John Herbert has a clear message for the province: keep your hands off the Ontario Municipal Board.
John Herbert is the executive director of the Greater Ottawa Home Builders' Association. (File photo)
By David Sali
The executive director of the Greater Ottawa Home Builders’ Association says that’s essentially what he told Municipal Affairs and Housing Minister Linda Jeffrey in a recent submission. Mr. Herbert and other representatives of his industry were invited to have their say on the board – which has the power to overturn municipal planning decisions – after the Ontario government announced last year it was reviewing how the OMB does business.
“The Ontario Municipal Board has served a very useful purpose over the last hundred years of its existence and has gone a long way towards ensuring a consistent, high-quality urban environment across Ontario,” says Mr. Herbert. “It has prevented the creation of fiefdoms from city to city. It has ruled on consistent standards of urban growth and development right across the province. We believe it should be left essentially intact.”
In a speech to delegates at the Association of Municipalities of Ontario conference in Ottawa last August, Ms. Jeffrey said it might be time to look at how to make the quasi-judicial body – which was created in 1897 and is the only one of its kind in North America – more efficient and transparent.
“We’ve heard from you and we’ve heard from the public that the rules can sometimes be too complex, and the delays and appeals can be frustrating,” she told the audience at the conference. “This frequently contributes to conflicts between municipalities, developers and community groups.”
Last month, the OMB sided with the city and Claridge Homes over the developer’s plans for a 22-storey hotel in the ByWard Market on the site of the former Union of Canada building. Residents had argued the building was too tall.
In other cases over the years, developers secured approval to add extra height to condo projects by using the OMB to overrule city zoning bylaws. That led some to argue that the board has become too powerful, overruling municipalities and taking decisions out of the hands of elected officials.
Mr. Herbert scoffs at such claims.
“That’s a little like saying that the courts have too much power,” he says. “I don’t think that is the case. We all believe that the courts are objective and the highest authority in the land, and that’s really what the OMB is. It is comprised of highly skilled and experienced professionals to make judgments based on land-use planning matters and not on political matters.”
Coun. Rainer Bloess, a member of the city’s planning committee, says the board’s members “know their stuff far more than many of us” and agrees the OMB serves a valuable purpose.
“Let’s face it, we are a political body and we make political decisions,” he says. “But sometimes, that doesn’t mean they’re the right decisions.”
However, he says the board sometimes gets bogged down in dealing with trivial matters and needs to take a hard look at how it can operate more efficiently.
“I do think it needs to be streamlined and in some ways made to be a simpler process and a less costly process,” he says. “I think at the same time, there needs to be a way of recognizing there are certain appeals that are obviously frivolous or vexatious or whatever other legal terms you want to throw at them.”
He also wonders if the board’s authority should be scaled back.
“What I’m saying is, don’t abolish the OMB, but you do want to look at what powers they have and to what degree they can easily overrule municipalities or elected councils.”
Mr. Herbert says it might be time to hand off some of the board’s responsibilities, such as ruling on minor planning disputes involving decks and patios, for example, to smaller subcommittees at the municipal level.
Still, he says, he has no idea what the province will ultimately decide to do. A spokeswoman for Ms. Jeffrey says the government is still analyzing public comments on the matter.
“It’s anybody’s guess at this point,” says Mr. Herbert. “They’re keeping relatively mum on this.”