January 9th 2014
Eric Emin Wood
Hoping to prevent what they call “abuses of entitlement” that might tilt decisions in favour of the interests of developers over those of the communities in which they build, two midtown councillors have mounted a campaign for reforms to the Ontario Municipal Board.
Kristyn Wong-Tam, Ward 27, and Josh Matlow, Ward 22, argue the provincially appointed body that rules on planning disputes is in need of an overhaul.
They have set up pages on their websites to rally constituents to their cause, providing information on who residents should contact to add their voices to the call for elimination of OMB jurisdiction over the city. Matlow has also been printing literature and distributing it door-to-door to residents and community associations.
“The OMB … puts power into developers’ hands, because they have the deepest pockets, and stifles Toronto’s ability to build our communities in a planned and deliberate way,” Matlow said recently, complaining that since the board is unelected it is also unaccountable.
Added Wong-Tam: “Most planners and most development lawyers will tell you, if they’re honest, that the board is there to give them and their clients what they want when the city does not.”
“We are the sixth-largest government in Canada, and we have a professional planning department that is unmatched across this nation,” Wong-Tam said. “We have enough expertise that we don’t need to have our decisions overturned by the Ontario Municipal Board.”
The efforts to bring reform began in city council in September, 2011 with a motion asking then-municipal affairs minister Kathleen
Wynne to remove Toronto from the OMB’s jurisdiction.
It passed, with 33 votes, and was referred to the city’s planning and growth management committee.
The province is currently reviewing its planning process, but removing Toronto from the OMB’s jurisdiction is not believed to be a consideration, nor are significant reforms.
“I find it quite disingenuous of this government that they can even pretend to be interested in what the public has to say about planning reforms, and not take a look at the OMB’s effects,” Wong-Tam said.
The OMB, a quasi-judicial board with political appointees, is the only body of its kind in North America.
Wong-Tam contends its sole purpose is to facilitate development.
“Every single application is circulated to all of the relevant departments for technical comments and feedback,” she said of the city process that is sometimes overturned by the OMB.
“Yet, with the stroke of a pen, the developers’ very well paid lobbyists and lawyers can easily appeal the city’s decision.”
Developers, however, often have a different view. While Matlow’s website cites a 2009 study that found developers win 64
percent of OMB hearings, Guy D’Onofrio, an official with developer The Goldman Group, contends the city wins “the vast majority” of its cases at the OMB.
The vice-president of development, planning and government relations with The Goldman Group says until “some substantial change” takes place in how the city deals with planning he’ll consider the OMB “a necessity for developers.”
“You’ve got to remember that a number of the cases at the OMB are win-win for both the city and the developer, because the OMB seems to put us in a settlement mode,” D’Onofrio said.
Wong-Tam emphasized she doesn’t want the board abolished, only reforms implemented, addressing issues such as the lack of
oversight when it comes to OMB member selection.
“Sometimes city planning makes a decision that the local community’s not satisfied with, but that’s their best professional advice,” she says. “And city council can choose whether or not they accept that advice.”
“Our message to the provincial government is this: it’s time to take Toronto’s communities seriously,” Matlow said. “While developers will be a partner in Toronto’s future, the city’s Official Plan can’t be ignored every single time one of them wants to make more money.”
D’Onofrio said were drastic change for the OMB to come he would favour creating an elected executive council that would “create
a buffer from a parochial councillor who doesn’t see the bigger picture.”
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