Neighbourhood activists celebrate as OMB replaced but 'wicked witch' isn't dead yet

A process that neighbourhood community groups have been fighting against for years is finally changing Tuesday, as the province officially replaces the Ontario Municipal Board (OMB) with a less powerful body to hear appeals from developers.

'We've made a lot of progress but we haven't arrived in Narnia yet,' says Coun. Josh Matlow

President of SERRA Andy Gort, right, with Coun. Josh Matlow and SERRA vice president Jane Auster at an organizing meeting for the 18 Brownlow Ave. fight. (Larry Nicols Photography)

A process that neighbourhood community groups have been fighting against for years is finally changing Tuesday, as the province officially replaces the Ontario Municipal Board (OMB) with a less powerful body to hear appeals from developers. 

New appeals will go through a different body, the Local Planning Appeal Tribunal (LPAT). Meantime, older cases that predate the change will still be heard by the OMB.

Andy Gort, the president of The South Eglinton Ratepayers' and Residents' Association (SERRA), says it's about time the OMB disappeared, largely because the board had the power to overrule cities that had rejected developers' proposals.

"It's created a lot of havoc for our community and other communities around Ontario," Gort said. "Over the last four or five years we've had almost 25 developments, and not all correspond to city regulations."

SERRA has been fighting for the rights of residents in their north Toronto community for more than 50 years. Recently the group has raised money to fight the development plans for 18 Brownlow Ave., a 24-storey luxury rental proposal near Eglinton Avenue East and Mt. Pleasant Road that has its final OMB hearing in May.

And SERRA isn't alone. Coun. Josh Matlow, who represents Ward 22, St. Paul's, has also been vocal about the OMB and is also looking forward to the change.

"For many years, the OMB has not only ignored communities and elected city council decisions but they've made decisions that have forever changed our communities ... for the worse," Matlow said.

Coun. Josh Matlow has been pushing for changes to the OMB. (Lisa Xing/CBC)

The OMB has long been criticized for favouring developers, who would go to the OMB and get an entirely new hearing, regardless of zoning and city regulations, Matlow said.

In early 2016, the province launched a review of the OMB, spearheaded by Attorney General Yasir  Naqvi, and held public town halls across Ontario. Hundreds of people submitted comments and complaints, leading to the Building Better Communities and Conserving Watersheds Act 2017, which abolishes the OMB altogether and substitutes the scaled-down LPAT in its place.

Unlike the OMB, the LPAT will not be able to overrule city decisions, unless it finds that city councils haven't followed their own rules.

The new rules will also allow for local communities to have legal and financial support if they do want to take on a developer, Matlow said.

Gort thinks that kind of support is essential.

"It can cost up to $80,000 to have your voice and concern heard at these OMB hearings," he told CBC Toronto.

But although he says this a good start, Gort warns the city won't be seeing these problems go away anytime soon, because the OMB will still be hearing appeals for the next few years.

Not in 'Narnia' yet

"At the end of last year, I along with many of my colleagues at the Toronto city council, witnessed countless developers very hastily and quickly appeal to the OMB," Matlow said.

Since the process under the OMB seemed to work well for developers, proposals were submitted to the body before the process switched. Meaning the OMB will have to sit on many hearings for the next several years.

That's something Gort thinks the province should have put a stop to.

"The government could have taken a step that said this would have been applied retroactively," he said. "If you get a change in a tax ruling in Ontario, it typically takes effect immediately."

Both Gort and Matlow are encouraged by the change, but will feel better once the OMB is no longer holding hearings.

"Let's put it this way: the house did fall on the wicked witch, but it's going to take a few years to get the ruby slippers off her feet," Matlow said.

With files from John Rieti and Leah Hansen