Ontario’s cities shouldn’t celebrate the Liberals’ OMB reforms just yet

By John Michael McGrath - Published on October 5, 2016
Residents opposed to a condo development in Brampton hold a small protest outside a Brampton Board of Trade meeting.
Residents opposed to a condo development in Brampton hold a small protest outside a Brampton Board of Trade meeting Feb. 15, 2011 (Photo by Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail)

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Nothing is as consistent in Ontario’s municipal politics as railing against the decisions of the Ontario Municipal Board, the unelected provincial planning tribunal that can and does overrule cities on decisions ranging from roof heights to electoral boundaries. On Wednesday, Minister of Municipal Affairs Bill Mauro said the board’s powers could be substantially curtailed sometime next year.

Mauro, flanked by Attorney General Yasir Naqvi and MPP Lou Rinaldi, released a paper the government is using to guide reform of the OMB. The consultation period for OMB reforms begins today and will run until December. Mauro said he expects to present legislation in the spring of next year, based on those consultations.

But Mauro stressed that while the upshot may be some new restraints, the OMB is not going anywhere.

“We believe it’s important to have an independent appeal body as part of the land-use planning system in Ontario,” said Mauro, “but our work will be about making the system better and relieving people as best we can.”

That’s going to come as a disappointment to some municipal councillors, who have called for the OMB to be abolished outright, or to have their own cities removed from its purview. For example, Toronto City Council has repeatedly requested that it be removed from the board's oversight, most recently in 2012. In 2014, then-MPP Rosario Marchese presented a bill at Queen’s Park to do just that, but the Liberals allowed it to be defeated in committee, citing then (as they still are now) the need to retain an appeal body to handle some situations.

Both opposition parties welcomed the news Wednesday.

“We want to make sure this is a very thorough consultation,” said Tory MPP Ernie Hardeman. “Just saying you’re going to have a consultation doesn’t mean much if you’ve already made up your mind.”

NDP leader Andrea Horwath said the government’s announcement was “a long time coming.”

“It’s about time the Liberals got a handle on it,” Horwath added. “The OMB is pretty dysfunctional, and it’s not just Toronto. Many municipalities are really concerned about the decisions coming out of there.”

(There isn't a consensus view even among big cities: Ottawa Mayor Jim Watson said last week the OMB serves a necessary function.)

Municipalities won’t get wholesale abolition, but the Liberals say they’re aiming for reforms that will require the OMB to defer more to local council decisions. That could include ending the practice of “de novo” hearings, during which the OMB judges each case as if it were an entirely new hearing (which effectively allows the board to ignore the input and expertise of city governments and, according to reformers, make the OMB less of an appeals body and more of a de facto planner). The province could also require the OMB to send cases back to municipalities if important new facts arise —for example, if a developer substantially alters their proposal between a council decision and an OMB hearing.

OMB reform also has broader implications for the province’s land-use regime, specifically the Greenbelt and the Growth Plan for the Greater Golden Horseshoe — the twin policies that have encouraged denser development in the GTA.

Environmental Defence praised Wednesday’s announcement, saying the OMB has undermined the Growth Plan, most prominently in Waterloo Region where the board nullified the region’s plan to constrain sprawl.

“We see reform of the OMB as one of the the province’s main tools to ensure that the Growth Plan and the Greenbelt are well-protected. That’s been a huge problem in the past, and one of the reasons we say the system is broken,” said Erin Shapero, spokesperson for Environmental Defence. “We need to shift away from this model of unelected, quasi-judicial processes that undermine provincial policy.”

Builders, however, say a weakened OMB will leave the Growth Plan hostage to parochial local forces. It’s been the OMB that, however unloved, has often held recalcitrant municipalities to the intensification targets set by Queen’s Park. As the Neptis Foundation put it in an August report, in the absence of some other mechanism for implementing the plan “many municipalities did the barest minimum to meet their targets.”

“My concern is how these reforms support the growth plan, support transit-oriented communities, and new housing supply. Will they result in local councils making quicker, faster, and better planning decisions?” said Joe Vacccaro, CEO of the Ontario Home Builders Association. “Everyone wants to believe that local decisions will support provincial planning policy. We don’t always see that.”

This year the government proposed increasing intensification targets by 50 per cent, and municipal politicians are already voicing their displeasure, including former Mississauga Mayor Hazel McCallion. Last week, McCallion said GTA municipalities were worried about “the lack of sound planning” behind the province’s targets.

Mauro and Naqvi both rejected any suggestion that proposed reforms could imperil the Growth Plan.

It may be a while before the reforms have a chance to succeed or fail at all, however: on Wednesday the Attorney General implicitly acknowledged that any changes the government makes will wind up being tested in court.

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