Sunday, August 19, 2007

How unelected officials create sprawl in your neighbourhood

In last Friday's entry ("What's behind our own private Iraq") I discussed the ongoing social and ecological problems caused by obsolete 19th century provincial legislation that gives the government automatic control over everything underground in Ontario. The Mining Act gives the province the right to overide any existing land use, no matter how ecologically sound, if it means that metals can be dug up for private profit.

The Ontario Municipal Board is another 19th century relic which permits private developers to do what they like with property - whether or not the municipalities or local residents like it, and in some cases whether or not the proposed development is consistent with Ontario's own Planning Act.

Few people in the province even know the Ontario Municipal Board (OMB) exists. The name gives one the impression that it's some kind of association of municipalities. Nothing could be further from the truth.

The OMB was set up in the late 19th century as a quasi-independent, government-appointed body designed to resolve disputes between local landowners and municipal governments.

What it has become is an unelected, unaccountable body which any government can stack with whomever it likes, and whose principal purpose is to overrule municipal planning decisions made by elected city councils and let developers go ahead with projects regardless of their integrity, usefulness, or suitability.

Under the Harris PC government, the OMB was filled with pro-development Board members, and Ontario municipalities found that they would lose their cases to developers twice as often as they'd win.

The City of Toronto found itself having to assign thousands of hours of staff time and huge amounts of money to fight developers who would ultimately win the right to put up 50 storey highrises in areas zoned for 5 stories. The cities of Guelph and London found that their plans for sustainable growth and liveable neighbourhoods were useless in the face of developers' desire for more strip malls, big box stores, and parking lots.

The pattern of OMB decisions led directly to the unchecked suburban sprawl and land speculation. There was little to stop developers from buying up relatively cheap property zoned for industrial or low-density residential use and use the OMB to force municipalities to let them turn the sites into high-profit commercial or high-density residential use.

Worse still, muncipalities became afraid to say no to developers applications in the first place, for fear of tying up scarce resources and wasting money in a losing OMB battle.

"Taking action against urban sprawl begins with overhauling the OMB," said Dalton McGuinty in 2002, when he was seeking election as Ontario's Premier. "These changes are necessary to ensure that Ontario’s planning rules benefit Ontario’s families, not just big developers."

What's happened since? The Liberal government didn't implement any reforms to the OMB until 2007. Developers lobbied the Minister for Municipal Affairs, John Gerretsen, to preserve the status quo as far as possible. The long-awaited "reform" consisted of mere tinkering with the existing setup, making it easier for citizens to appeal to the OMB, and requiring the OMB to "consider" municipal planning decisions when making their rulings.

Undaunted, the OMB continues to work its black magic. This summer, the city of Toronto was hit with an OMB ruling on a proposed development in the Queen and Dufferin area which was so egregious in its discounting of planning principles, including the province's own Planning Act, that the city was forced to take it to a regular Ontario courtroom. The judge ruled that the OMB had given virtually no consideration to existing laws in making its decision.

Right here in Peterborough we can see the chilling effects the OMB has had on local planning. The city had designated Lansdowne East for commercial expansion. Walmart, however, wanted to build a big new store on Chemong, right beside where they hope the Parkway extension will eventually be built. What was the city's response? To let Walmart go ahead with the Chemong development, in spite of serious problems with encroachment on nearby residential neighbourhoods and disruption of the north Peterborough watershed.

Walmart was allowed to build on an absurdly steep slope, creating the current "wall of litter" which now decorates the south end of the Chemong property. Neighbouring residents were subject to artificial light from the parking lot pouring into their backyards 24 hours a day, and the sound of trucks loading and unloading at 3 am. The city was obliged to build huge new retention ponds along the Parkway trail to deal with the disruption of the natural water runoff.

Fear of losing at the OMB is also likely what is keeping the city from removing the Parkway extension from its Official Plan. Residents voted 55-45 in a 2003 referendum against building the Parkway extension. The proposed road would be prohibitively expensive, and the city's own studies show that it could never pay for itself in any tangible benefit. It would drastically interfere with the city's complex north-end watershed and cut into much-needed greenspace. But local citizens who have tried to get councillors to put forth motions to remove the Parkway from the Official Plan have been stonewalled. The City does not want to remove the Parkway from the Official Plan and then have Walmart and the developers behind the Carnegie housing development take them to the OMB and force them to put it back in.

The OMB has made it virtually impossible for municipalities to plan for the realities of the 21st century. It also gives the Ontario government something to hide behind. Politicians can publically talk about limiting urban sprawl and preserving greenspace even while the OMB allows unsustainable development to continue unabated.

Currently under review at the OMB is the proposed Trent Rapids hydro-electric project on the Otonabee north of Trent University. I'll write more about that project, and more about the OMB, on Wednesday.

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