Any talk of Ontario Municipal Board reform tends to be in extremes. Parties either describe it as the last line of defence against rampant NIMBYism and pandering politicians, or as an authoritarian, developer-friendly body bent on tearing down the decisions of democratically elected officials.
So it was surprising that the whole ‘us-versus-them’ mentality was largely absent from a round table discussion surrounding the topic on Feb. 25 at Ryerson University. But while the experts were able to have a frank and constructive discussion concerning the OMB, there was no consensus on what changes are necessary moving forward.
Speaking to the full room of university students, industry members and interested citizens who attended Within Reason: Justice, City Building and the OMB were NDP MPP (Trinity-Spadina) Rosario Marchese, Toronto developer Steve Diamond (president and CEO of Diamond Corp.), and Cynthia MacDougall (partner at McCarthy Tetrault LLP).
“I think the timing for this discussion is very interesting,” said moderator Mitchell Kosny, associate director at Ryerson’s School of Urban and Regional Planning.
He explained that when the provincial Liberal government announced their intention to review the planning process, many thought that this meant looking at the OMB. But the Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing ultimately excluded it from the scope of the review. “Some of us had hoped that the province would have pushed further … or somewhere,” Kosny said.
This call for OMB reform is something that Rosario Marchese echoed.
“Citizens don’t have much power in this process,” Marchese said. “Developers, God bless ‘em, I often say this is their second home.”
While Ontarians can theoretically appeal planning decisions at the board, they need to pay a $125 fee, and then go up against some of the best (and most expensive) planners and lawyers in the system who represent the developers.
As such, Marchese has a private member’s bill before legislature that would allow Toronto to be free from the OMB’s oversight. He also repeated that he fundamentally disagreed with the status quo, which he said gives one or two unelected OMB members the authority to override the will of an entire elected city council.
“I reject that kind of power they have,” he said. “They not only interpret the law, they make the law.”
Marchese also pointed out that Toronto city council gave a strong signal in 2012 that it wants to manage its own affairs. A motion from Councillor Kristyn Wong-Tam asked the province to remove the city from the OMB’s jurisdiction and create an exclusively-Toronto panel for zoning and appeal processes. It easily passed.
“I believe they (city council and Toronto’s planning department) have the expertise to do the job well,” Marchese said. “Democracy is complicated, but I trust it.”
However, not everyone agrees that having an unelected board is inherently a bad thing.
“Is the OMB the villain, or the scapegoat?” asked Steve Diamond.
He told attendees that when people outline their concerns over rapid growth in Toronto, they tend to blame the OMB, saying that the board approved buildings that are too tall for the neighbourhood.
Diamond said that while it makes a good headline to say that the unelected board overturned a city council decision, the truth of the matter is that city council actually approves many controversial developments itself.
He also argued that when councillors do in fact oppose a proposal, they may be bending to the will of vocal local residents (and keeping their upcoming elections in mind) — and not considering what is in the best interest for the city as a whole.
That said, Diamond was not against OMB reform. Rather, he said that if change is coming, the government should review the entire development process: “If you’re going to look at reform, then what you have to do is reform the system from top to bottom.”
When it came time for lawyer Cynthia MacDougall to speak, she bluntly replied to Marchese’s argument for dismantling the OMB’s power in Toronto. “I am terrified by your proposal,” she said. “Absolutely terrified.”
Specifically, MacDougall worries that the provincial government will fiddle with the OMB because it is easy and cheap, without actually addressing the underlying problems. She said that she does not want to see changes to legislative framework made only so it appears as if the government is doing something.
“There’s a gap between knowledge and decision making that terrifies me,” she said. But it is not downtown Toronto that she is worried about; rather, it is what it would mean for development in the suburbs.
Given MacDougall’s background in working with non-profits, she brought up the issue of NIMBYism. She said that she has first-hand experience with local residents vocally opposing housing and developments for already marginalized groups, like those with mental illnesses. Politicians may side with residents who do not want these people in their neighbourhood, leaving the OMB as a line of defence for the greater good and to uphold the rights of the minority. Without it, long court battles could ensue.
A place to act as a sober second thought for planning is needed, she said, which is exactly why the OMB exists.
As the roundtable drew to a close, Diamond said that the mere existence of the OMB offers citizens protection from unscrupulous developers.
“The board helps keep people honest in the system,” he said. “We (developers) know anything we do has to be justified.”