The part of the Tories’ housing plan that no one’s talking about

ANALYSIS: The government’s new housing bill will give it far more power to force development around transit stations. Here’s why that could lead to more housing — and angry urban voters
By John Michael McGrath - Published on May 14, 2019
Steve Clark in the Ontario legislature
Bill 108 would give the minister of municipal affairs — currently, Steve Clark — new powers that could hasten the construction of new housing around major transit hubs. (Chris Young/CP)

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The Tory government’s Bill 108, which is geared toward getting more homes built across the province, especially in the GTA, has elicited both criticism and approval. Municipal advocates have denounced its return to pre-2018 rules for the Local Planning Appeal Tribunal (effectively, the system used by the old Ontario Municipal Board) and its shorter timelines for appeals; environmentalists have expressed alarm over its changes to the Endangered Species Act. Developers, on the other hand, seem pretty pleased.

But there’s one aspect of the law that has received relatively little attention, even though it could hasten the construction of new homes around the GTA’s major transit hubs: GO train stations and Toronto subway stations. If passed, the legislation would give the minister of municipal affairs (currently, Steve Clark) the power to draw lines on a map indicating areas where municipalities would have to establish a “community planning permit system,” or CPPS.

The system itself isn’t new. As part of a larger amendment to the Planning Act in 2007, the Liberals introduced an optional “development permit system” to change the way Ontario municipalities do planning. Normally, cities make official plans (which abide by the provincial rules laid out in such legislation as the Greenbelt Act and the Growth Plan for the Greater Golden Horseshoe). Then, they create zoning bylaws that are supposed to conform with those official plans. But developers have the right to appeal those policies to the LPAT when they want to apply for a new building — a condo tower, for example. And every other developer can do the same, which means that cities have to defend their decisions on a case-by-case basis.

Under a CPPS, that’s all flipped. Cities can plan for a broad area and set all the rules in advance, and appeals can be filed only up until the plan is put in place. Once a CPPS is set, it’s set, and developers and residents have to live with it. With a few exceptions, site-specific appeals aren’t possible. In theory, the CPPS gives cities more certainty that their decisions will matter — and developers get an expedited approval process.

But cities haven’t been quick to adopt the system. For more than a decade, the province has been trying to prod them to make greater use of the CPPS. The Liberals encouraged municipalities to use their CPPS powers if they wanted maximum flexibility for inclusionary zoning rules. (Eventually, the government abandoned the effort.) Brampton, though, is the largest city to have used it to date, and only three smaller municipalities have signed up. Toronto tried to implement it under then-chief planner Jennifer Keesmaat, developers and resident appealed it to the old Ontario Municipal Board, and it has been stuck in legal limbo ever since.

The Tories have evidently decided that the province is going to stop asking nicely. Under Bill 108, the minister would have the power to designate areas where a municipality must create a CPPS. The minister wouldn’t have the power to decide what the CPPS would involve, as the minister’s office can’t write a community plan’s zoning rules. But, if he decided that a municipality’s CPPS wasn’t compliant with provincial policy, he could appeal the municipality’s decision to the LPAT. And he would have the power to set deadlines for compliance.

It’s not yet clear how aggressively the government plans to use this new power, but we do have a sense of its priorities. The Tories have emphasized the need to build more around major transit stations and already added language to the Growth Plan for the Greater Golden Horseshoe intended to encourage exactly that. In Bill 108, though, the minister’s power to delineate a CPPS area is not limited to transit stations or to anything else: in theory, at least, he could declare a CPPS for an entire municipality.

If the Tories were to make full use of Bill 108’s new powers, we could see a lot more housing built near transit stations — and built faster. With a CPPS in place, neither residents’ associations nor developers would be allowed to appeal it to the LPAT. Developers willing to work within the rules of a CPPS plan after it’s in place would basically have an open door. If the system works as the government hopes, that could mean building approvals coming through in months instead of years.

Which isn’t to say that the system will be uncontroversial. Because of the Tories’ changes to the Growth Plan, local councils will have less say when it comes to new density around transit stations — and they haven’t been shy about expressing their opposition to that. Giving the minister the power to force municipalities to adopt community plans will be no less controversial, and it could also anger urban voters, who’ll lose the ability to meaningfully oppose specific development applications in their neighbourhoods. After all, there’s a reason that nearly all of Ontario’s 444 municipalities have ignored the CPPS until now: it takes a lot of work to implement, and the political calculus doesn’t make it an obvious winner for elected councillors.

But if the Tories get their way, communities around Ontario will become much more familiar with it — and soon.

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