Kate Daley photo - for Environmental Defence (2)This is a guest blog by Kate Daley, a smart growth advocate and PhD candidate at York University studying the politics of growth management in Waterloo Region.

 

The Ontario government is finally doing something municipal governments and environmentalists have wanted for a long time: it’s reviewing the Ontario Municipal Board (OMB). The OMB is a tribunal, which works kind of like a court, but with planning experts. It makes decisions on everything from the planning documents that guide entire communities, called official plans, to whether a particular house can be 4.4 meters from the street instead of 4.5 meters.

This OMB review is something we’ve been waiting for here in Waterloo Region.

The Region of Waterloo has been working hard to support smart growth, by growing up instead of out. Smart growth is important for a more sustainable future. It creates walkable communities that feature a mix of housing types which are close to amenities and services. By growing up instead of out, smart growth preserves working farmland and natural spaces for future generations.

Kitchener City Hall in Waterloo Region
Kitchener City Hall in Waterloo Region

 

In 2013, the OMB sided with low-density sprawl developers who wanted ten times more rural land to build houses on than the Region’s plan showed was necessary. The OMB also misunderstood provincial rules that require new neighbourhoods to be more efficient and make space for more residents. If left to stand, the OMB’s ruling would have threatened rural communities in the fastest growing parts of Ontario.

Fortunately, the Region of Waterloo decided to defend its plan by appealing in court. The Region finally managed to negotiate a deal with the sprawl developers who went to the OMB. That deal preserved Waterloo Region’s plan’s most important environmental protections. But it took six years, $1.7 million, and a lot of community outrage.

No community should have to go through what Waterloo Region did.

Some things have changed since then. You can no longer appeal entire official plans, which is what happened in Waterloo. And the province is proposing changes as part of its Land Use Planning Review that could help, too, including standard rules to set exactly how much urban expansion will be allowed, so developers could no longer run to the OMB to fight municipalities for more land to build unsustainable development.

View of new housing from a new restaurant in Kitchener
View of new housing from a new restaurant in Waterloo

 

But the rules at the OMB itself still leave local smart growth plans vulnerable. The province is proposing two changes that could help with that.

First, to protect provincial smart growth plans and efforts to follow them, the province might limit what parts of official plans could be appealed to the OMB. When approving a plan, the province could say that some parts of that plan cannot be appealed. Or they could decide that the parts of official plans that put provincial plans into practice can’t be appealed. This could help defend smart growth plans like the Growth Plan and the Greenbelt Plan, which tell municipalities around the Greater Golden Horseshoe where they can and can’t develop.

Second, to protect community input, the province can require that significant new information presented at an OMB hearing be sent back to the municipal council to consider. This would help close an important loophole: developers can currently hide important details about what they want during the local decision making process. The developers hope to get a result that is better for their interests at the OMB, without a community or local council ever having an opportunity to comment or decide on their real objectives. The proposed change would ensure that communities and councils have all the information they need to make meaningful local decisions.

It’s hard to predict exactly how these changes would play out in future hearings. But based on the problems we’ve seen in Waterloo Region and elsewhere, they should help protect provincial smart growth plans and community leadership that supports them.

Share your voice. Sign the petition to tell Ontario it’s time to fix the OMB.

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