting its own long-awaited review.
In 2007 the McGuinty government tinkered with the OMB in response to continuing municipal complaints.
Its Bill 51 said the OMB “shall have regard to” any decisions made by municipal and other approval authorities.
This was to counter OMB procedures. They start from a total blank slate and ignore all previous planning deliberations and decisions by any other body on a particular project.
An Ottawa developer then challenged Bill 51 in court. He won in 2009. The court said the words “have regard to” only legally mean “have minimal deference to.”
The OMB similarly considers as not legally binding formal city design guidelines like those for the St. Lawrence Neighbourhood adopted by city council after extensive studies and public input in 2005.
Changes to the OMB must be made by the province. Before her installation as our new Liberal Premier, Kathleen Wynne in an earlier role as Minister of Municipal Affairs and Housing, indicated a willingness to review the OMB. It appears she is now willing to at least start acting. But more tinkering will not help. The least she can do is to allow passage of Marchese’s Bill 20.