For decades, the OMB has had the final say on how communities take shape. Amid unprecedented growth, communities like this one at Yonge-Eglinton, have been buckling under that pressure.
The province plans to completely overhaul the Ontario Municipal Board, significantly limiting its power over land-use planning for the first time in more than 100 years, the Star has learned.
The OMB name and, more importantly, the existing process that has been called “seriously flawed” by residents groups will cease to exist if new legislation to be tabled this month is approved.
The two biggest changes would include making good on a decade-old promise to cities to let them plan their own futures and helping citizens who have said they are “woefully unprepared” to participate on equal ground against developer interests.
The province, which was conducting a co-ordinated review under the Attorney General’s office and the Ministry of Municipal Affairs, plans to announce the proposed changes at a press conference Tuesday morning.
The new name — the Local Planning Appeals Tribunal — is a largely symbolic move by Premier Kathleen Wynne’s Liberal government as part of a pitch for a fresh start to land-use planning issues. The OMB acronym has long been a spectre for city planners, local councils and communities that have protested over an often fraught process in which the provincially appointed body has become responsible for planning neighbourhoods.
Most significantly, the planned reforms will see the creation of a true appeals body.
As present, when a city council rejects a development application, the OMB has the power to overrule that decision. OMB hearings are considered “de novo,” meaning “as new.” Because of that, an appeal is often a do-over — a second chance that allows for city decisions to be disregarded and developers to seek a different, more favourable decision from the OMB.
Independent research, although limited, has found that board decisions have favoured developers.
But under the proposed legislation, the majority of appeals must be focused on whether the city failed to follow its own rules or adhere to provincial policies. That would stop attempts to use the OMB as a way to circumvent city decisions.
Any significant new information raised during an appeal would have to be sent back to the city for reconsideration.
Though some exceptions would apply, the province has not yet spelled out those rules.
The province also plans to create a public support centre to provide planning and legal advice and representation to individuals and residents’ groups for free.
Currently, citizens are often unrepresented at adversarial, court-like hearings or ratepayers’ groups must lobby their members for donations to raise the thousands of dollars needed to cover the cost of a planner and a lawyer, who are often up against a team of hired professionals representing developers.
A similar government-funded centre already exists for those fighting discrimination at the province’s human rights tribunal. It’s not yet clear what the initial budget for the planning appeal support centre will be.
The proposed changes follow a public consultation launched last fall that gave critics hope for meaningful reforms.
In December, Toronto city council submitted a long list of recommendations to the province aimed at curbing the OMB’s power.
It included support for an end to “de novo” hearings as one of many ways to show more deference to local decision-making.
“The decisions of municipal councils once approved, regarding the implementation of provincial policies and plans, should be recognized and given the appropriate weight they deserve,” senior planning staff wrote in a report to council.
Developers, who have benefitted financially from the OMB process, say the appeals body is necessary to curb “Not In My Backyard” — or NIMBY — attitudes among residents, especially in neighbourhoods slated for intensification.
The industry says the OMB is just following provincial policies that govern their decisions and that most developers are not trying to skirt city decisions.
But as a Star series outlined this year, areas like Yonge-Eglinton and King-Spadina have far exceeded growth targets set out by the province as an unprecedented condominium boom continues. Those communities are already bursting at the seams, with a shortage of parks and recreation space, subway platforms packed several rows deep at rush hour and staff increasingly concerned about whether basic infrastructure, including things like sewers, can keep up.
The OMB is the province’s oldest tribunal and has been one of the most powerful boards of its kind in North America since 1906.
Though reforms were made in 2006, including allowing the OMB to “have regard” to local decision-making — the architects of that policy, city staff and Wynne herself now say the changes did not have the intended outcome.
Although a small percentage of development applications made in Toronto are appealed to the OMB, councillors, planners and residents’ groups say the threat of appeal has created a culture of “planning by OMB.”
Toronto’s planning staff have also spoken strongly in favour of limiting how soon neighbourhood-specific polices — the kind that often take years of public consultation — could be appealed after approval. Staff recommended that no appeals be allowed for two years. A motion from midtown Councillor Josh Matlow that was approved by council pushed it to five years.
“The day that the ink is dry on the approval, somebody shouldn’t be coming in with an application with another idea,” Kerri Voumvakis, who is in charge of city planning policy and is behind the city’s submissions to the province, has said.
Changes to the hearings process is also expected to help unclog a jammed OMB schedule and could relieve strain on the city’s planning department.
Council has heard overworked staff have struggled to keep pace with both new developments and applications appealed to the OMB. Staff have said privately and councillors publicly that the strain means planners can’t always put their best work forward in protecting the city’s interests.
According to chief planner Jennifer Keesmaat, staff spent more than 6,700 hours between January and August last year preparing for OMB hearings.
This month, a new local appeals body — the first of its kind in Ontario — began operating in Toronto to handle minor appeals, the kind of neighbourhood disputes that have previously clogged up the OMB’s schedule.
The reforms are also expected to divert more appeals to local appeals bodies instead of the former OMB process.