OMB, Appeal Tribunals and
Complex Social and Environmental Impacts
The article below by Environment North vice president Karen Peterson was first published in the Chronicle Journal in August 2017.
An opportunity exists for the public voice to be heard regarding the provinces’ current proposed changes regarding land use decision making. The province is on the brink of transferring more local control for land use decisions through Bill 139, an act to replace the Ontario Municipal Board (OMB) with Local Planning Appeal Tribunals.
The OMB is an independent review board which settles disputes related to zoning bylaws and new developments. The OMB has the power to overturn local decisions through a full independent review. Local Planning Appeal Tribunals will be established with less power to overturn local decisions. Their focus will be on process and whether or not local planners have followed the Official Plan or not. Official Plans would be exempt from appeal (www.urbantoronto.ca/news/2017/05). The approach is being promoted as more efficient in terms of time and money and particularly necessary in the Greater Toronto Area (GTA) where most appeals stem from developers trying to overturn municipal decisions about high density development. Planning issues are quite different in this region, however, and only 1% of OMB appeals come from Northern Ontario. Controversy has recently stemmed from industries such as gravel pits trying to locate next to inland lakes and rivers, in wetlands and populated areas. Opposition to these cases relate to the compatibility of land use and the potential for social and environmental impacts (see Environment North website).
Planning decisions regarding resource extraction can expose communities and the natural environment to unacceptable hazards and risks. Ontario’s planning policy framework promotes sound environmental stewardship for strong, sustainable communities that offer a high quality of life through balancing social, economic and environmental values. Environmental stewardship and resilient communities require a comprehensive and regional planning approach. In unorganized townships, planning services are delegated to local voluntary/part time planning boards that have limited financial and human resources for local routine matters and bylaw enforcement. This situation raises concerns for transferring more power and control when local planning decisions are more complex and have the potential for long term and/or irreversible social and environmental impacts. Official Plans do offer guidance and direction but they are vague in terms of sustainability and they have no mechanism for considering the cumulative effect of other resources activities, for the effects of climate change or whether there is a need for the development or not.
Northern townships are experiencing increased pressure to develop lands in populated areas, yet the local planning boards are not as equipped as the GTA municipalities that have extensive bureaucracies and sufficient funds to hire subject matter experts. The main concern with the OMB transfer is that no matter how stellar the process, when Official Plans are more general in nature and not aligned specifically with sustainability concepts, planning can be compromised and disputes over the decisions regarding land use will have no choice but to go through the court system for resolution, a more costly process than an OMB hearing.
The current planning structure, accountability framework and resource capacity is neither fair to the voluntary board members nor to the potentially affected publics. For quality assurance and to enable trust in the planning process, the province needs to take pause and review the effectiveness as well as the efficiency of this proposed transition. Ultimately, the intended purpose of sustainability is jeopardized as well as the concept of transferring more power and control within the current shortfall of our northern context.
Public comments regarding this issue can be made on Ontario’s Environmental Registry website until Sept 1. Bill 139 will be debated in Parliament this fall. There will be public hearings as well when the Bill goes to Committee.