The end of blank-slate hearings over land development has municipal politicians in Ottawa cheering a provincial plan to transform the appeal process at the Ontario Municipal Board.
But the Ottawa Greater Home Builders’ Association warns the proposed changes announced Tuesday are a “nasty surprise” that scuttles the whole reason for having an appeal body.
John Herbert, executive director of the association, said politicians will struggle with achieving planning targets without the help of the OMB.
“I think it’s going to play with their heads for sure when it comes to intensification,” Herbert said.
Inside City Hall, politicians who have been calling for OMB reforms like what the province is trying to do.
“A lot of the changes they are proposing would make a difference in giving residents certainty in terms of the land use around them,” Somerset Coun. Catherine McKenney said.
The province wants a Local Planning Appeal Tribunal to replace the OMB and give greater weight to decisions made by municipal councils.
In a significant change, the new tribunal would not hold “de novo” hearings where the appeal happens in isolation of any previous council decision.
That has been a huge bugaboo for municipal politicians who have watched developers present their case to the OMB in the same way they pitched it to council, only to see the appeal board side with deep-pocketed companies.
Under the proposed regime, the new tribunal could only overturn a decision if it doesn’t follow municipal plans or provincial policies. On a successful appeal, the matter would be kicked back to council to make a new decision that follows plans and policies.
Last fall, six Ottawa councillors wrote to the province about OMB reform, suggesting the appeal process is at odds with how councils make planning decisions. They complained that the “deck is stacked against communities” since participating in OMB hearings can cost thousands of dollars to retain lawyers and planning experts.
Kitchissippi Coun. Jeff Leiper said the provincial plan is “encouraging” since it addresses the issues raised in the letter.
Leiper flagged one provincial proposal on transit-orientated developments that could have major impacts in his ward, which is poised to have several LRT stations.
The province wants to prevent appeals related to developments near transit stations to “protect” municipal decisions tied to transit plans.
Barrhaven Coun. Jan Harder, chair of council’s planning committee, said it’s critical to safeguard council’s transit-orientated development goals, especially in Ottawa, which has more than $5 billion in LRT work happening.
”We are, as a council, bullish on it,” Harder said.
Harder also likes the province’s move to create a Local Planning Appeal Support Centre tasked with providing average citizens with free legal advice and information.
When it comes to minor planning appeals, Harder said the city will consider creating a local appeals body like Toronto has, “because that could be a timesaver.”
The home builders’ association wonders how council will like having to make tough decisions on big files without using the OMB as a political crutch.
Herbert suggested councillors have been able to cast votes to please their constituents knowing the OMB will approve a development anyway.
“The board will no longer be there to backstop municipal elected officials,” Herbert said.
But Harder believes the City of Ottawa has been doing a good job trying to work collaboratively with community groups and the development industry to avoid bitterness.
“I think that this will work out fine as long as we continue on the path that we’re now on,” Harder said.