Citizens' groups decry closure of zoning appeal agency

A coalition of citizen and environmental advocacy groups in Ottawa is calling on the Ford government to reverse its decision to shut down a newly formed agency that helps residents challenge zoning decisions.

Local Planning Appeal Support Centre, created last April, to wind down by June 30

Paul Johanis, chair of the Greenspace Alliance of Canada's Capital, says the Local Planning Appeal Support Centre has helped level the playing field between residents and developers. (Krystalle Ramlakhan/CBC)

A coalition of citizen and environmental advocacy groups in Ottawa is calling on the Ford government to reverse its decision to shut down a newly formed agency that helps residents challenge zoning decisions.

The Local Planning Appeal Support Centre (LPASC) was created in April 2018 as part of the previous Liberal government's changes to the former Ontario Municipal Board (OMB), a body long criticized for favouring developers in its decisions on local zoning matters.

It's really not in the best interested of public welfare to always have the other side win.- Paul Johanis, Greenspace Alliance of Canada's Capital

The Ontario government didn't publicly announce the closure, leaving it instead to the LPASC to post a notice on its website stating that it would wind down operations by June 30.

Paul Johanis, chair of the Greenspace Alliance of Canada's Capital, said his group is teaming up with Ecology Ottawa and the Federation of Citizens' Associations of Ottawa to demand the province keep the LPASC afloat.

"It's a very uneven field. Little outfits like us, and any other residents, are really at a disadvantage," Johanis said. "The development industry has way more money to hire the best lawyers. A resident trying to match that doesn't really have a chance."

Mary Lee, executive director of the Local Planning Appeal Support Centre, says her agency has been successful in helping residents avoid filing meritless zoning appeals, and instead arrive at better solutions. (Submitted by Local Planning Appeal Support Centre)

The agency provides free resources to citizens on the land-use planning process, and can help them determine if there's sufficient merit to appealing a zoning decision. It can then offer free legal help with the appeal, now heard at the Local Planning Appeals Tribunal, the quasi-judicial body that replaced the OMB. 

"It was expected to rebalance things, to help residents prepare better, and in a way, waste less time for the tribunals," Johanis said. "It's really not in the best interested of public welfare to always have the other side win, just because they know how to better navigate the system."

The previous Liberal government established the LPASC as part of Bill 139, which introduced significant changes to Ontario's planning process. 

The agency employees a staff of 10, mostly lawyers and planners, and operates on an annual budget of $1.5 million.

LPASC's executive director, Mary Lee, said Wednesday that despite demands from some citizen groups, she's seen no indication that the government will reverse its decision.

It's disappointing to be closing down, but it is the government's prerogative to do so.- Mary Lee, executive director, LPASC

"It's disappointing to be closing down, but it is the government's prerogative to do so," said Lee. "We're really grateful to see the overwhelming support we've received from across the province."

Lee added that her agency has been fielding more calls than normal as people rush to utilize its resources while they're still available.

"The phone calls keep coming. We definitely have been seeing a surge of inquiries and requests for support."

Lee also lamented how the province is losing a tool to help prevent lengthy, costly zoning decisions.

"Just having that neutral voice to explore other options than an appeal, there's definitely a lot that's going to be missed," she said.

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