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Will replacing the OMB cause more problems?

The Ontario government is looking to replace the Ontario Municipal Board (OMB) with something called the Local Planning Appeal Tribunal.

The OMB is an independent adjudicative tribunal that conducts hearings and makes planning decisions on zoning bylaws, development proposals, subdivision plans, and ward boundaries. It has been around for over 100 years and has been criticized by some for its lengthy and costly process.

Despite these criticisms, the OMB is considered a positive third party officiate between developers and municipalities. The fear is that the Local Planning Appeal Tribunal may not have the same reputation.

One of the biggest challenges with the new tribunal is the elimination of the “de novo” hearings, which allows the OMB to consider municipal land use planning decisions as though no previous decision had been made. This is frustrating for city councils that may have already made a ruling on a development and it lengthens the hearings because all evidence has to be presented anew. It also gives the perception the OMB favours developers, despite this not being the case.

The Local Planning Appeal Tribunal is supposed to be independent and at an arms’ length from the government — but removing the “de novo” hearings will ensure the decisions of city councillors and/or provincial representatives are taken into consideration during appeals, effectively giving them more power than before.

Another example is the new appeal process. The tribunal will only be able to overturn a municipal decision if it does not follow provincial policies or municipal plans, unlike the OMB, which has power to overturn a decision if it isn’t considered the best planning decision. Instead of repealing the decision, the tribunal will then give the municipality 90 days to take new action based on that information. The tribunal will have a final say only if on a second appeal the plan still falls short of provincial policies. The idea is to give communities more control in land use planning.

The new legislation will also exempt a range of major land use planning decisions from appeal, including Official Plans to support transit areas like Go Train and subway stations or Official Plans (and their updates) that have been approved by the province, as well as minister’s zoning orders.

All of these changes to the appeal system are meant to try and reduce hearing times and encourage mediation. Since length and cost are the two biggest complaints about the OMB, this makes sense. However, the new tribunal also makes it difficult for developers to get their projects past councillors who may not approve of their blueprints despite it being the best planning option. It also limits hearings to policy rather than encourage innovation and creative thinking.

While the Local Planning Appeal Tribunal does include a number of interesting new policies that would encourage resident and community engagement, it is unclear how it will function as a third-party appeal agency.

The legislation in question, also known as Bill 139, “Building Better Communities and Conserving Watersheds Act “, has already passed the first reading in the Legislative Assembly.

What do you think of Bill 139? Will it help or hinder the system? Let us know in the comments below! 

Woman of the Week: Susan Swail

With rising housing costs and developers vying for land to build on, ensuring the safety of Ontario’s Greenbelt is no easy feat. Principal of Lloyd Swail Consulting, Susan Swail, is one of the women leading the fight to keep this preservation of farmland protected for years to come.

Swail launched her own consulting firm in 2008, which has enabled her to work on several environmental policy projects at once. “I’ve been doing policy analysis, facilitation and strategic communications in the planning field for the last 10 years. I created this consulting firm so I could work on project based contracts. I can work on a number of projects on the same time,” Swail says. She is currently on contract with Environmental Defence and the Greenbelt Foundation.

Swail works for Environmental Defence as the Smart Growth Program Consultant of the Greenbelt and is also working on a review that focuses on the Ontario Municipal Board (OMB) review. During the OMB review, over 5000 letters were submitted to the province to obtain funding for citizens and citizen groups, and upholding provincial and municipal plans. Swail conducted a literature review and interviewed many stakeholders, including planners, ratepayers and lawyers to develop a policy position for Environmental Defence.

Swail and the non-profit await the new OMB legislation to see if the recent changes are a success. “[Environmental Defence] didn’t get everything we asked for. We’re still waiting to see what happens. We wanted opportunities to have legal support and advice for ratepayer groups who are launching appeals and we don’t know if the legal advice is intended to be free,” Swail says. “The province is also looking at a joint board hearing that would refer environmental planning matters to the Environmental Review Tribunal (ERT) rather than being heard by just a OMB chair. The provincial announcement suggests they are considering joint ERT, and OMB board hearings. It is important have an environmental lens when making land policy decisions that effect groundwater, and natural heritage features like forests and wetlands.” Originally, Environmental Defence asked the OMB to refer environmental matters directly to ERT, but instead the legislation suggests having a joint board with the OMB and the ERT.

Swail was also a city councillor for the King Township for three years from 2000 to 2003, which helped foster her passion for policy and giving citizens a voice. “It was an exciting time to be on council because Oak Ridges Conservation Plan was being created at that time,” Swail says. When asked about the most important lessons she took from being a councillor, she explained that giving citizens a voice is so vital and being able to negotiate solutions between stakeholders and citizens is what really counts.

“When I was councillor, there was a situation with a developer who wanted to build on 107 acres in the headwaters of the Humber River.  The citizens were adamantly against it. We negotiated between the ratepayers, the Region of York, the Conservation Authority, Oak Ridges Moraine Land Trust and the City of Toronto,” Swail says. “In the end, the developer agreed to make a gift of the land and recieved a donation receipt. Today the tableland is part of the York Region Forest.”

After Swail lost the next election, she moved to the Oak Ridges Land Trust,and eventually became the Program and Outreach Manager of the Greenbelt Foundation. Swail returned to York University in 2008 to do a master’s degree in land use planning and launched her own consulting company from there. At York, she was awarded the MITACS Research Award for the research project, Building Sustainable Communities in South Simcoe.

Swail believes the most prevelant environmental issue today is climate change for land use conservation projects. She has dedicated many years to sustainable planning, helping the environment and trying to mitigate the impacts of climate change through supporting and implementing conservation land use projects over the years. She has served as the executive of many charitable organizations for the last 20 years.

Her passion for the environment began in 1990 when she and her husband moved to Nobleton in 1990 from High Park because house prices in Toronto were too high. “I got involved in my new community right away in the Parks Committee and then co-founded a local ratepayer group,” Swail says. “They were going to put in a larger sewer system in around Nobleton, which would traveled over 17 km of farmland to serve 3000 people, not economically or environmentally sustainable.   Instead, we got a local sewer system put into our town and Nobleton is still a complete community today.”

Swail is also an advocate for women who are passionate about the environment. “I mentor women whenever I can. When I was working at Environmental Defence, I had a call at least once a month from women who wanted to get involved in the environment,” Swail says. “I took at least a dozen of people out for coffee and helped them out to understand what it takes to get involved in the environment, emphasizing the importance of volunteering and networking.” Swail also noted that being a considerate woman in the business world can go a long way to helping other women in the industry.

When Swail isn’t at the frontlines protecting the Greenbelt, she is an avid reader. Currently, she is reading Walking Home by Kent Greenberg and Dark Age Ahead By Jane Jacobs. She also enjoys visiting with her six-month-old granddaughter, hiking with her husband and three sons on the Oak Ridges Moraine, cooking and gardening.

 

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Ontario Municipal Board may be shutting its doors

The Ontario Municipal Board (OMB) may be shutting its doors to make way for the new Local Planning Appeal Tribunal, which would replace one of the oldest tribunals in the country.

On Tuesday, Municipal Affairs Minister Bill Mauro announced legislation that would replace the OMB with the Local Planning Appeal Tribunal. The OMB has been under fire for years as its practices are lengthy and costly. One of the main criticisms of the tribunal are the ‘de novo’ hearings, appeals that are considered ‘new’ issues and that are treated as though no previous decision had been made, despite a possible rejection by the municipality. This is incredibly frustrating to urban planners who are trying to implement intensification targets and specific planning in certain neighbourhoods, only to be thwarted by developers who appeal to the OMB.

The OMP is an independent adjudicative tribunal that conducts hearings and makes planning decisions on zoning bylaws, development proposals, subdivision plans, and ward boundaries. It has been around since 1906, and was originally known as the Ontario Railway and Municipal Board. In 2015 to 2016, 1460 matters were brought before the OMB across the province. The OMB process also makes it difficult for residents and resident groups to represent themselves against wealthy developers with large legal teams.

The Local Planning Appeal Tribunal would instead give greater weight to local communities to be in charge of their planning and development plans. The Tribunal would only decide whether or not the municipalities are following their official land use plans and would return the concern to the municipality if developers failed to follow the land use plan. If the municipality failed twice to adequately follow their land use plan, then the Tribunal would hold a hearing and make the final decision instead. This process would place far less power in the hands of a powerful housing board such as the OMB. The province would also create a public interest centre that would help residents and resident groups for free to give them a better chance at success against developers.

There are concerns that removing the OMB has a third party officiate between developers and the municipality will give unprecedented power to political players in local communities. Without a separate tribunal to make planning decisions, the urban landscape will be in the hands of city officials and this will create an entirely new set of issues. On the other hand, the OMB is allowing developers to obtain approval through an appeal and build up in areas that are bereft of adequate resources, such as transit and grocery stores to support quick growth in popular areas such as Yonge and Eglinton.

It is a bold move for the province to replace one of the oldest institutions in Ontario with a newer and more updated Local Planning Appeal system. The OMB has been criticized for several years and bringing new legislation to the table to be discussed is a progressive move for development and urban planning in local communities. If the new Tribunal passes, it will be interesting to see if the new system is more efficient and responds to public interests in a new and fresh way, or if it simply a newer and shinier version of the OMB.