The controversial Ontario Municipal Board, a provincial body that oversaw real estate development appeals, was shut down Tuesday, to be replaced by a system that will return planning power to local councils.
Established in 1903, the OMB’s original mandate was to regulate booming residential and railroad growth in the province. However, it evolved to become a method of recourse for building developers whose proposals were rejected by municipal council. The board – the members of which were not elected by the public – would assess the case from scratch, and had the power to greenlight projects the city had refused.
Returning Power to the Local Level
City councils and neighbourhood advocates have long criticized the OMB’s process for being opaque, heavily favouring developers, and overstepping local zoning and building regulations.
In response, the province launched an in-depth review last May, including the collection of public input and town halls, and announced the board would be dismantled in lieu of a Local Appeal Planning Tribunal (LAPT). Unlike the OMB’s “de novo” appeals process, the LAPT will rely solely on whether projects comply with local planning guidelines. If not, proposals will be returned to municipal council for a reassessment over a period of 90 days. If the city does not reach a solution, only then will the Tribunal retain the right to make a ruling.
The reforms will also make the appeals process less cost prohibitive for community associations and individuals through the creation of the Local Planning Appeal Support Centre (LPSC). This free legal resource will offer guidance to those who wish to challenge development proposals, and has a budget of $1.5 million to represent local interests in the court system.
Previously, those that appealed the OMB had to pay lawyer fees, and often had to shell out for professional planners to support their case – a costly deterrent for many who wished to challenge development proposals.
Toronto City Council in Support of Changes
The new tribunal is a positive change from a city and neighbourhood planning prospective; Toronto Mayor John Tory stated to the Globe and Mail that he believes “these reforms move us in the direction that we want to go, which is more local responsibility for local planning decisions.”
The intent of the Tribunal is to bring transparency to the planning process and ensure all new development is appropriate for the neighbourhood – for example, buildings must adhere to maximum storey height or density requirements. It will also ensure development can be supported by existing or planned infrastructure in the area, and that planning is for the benefit of the neighbourhood, rather than developers’ financial interest.
Paving the Way for NIMBYism
However, there are concerns that the new appeals process could create red tape for affordable and higher-density housing initiatives that are sorely needed in Canada’s most expensive markets.
The development industry has warned the new restrictions will stifle new projects, and could ultimately result in tighter supply and higher real estate prices. It will also empower those with NIMBY (Not In My Backyard) attitudes to block development growth, and complicate building innovation with local politics.
The Tribunal’s new process will also put the onus on city planners to do an effective job, and removes the “scapegoat” should projects go awry.
“Councillors are really going to have to do their homework, know what the provincial policy statements are, know what their own official plan is, and make a decision,” said London Deputy Mayor Paul Hubert to Global News. “Just because you have a group of people, and it may be a noisy minority, sometimes you have to make a decision that says, ‘this is the right decision based on the planning principals’, even though it may not be the most popular decision.”