News Local

Tribunal to replace planning body

Bob Bruton

By Bob Bruton, Barrie Examiner

A proposal for townhouses at 521 and 527 Big Bay Point Road. IAN MCINROY/BARRIE EXAMINER/POSTMEDIA

A proposal for townhouses at 521 and 527 Big Bay Point Road. IAN MCINROY/BARRIE EXAMINER/POSTMEDIA

The Ontario Municipal Board's big stick is being whittled down to size.

Its authority on planning matters will be greatly reduced, the province announced this week – diminishing its powers relating to local government decisions, developers' plans and the rights of citizens.

“I think it reinforces the democratic legitimacy of (local) councils and reflects the basic premise that the residents of a community should shape its future through their elected officials, and not have that overruled by an appointed tribunal,” Barrie Mayor Jeff Lehman said.

The OMB will be replaced by the Local Planning Appeal Tribunal with legislation that will be introduced later this month, said Municipal Affairs Minister Bill Mauro.

“If our reforms pass, there would be fewer and shorter hearings and a more efficient decision-making process, and there would be more deference to local land-use planning decisions, and there would be a more level planning field for residents wanting to participate,” he said.

The OMB is an independent adjudicative body which conducts hearings and makes decisions on planning and development matters, usually relating to zoning bylaws and subdivision plans.

But the new tribunal would only make decisions on whether or not a municipality has followed its official land-use plans and if it hasn’t, the issue would be sent back to the municipality for reconsideration.

Only if its council fails to come to a decision or doesn't follow the planning process a second time would a full hearing be held, with the tribunal making a final decision.

That should mean fewer municipal decisions can be overturned than under the current process, in which each dispute is treated as if it were new, disregarding the decision the local government has made.

But Ray Duhamel of Jones Consulting Group, a Barrie land use planning firm, isn't so sure this is a better method.

“I thought they were trying to shorten the process,” he said. “You've got to get a hearing date, hear it, get a written decision, send it back to council, get council's decision, who sends it back to the board, schedule another hearing, to make a decision again.”

Dave Lawlor, who lives on Big Bay Point Road in Barrie and is fighting a proposed townhouse project there, isn't so sure either.

“I believe the OMB had the power to really arbitrate, while it looks like the new (tribunal) will not,” he said. “However the full terms and duties of the (tribunal) have not been fully disclosed and perhaps we will have to wait and see.”

But Lehman said the process could work in another way.

“The change to refer cases back to the city when the board feels the city is acting contrary to policy, rather than issue a binding decision, should help eliminate the tendency for municipalities to 'punt' tough decisions to the OMB, since they’ll just end up back in the municipality’s lap,” he said.

“And I think it maintains a feedback loop so that politicians can’t simply ignore our own policies because we are faced with a strong NIMBY (not in my back yard) argument.”

Duhamel said the new process could make it more difficult for residents in another way, however.

Reading from the ministry's three-page handout, changes would include 'creating statutory rules regarding the conduct of hearings, including setting strict presumptive time lines for oral hearings, and limiting evidence to written materials in the majority of cases'.

“How do John and Mary Smith write out the true meaning of what they're concerned about, on the true merits of why they are appealing something, why they are opposing somebody else's project?” Duhamel asked.

“The public is clamouring for reform (of the OMB), and it's to make it more affordable and faster. But writing everything out is not more affordable, and going back to the board multiple times, and back to council, that's not faster; that takes more time.”

Lawlor is also unsure the new process will serve residents better.

“I believe it is already clear that major jurisdictions (local councils) are not obliged to follow any counter argument or public opinion,” he said. “It seems what happens today is that a public hearing is held, counter arguments are heard and then the jurisdiction (council) does what ever it wanted to do in the first place.

“That is why an appeal to the OMB made sense.”

Lehman said he has concerns that, under the new tribunal system, appeals would be banned within 500 metres of a transit station - in order to encourage density around them.

“I find it bizarre,” he said. “To me that is going way too far towards a two-tiered set of rights for residents. If I live 510 metres from a station, why should I have more of a right to challenge a land-use decision than someone who lives 490 metres away?”

Duhamel says that fewer challenges to the OMB or the new tribunal could instead end up in Ontario's courts.

“A dispute is still a dispute, “ he said. “The difference is the manner in which the dispute is regulated.

“Is that what this means, that there are more court challenges?”

With files by The Canadian Press