For what should be an open, transparent and accessible government body, the Ontario Municipal Board is a bureaucratic nightmare for the people it supposedly strives to serve. And, unfortunately, the Liberal government is doing almost nothing to reform the OMB so it can be responsible to the needs of a 21st century society.
This quasi-judicial body, created in the 19th century to monitor railways and municipal finances, now oversees everything from fence disputes, rezoning applications, multi-residential condominium units and complex municipal official planning policy for urban and rural communities. Yet, despite tweaks that the Liberals made in 2006 to make the process simpler, it remains a byzantine maze for residents, while earning a well-deserved reputation for siding with developers and favouring special interests.
Repeatedly in Hamilton, residents have been left gasping at the unresponsiveness of the OMB process. To appeal a rezoning application against a town- house development, or fight to reduce the density of three-story condominium unit — both of which have occurred — residents have been forced to dig deep into their own pockets to finance their appeals knowing full well they are opposing powerful, and well-financed developers, or a more experienced municipal staff, which also has an endless pit of money. If citizens do win, it’s more by luck than anything else.
Municipalities have also endured the wrath of the OMB. Too many times municipal official plans have been laid to waste by the OMB in sometimes shocking decisions that go against local planning policies.
Waterloo Region, for instance, is taking the OMB to court over a bizarre decision that grants developers access to more than 1,000 hectares of prime farmland. Under Waterloo’s official plan it had restricted future development to 85 hectares of urban lands, which is in line with the province’s Places to Grow Act. Ironically, the province has joined Waterloo in the legal action, believing that if the decision is to stand, it could possibly eviscerate the Greenbelt legislation across the Golden Horseshoe.
Under pressure from all sides, the Liberals a few months ago announced they would review the OMB. An 80-day review period is currently being held, ending Jan. 10. Seven of the eight workshops already have been held, with the last one scheduled for Dec. 9 in Toronto.
But the Liberals have stifled the conversation. Beyond limiting the consultation period, the government prior to holding the workshops made it clear the review would not look at the future of the OMB, or change its operations. Nor will it examine new development levies or taxes on condos or homes.
The OMB appeal process must be made more democratic for the community to properly use it. If the OMB is to be the so-called referee for planning issues, then it’s imperative that residents have equal legislative access, and have available the proper information and resources so they can make a vigorous defence on behalf of their own homes.
The Liberals half-hearted attempt at reforming the OMB is nothing more than a political sop to the powerful development lobby, which provides vital funding to soon-to-be election campaigns. Yet again, the homeowners who feel the brunt of planning decisions every day are left on the outside looking in to the cozy relationship that has stacked the deck against their ability to protect their communities.