In an ideal world, the Ontario Municipal Board would not exist. But in the real world, which is full of craven councillors, NIMBYist neighbours and dogged developers, a dispassionate arbiter is needed.
That’s why people are anxiously awaiting a board decision that could affect whether regular citizens will be able to afford to access the provincial appeal body in the future.
A 300-member ratepayer group in Innisfil Township went to the board last year to fight plans to build a large resort, including condominiums, a hotel, marina and golf course on the shores of Lake Simcoe. The ratepayers lost the appeal. Now they’re waiting to hear whether they will be on the hook to pay the developer’s legal bills.
If those families, or their lawyers, have to pay anything close to the $3.2 million the developer is seeking in costs, it will certainly make citizens leery about opposing anything at the provincial appeal body in the future. That’s why critics are condemning this as a “SLAPP suit,” an acronym for Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation. Such suits are designed to intimidate critics.
It doesn’t matter if this particular developer is seeking costs for that reason or not. If the developer wins, it is certain to have a chilling effect on future public participation.
This case could “lead to the collapse of any meaningful public participation in land-use planning,” says Rick Smith, executive director of Environmental Defence. It also opposes Big Bay Point Resort.
The developer, Kimvar Enterprises, maintains that the ratepayers, and their lawyers, purposefully delayed and frivolously dragged out the OMB hearing. In short: They had no case, they abused the process, and now they should pay.
But the OMB already has the power to deal with such abuses. An appeal can be outright denied, or quickly dismissed, if there’s no merit to it. And during the hearing, the adjudicator can tell the parties to speed up or stick to the point.
This was all argued out at the Big Bay Point hearing. The broader public interest lies in what happens next.
If the board decides there is no merit to the developer’s request for costs, the matter ends there. If the decision goes the other way, there will be more hearings to determine whether $3.2 million is the right figure and who should pay, the ratepayers or their lawyers.
The provincial government plans to protect green space and manage growth in the coming decades by concentrating new residences and businesses in existing built-up areas. This is the right thing to do, but it will create ongoing conflict as developers struggle to find places to build and anti-development ratepayers fight back.
In this context, the Ontario Municipal Board will be needed more than ever to settle disputes. But to have any credibility, it must be a place where both sides, pro- and anti-development, have equal opportunity to argue their case.
Unfortunately, news that a few hundred families could be on the hook for millions of dollars because they appealed to the OMB to stop a development seems likely to scare off future critics.