Reform or abolish the OMB? New Planning Commissioners Report Makes Key Recommendations

September 20, 2016

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The Province has initiated a comprehensive review of the Ontario Municipal Board (OMB). Ontario’s Planning Commissioners have seized the initiative to frame that debate and make an integrated set of recommendations to move the OMB to be the kind of land-use planning dispute resolution mechanism the province most needs.

Thousands of decisions are made each year on land use planning matters in Ontario. The OMB often functions as the final decision-maker – particularly in contentious or complex cases, usurping local decisions. Public outcry is becoming increasingly vocal. Municipalities often see the Board as the place where their policies – designed to implement provincial policy or direct municipal initiatives – get arbitrarily delayed, reduced, and rewritten. For the private sector, it increases uncertainty, cost, and risk but also adds the prospect of additional rewards. For local communities, the process can appear undemocratic and incomprehensible.

The Regional Planning Commissioners of Ontario (RPCO) have just released a study on OMB reform examining what is and isn’t working with the current land use appeal process and makes recommendations. RPCO members plan for over 80% of Ontario’s population in urban and rural, northern and southern locales. Representing both regional municipalities and single-tier municipalities, they are well-positioned to lead OMB reform, as their members are involved in most of the decisions that lead to files coming before the Board.

RPCO retained Joe Berridge, Partner at Urban Strategies Inc., as the lead researcher of this important undertaking. Joe, along with colleagues Emily Reisman and Inger Squires, Leah Birnbaum of Leah Birnbaum Consulting, and solicitor Ian Lord produced the final report – Reforming the Ontario Municipal Board: Five Actions for Change.

The report describes the OMB in the context of planning appeal bodies elsewhere in the world, the evolution of the OMB to its present form, the associated caseload, and insight into today’s appeal process. It assesses the merits and demerits of the Board’s current operations, drawing heavily from the collective experience of municipal planning staff.

It does not conclude in a call for abolition; most comparable jurisdictions have a land-use dispute resolving body. The task is to make the OMB work well. The report identifies thematic areas for Board reform and looks beyond the workings of the OMB to suggest ways to improve the land use planning system at the provincial and municipal levels. The 26 recommendations for reform found in the report are structured around the following five actions: Filter, Sharpen, Strengthen, Resolve, and Step Up.

  1. Filter certain matters from appeal so that only issues of legitimate planning substance (that do not interfere with the implementation of provincial policy) appear before the OMB.
  2. Sharpen the practices and procedures of the OMB so that files move through the system more efficiently.
  3. Strengthen the professional capability of the OMB to undertake its post-reform role.
  4. Resolve. Rigorously scope matters under appeal and resolve more disputes through mandatory mediation and alternative dispute resolution (ADR) methods prior to or in place of formal OMB hearings.
  5. Step Up. In order for these proposed reforms to the OMB to be most effective, both the Province and municipalities need to step up their performance in the overall planning system.

Each action is designed to focus and improve the operations of the OMB and the overall planning context within which it operates. The collective intent of the recommendations for reform is to retain the OMB to focus on the cases that truly require difficult dispute resolution, to assist the work of the OMB towards its prime directive of ‘good planning’, and to reduce the role that formal hearings play in the dispute resolution process so that the whole appeal process can run more efficiently.

For RPCO, the overall vision of a reformed land use planning system is one where land use permissions are developed and implemented through a public process and are adopted by elected councils; where development conforms to broader provincial goals that are clearly expressed; and where legitimate disputes are resolved efficiently with the broad public interest being paramount in decisions.

“This report is an important contribution to the debate on the future of the OMB,” commented Joe Berridge. “The report is an attempt to get beyond the rhetoric and make useful contribution to the Province’s upcoming review of the Board and its functions”.

By Joe Berridge, Emily Reisman and Inger Squires

ABOUT THE RPCO:

The Regional Planning Commissioners of Ontario (RPCO) is a group of senior officials from upper- and single-tier municipal governments across Ontario. They meet on a regular basis to discuss planning issues of mutual interest, and advocate positions on behalf of the member municipalities to provincial and federal governments.