Good Riddance to the Ontario Municipal Board
Reforms promise to bring back democracy to city planning

When the province announced it was shutting down the Ontario Municipal Board (OMB) and replacing it with the Local Planning Appeal Tribunal, there was good reason for a collective sigh of relief from municipalities and citizens. It is expected the changes will reduce the overall number of land use plan appeals, reduce the time and cost of development approvals, and get housing to the market more quickly, all while returning planning authority to municipal councils and the community.

For 25 years, Environmental Defence has been asking for OMB reform. Thankfully, this time our voice was joined by a chorus of municipal councillors, mayors, ratepayers and planners who were spending too much time, staff resources and taxpayer money fighting developers at the OMB and together we were heard.

But it’s not all good news, and some additional improvements will be needed in the proposed legislation in order to address outrageous cost awards. For too long, huge cost awards have penalized citizens for participating and intimidated other ratepayers from considering becoming a participant at the OMB.  This needs to change or democracy will continue to be jeopardized. We need amendments to the legislation that sets reasonable limits on cost awards or design the system in such a way that such cost awards become impossible to threaten or levy.

On the positive side, the announced reforms reinforce the expertise of planners and empower  municipal councils.  Councils that used the OMB to avoid making tough planning decisions (often highly political) will no longer have that scapegoat. In the past, many found that it was easier to let a project get approved (or turned down), and please local opposition, knowing that the OMB would overturn the decision.  The proposed changes will require Councillors to address ratepayers concerns and make tough decisions about development compatibility like density within existing neighbourhoods. Council can still blame the province in fights over density as local plans are required to conform to the provincial Growth Plan by placing higher density buildings near transit stations and along Main Street.

As with any quasi-judicial proceeding, ensuring a fair hearing is of utmost importance. That’s why it’s so significant that the province is levelling the playing field for future appeals.  The cost of participating in an OMB hearing put citizens at a clear disadvantage as they often lacked the financial resources and expertise to put forward a case for consideration.  Developers and municipalities could set aside funds in their budgets to pay for OMB hearings, whereas bake sales were often how citizens paid their way.  When members of the public did put forward a case, they often failed to base their evidence on planning merits because they lacked the capacity to get professional advice and support. If citizens could have funding to hire experts, it is less likely “not in my backyard” (NIMBY) arguments would be brought forward, as their legal and planning advisors would identify whether the case has merits based on planning principles.

What stood out during the review was how many organizations voiced their support for  providing funding for citizens to meaningfully participate in OMB hearings. And, although the details of the bill are yet to be released, the media backgrounder from the Ministry of Municipal Affairs shows that the province was listening. “The province proposes to create the Local Planning Appeal Support Centre, a new provincial agency to provide free and independent advice and representation to Ontarians on land use planning appeals.”  The opportunity for citizens to participate meaningfully in appeals is likely to bring a level of expertise to community voices which should improve the quality of the tribunal decisions.

Bringing democracy back to land use planning may be messy, but returning control over community planning to municipalities is preferable to tinkering with a broken Ontario Municipal Board that has spent decades undermining good planning and siding with developers who put profits over livable communities.