OMB changes will save community groups money, advocates say

Proposed changes to the Ontario Municipal Board will level the playing field for community groups and make city councils more accountable, advocates in Ottawa say.

Hearings were long, expensive under old rules, says Hintonburg Community Association member

Proposed changes to the OMB will tip the balance of power away from developers. (Kate Bueckert/CBC News)

Proposed changes to the Ontario Municipal Board will level the playing field for community groups and make city councils more accountable, local advocates say.

On Tuesday, Municipal Affairs Minister Bill Mauro announced the province will introduce legislation to replace the OMB with a less powerful Local Planning Appeal Tribunal. 

Under the new reforms, the tribunal will make decisions only on whether or not a municipality has followed its planning process and land use plans. If it hasn't, the issue will be sent back to the municipality for reconsideration.

That will mean fewer municipal decisions can be overturned than under the current process, in which each dispute is treated as if it were new, disregarding the decision the local government has made.

For groups like the Hintonburg Community Association, it means they will likely have less expensive battles ahead of them when they want to oppose a development they don't want. 

Board member Jay Baltz said during a recent rezoning dispute with a developer, his group spent approximately $30,000 in its fight to keep a development to six storeys along a main street when the city's planning department recommended 23 storeys. 

Reforms will make council more accountable, Baltz says 

He applauded the new reforms, saying its effect will now put the power back in the community's hands. 

"The appeal's only going to succeed if there was an error. If you did something that's against your own plans or provincial policy, then an appeal happens, but not a second kick at the can," he told CBC Radio's Ottawa Morning on Wednesday.

The former OMB has long been criticized for approving developments despite assurances from municipal politicians they would vote against them. 

"I can't count the number of times we've been in meetings where city planners or the politicians would say, 'Well, we'd like to do this, but the OMB is going to overrule us anyway. We have to make a decision that's OMB-proof,'" Baltz said.

"This should take that off the table and put the responsibility right on the city."

Developer group 'very concerned'

The organization that represents developers said Tuesday it's "very concerned" about the proposed reforms.

Joe Vaccaro, CEO of the Ontario Home Builders' Association, said he's worried the new tribunal will give too much weight to what he called "local politics" and make it much more difficult to get development projects built.

"If this new Local Planning Appeal Tribunal is simply going to be a rubber stamp for obstructionist councils, then the province's demand to optimize housing supply and provide diverse housing options will fail," Vaccaro said in a statement.

Former Ottawa councillor Peter Hume says he hopes free legal advice will help screen out 'frivolous' concerns from residents. (Facebook)

The provincial government also announced residents will receive free and independent legal advice if they wish to appeal a decision.

Peter Hume, a former Ottawa city councillor who's now a consultant in land development and urban planning, told Ottawa Morning he hopes the free legal advice will screen out "frivolous" concerns from residents who may be overly critical of proposed projects. 

"There's a lot of responsibility being shifted now to city council where you're really going to have to be accountable for those decisions," Hume said. 

"You're not going to be able to rely on, 'it's good planning' anymore. You're going to have to rely on, 'does this conform to the words in our secondary plan and our official plan?'"