Intensification, Sprawl & the OMB

The province is currently reviewing the future of the Ontario Municipal Board (OMB) so it was interesting that the builder’s association (BILD) came to it’s defense in a recent article (Ontario Municipal Board not to blame for intensification, Brian Tuckey, March 25):

“Some people mistakenly blame OMB decisions for the intensification that we have experienced across the GTA … The reality is that intensification is actually the result of provincial policy and the OMB makes its decisions based on that provincial policy, including the Growth Plan for the Greater Golden Horseshoe, using submissions made by experts in land planning and development… If municipalities, local politicians or members of the public feel there is too much intensification in the GTA, then the remedy lies with the province and its policies — not with the building industry or the OMB.”

I wish it were that simple. We tend to get too much intensification in places where it is already heavily populated, like downtown Toronto. And provincial policy has only led to more dense forms of suburban housing (smaller single lots and townhouses) on the fringes of existing towns instead of as infill or redevelopment in the core. The OMB has garnered a lot of resentment because the Board tends to favour developers in 60% or more of cases according some analyses. The threat of a developer’s appeal to the OMB can sway a Council because of certain factors:

  • The cost to an individual of presenting ‘expert’ witnesses to this quasi-judicial body is estimated to range between $35,000 and $80,000. I’m guessing if municipal legal staff are involved, it could be a lot higher.
  • An appeal at the board begins “from new”, (de novo) meaning, “as if the developers application had just been tabled, disregarding the Municipalities report or decisions by the Municipalities Planning Committee or City Council … it invites the Developer to table what they really wanted vs. what the City approved or refused. ” (Think twice about appealing to the OMB, July 2014)

We’re pretty familiar with the pattern where a developer brings in an initial proposal (requiring numerous zoning amendments) based on maximizing their profit, which prompts some public consternation, if not outrage, and then it is scaled back with the option of an OMB appeal a backstop. Too often, the niceties of urban planning are given lip service more than serious consideration. Developer submissions are just sprinkled with current planning jargon like “complete”; “neighbourhoods”; “walkable”, etc. And the reality is that the intensification policy has not slowed greenfield development. Here’s Barrie councillor, Andrew Prince, talking about the Watersands development approved for annexed lands:

“This isn’t just another development. We’re looking at a complete neighbourhood — the first of many to come.” Yikes! At least he’s being honest. Here’s how it works. The province requires municipalities to plan for future population growth and employment. Municipalities compete for population allocations and then proceed to designate swaths of land for future development. It is more than likely already in the hands of developers who will ‘bank’ it for a decade or more. Then the lobbying begins to promote development on the basis of a perceived need – an ‘enterprise’ centre; a hospital/medical campus; educational facilities. This is the justification for extending municipal services. Finally, subdivisions are added to make a ‘complete neighbourhood’ – and to cover the cost of municipal services through development charges – all in accordance with provincial planning guidelines.

Except that the province has already ruled out residential uses around Innisfil’s industrial lands, Innisfil Heights, which is why the town is struggling to raise $90 million needed to extend municipal sewers, and why developers are refusing to help finance it. But farms along the Fifth Sideroad are outfitted with fire hydrants in anticipation of industrial development.

Here in Alcona and Stroud, local residents have opposed proposals for multi-use (combined commercial/residential) buildings on main arteries where this kind of intensification would really make the most sense. In one case, the developer has received approval from the OMB for the Alcona project. In Stroud, it appears the developer will revise the design proposal to remove most townhouses and all apartments, leaving another ugly 1950s-era strip mall that is the bane of all small towns, and sadly, too familiar in both Alcona and Stroud.

Provincial policy is flawed. Developers are short-sighted, possibly lazy, potentially greedy, but ambitious. Residents are complacent, resistant to change. So do we need the OMB? Does it help or hinder? I’m inclined to think we could do without it. At the very least, I hope the province introduces some reforms to limit its powers. What I would like to see instead is more savy residents ready to negotiate change on their terms, more informed Councils, and stronger municipal planning.