The province’s public review of the Ontario Municipal Board (OMB) is underway. The OMB is a quasi-judicial board appointed by the provincial government that makes decisions in disputes between developers, municipal councils and citizens about land use planning issues in Ontario. Its decisions are final and binding unless overturned by the provincial government cabinet.
Unfortunately, the OMB has a long history of being the place where good municipal plans go to die. It is also where citizens can lose their shirts after being penalized with egregious cost awards if they dare to participate to support local planning or provincial policy.
The OMB is unaccountable to the public, undermines municipal decision-making and is a barrier to creating sustainable communities. It’s time for change.
Far too many OMB decisions aren’t consistent with municipal laws and provincial land use policies. In one of many examples, the Region of Waterloo Official Plan aimed to limit new development in agricultural areas until a 2013 OMB decision overturned the Plan. The OMB decision required the region to allow more sprawl to gobble up farmland even though the Plan was consistent with provincial policy. Why is an unelected board allowed to disregard democratically established land use plans? In effect, the OMB creates its own rules by casting aside the results of public process and disrespecting the public nature of planning.
Planning should be a public process. Citizens are encouraged to participate in meetings to shape the future of their communities. You could say that public participation defines good planning. Not only are planners required to serve the public interest (part of their code of conduct) but public meetings are a mandated part of the municipal planning process.
It’s time to stop allowing this unelected board to overturn decisions of a democratically elected city or town council. Over 60 per cent of OMB appeals are filed by developers in the City of Toronto. Regardless of the public meetings, the community input, or the thoughtful planning analysis put into considering a development application, if developers don’t like the council decision they just appeal it to the OMB. Aaron Moore, researcher and author of the book, Planning Politics in Toronto notes, “The board…is a means to curb the decision making authority of local politicians in Ontario.”
Unfortunately, any citizen who has participated in an OMB hearing can tell you the process is anything but welcoming. An OMB hearing isn’t like a courtroom. You don’t just hire a lawyer. Depending on the case, you may need to hire a bevy of experts; lawyers, planners, noise experts, hydrogeologists, ecologists, soil scientists and others to testify at a hearing. Due to the enormous time and expense involved in participating and mounting an OMB appeal, many citizens can’t participate. Those that are able to raise the funds to do so, often find a hostile environment awaits. The nature of the hearing process is oriented to professionals, lawyers and planners, but not citizens. And if the OMB decides against them, citizens groups may face huge cost awards. These egregious costs awards penalize public participation and discourage other citizen groups from participating in subsequent OMB hearings.
That’s why we are asking the province to support public participation at the OMB by:
- Providing funding to community groups that are bringing forward legitimate issues about a project’s non-compliance with a municipal plan or provincial policy
- Making OMB hearings shorter and less expensive by limiting oral and written submissions
- Upholding democracy by removing the right to appeal provincial land use plans
- Referring appeals regarding environmental features, such as water, forests, and wetlands, to the Environmental Review Tribunal
- Making the OMB accountable by recording hearings
- Stopping outrageous cost awards against citizen participants in OMB hearings
- Limiting appeals of Municipal Official Plans to solely determining if the Plans follow provincial legislation and policy