Sunday, February 26, 2017

The London Plan vs The OMB

We've been hearing lots about the London Plan the past few years. It's the plan for London's future development that replaces urban sprawl with infill. Basically, it means that a new highrise will be built on a plot of land downtown rather than the city’s edges.

Infill is a great idea. It's better for the environment since farmland isn’t eaten up by housing subdivisions and strip malls. And it's less expensive for taxpayers because services such as water and sewers already exist within the city. I support infill development so long as heritage buildings aren't demolished, since I believe our downtown needs a balance between old and new.

The London plan was created by Londoners themselves, during more than 150 community meetings in which about 14,000 Londoners contributed their ideas for the city's future. City council unanimously approved the final draft and even the provincial government approved it. Unfortunately, the plan is now endangered by 42 appeals to the Ontario Municipal Board.

So what is this Ontario Municipal Board or OMB anyway? It was established in 1906 as the Ontario Railway and Municipal Board, mainly to oversee expanding rail systems between and within Ontario communities. Taking its current name in 1932, the OMB has evolved into a quasi-judicial body overseen by provincial appointees, adjudicating land-use decisions throughout Ontario. 

In my opinion, there are a few problems with the OMB:

1. It seldom supports the little people.
Sometimes the OMB seems to exist to allow prosperous landowners to topple planning decisions they don’t like. Property developers appear to have a better chance at the OMB because they have the financial resources to hire top lawyers. Decisions rarely seem to be in the best interest of neighbourhoods or the average London taxpayer.

2. It's a waste of time. 
Often development plans are stalled until OMB decisions are handed down. In the case of the 42 appeals to the London plan, the issues may not be resolved for years.

3. It's not local.
Do OMB members, located in Toronto, understand local situations and concerns? Hardly. Nor do they want to. The Board subordinates local policies to ones of its own making. In an ideal world, once a decision has been made locally, that should be the end of the matter. The city should be able to decide for itself what it will build and where. 

4. It encourages municipal politicians to make decisions for the wrong reasons. 
Municipalities may be tempted to make decisions that will avoid OMB hearings, just to sidestep the costs or the wasted time. In other words, politicians will just do whatever developers want.

5. It's not democratic.
Members of the OMB aren't elected. So an unelected board controls the majority of Ontario developments instead of our elected municipal councils. If the OMB makes a decision voters don't like, there's no way to vote its members out.

I find it bizarre that most decisions made by London City Council - whether they be about rapid transit, on-street parking, noise levels, snow removal, or just about anything else - are binding and final. But when it comes to land use, a bunch of people in Toronto are allowed to dictate what happens here. 

Some might say the OMB needs an overhaul. But Ontario is the only jurisdiction in North America with a Municipal Board, so why don't we join the rest of the continent and abolish it altogether? Unfortunately, I'm not quite sure how to begin. Any ideas?

Update January 2018: The OMB is to be replaced by the Local Planning Appeal Tribunal (LPAT) in 2018, which will have more limited powers. 

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