Community sustainability workshop sparks lively discussion on Ontario Municipal Board
By Bob Brocklebank
Talking about a government tribunal dealing with land-use planning may not be everyone’s idea of the best way to spend a Saturday morning, but it attracted enough residents to pack the Hintonburg Community Centre on October 27, a meeting organized by MPP Yasir Naqvi (discussed in his column on p. 16 of this issue). This was the third of his annual public workshops about community sustainability and discussion was centred on the Ontario Municipal Board (OMB).
WHAT DOES OMB DO?
There are many decisions at the municipal level which affect the development of communities. The Committee of Adjustment (a board appointed by municipal city council) makes rulings on dividing up specific pieces of property (severance) or granting permission for buildings which fail to conform exactly to the current zoning (minor variances). City council can modify the zoning to allow changes in use, such as permitting stores in addition to residences in a certain area, or apartment buildings in addition to detached houses.
When residents or companies object to the decisions taken by either the municipal Committee of Adjustment or by the municipal city council, they can lodge an appeal with the Ontario Municipal Board, a tribunal empowered by the province to review such decisions. The OMB encourages the interested parties, which usually involves the City, to reach a mediated settlement. If the parties cannot agree, OMB holds a hearing which resembles that of a court, often featuring lawyers representing the parties and expert witnesses called to testify. The OMB has the power to change the original decision at the municipal level on the basis of evidence presented at the hearing. It is notable that Ontario is the only province where disputed development decisions are referred to such a tribunal.
The general view of the meeting seemed to be that OMB should be retained but reformed in some way.
A CONTROVERSIAL TRIBUNAL
Because OMB has such a broad mandate, and because no other province has a comparable institution, it is always involved in controversy. Thus, both companies interested in building new developments and members of the community who feel affected by development were represented in good numbers at the Hintonburg event.
PROPOSALS FOR CHANGE
Following three well-received explanatory speeches, the eighty plus participants met in small discussion groups. They were challenged to propose a future for OMB.
One option was to abolish the board. Several participants cautioned that this would mean that the only recourse would be to the courts which would be much more costly. Some others described their experiences and called for abolition.
Another idea was that Ottawa take advantage of a recent change in legislation which would empower the City of Ottawa to establish a local appeal body to hear appeals of Committee of Adjustment decisions. This seemed to win little support and some participants said they had no confidence in an appeal body appointed by city council (which also appointed the members of the Committee of Adjustment). Others asked why the municipality should take on a cost which is now borne by the province.
ELUSIVE SEARCH FOR IMPROVEMENT
The general view of the meeting seemed to be that OMB should be retained but reformed in some way. There was no clear consensus on the precise nature of reform which would be best. Many of the comments dealt with the way in which decisions were reached at the municipal level, prior to appeal going to OMB.
Members of the development industry complained about a lack of clarity – they are uncertain whether they can proceed with projects and would prefer not to face the delay and costs associated with an OMB hearing. Issues of timing and expenditure arise whether the appeal is at their initiative or from an opponent of their proposal.
Community representatives echoed the call for clarity. They referred to “spot rezoning” where one plot of land has its zoning changed rather than having a wider study conducted of an entire community and its future. They also noted that, in appearing before OMB, individuals and community groups faced a very different financial challenge than a prospective developer. The developer anticipates some economic benefit from the project if it is realized, and the expenditure in OMB hearings is a legitimate business expense. By contrast, the individual or community group rarely expects to enjoy any direct financial gain and has difficulty raising funds to make a meaningful case before the tribunal.
MORE TALK NEEDED
Two or three hours were not enough to solve such complex issues. Nevertheless, the workshop did demonstrate that constructive dialogue is possible. Participants look forward to the compiled comments from the event and to a future opportunity to deepen discussion.
Glebe resident Bob Brocklebank, who has long been active with the Glebe Community Association (GCA) and the Federation of Community Associations (FCA), has had occasion to present before the Ontario Municipal Board on behalf of the GCA.