February 7, 2012
Consider it a welcome declaration of independence. Toronto’s residents, urban planners and elected councillors will have a lot more say over neighbourhood development if this city succeeds in freeing itself from a century-old oppressor.
No, the bully Toronto wants to escape isn’t some local Scut Farkus (“He had yellow eyes!”) It’s the Ontario Municipal Board — an unelected, widely despised, quasi-judicial provincial agency with the power to overrule any community’s development decisions.
The board has repeatedly done just that in Toronto, notably in 2007 when it ruled in favour of developers and approved a series of highrise residential buildings on a culturally important section of Queen St. West. The decision came over the objections of local residents, the arts community, city planners, Toronto’s mayor and city councillors.
So much for democracy. In the wake of that ill-judged ruling several urban advocates, including the Star, encouraged Toronto to bypass the board and set up a local panel to adjudicate land use disputes.
The province has done some tinkering with the OMB, but not enough to make a difference. Now Toronto is finally taking action. City council has voted 34-5 in favour of asking Queen’s Park to free Toronto from being in thrall to this board.
The ideal solution would be to create a local appeal body more sensitive to the city’s needs. There may be a role for the OMB in overseeing smaller municipalities. But Toronto is Canada’s sixth largest government, run by 44 full-time city councillors well-connected to their community. It has an experienced and professional planning department and a highly talented legal department. Yet, all their efforts can be undone by the OMB.
“It is manifestly undemocratic for an appointed board such as the OMB to substitute its opinions for the considered judgment of elected councillors and professional city staff,” states a report to council. Quite right. No other province has a panel with that kind of power.
A great deal of planning department time is wasted defending appeals to this board, usually launched by developers. And, according to city staff, the high cost of going to the OMB discourages Toronto from making appeals of its own, even when it has a case to make in the public interest.
One risk is that residents making irrational objections to worthwhile developments would gain even more influence than they have now, swaying vulnerable city councillors while being spared from having to make their case before the OMB. That’s why there needs to be a culture shift at city hall. Without the OMB to act as a solid backstop against anti-development decisions, councillors will have to be more willing to say “no” to NIMBYs.
It’s also important for any appeal panel set up by the city to be truly arm’s length, and capable of resisting weak-kneed councillors who might put obedience to NIMBYs ahead of the city’s overall interests. With a better-balanced and dispassionate arbiter like that, Toronto can safely rid itself of the OMB.
To read this article on thestar.com, please click here.