Why we need the OMB more than ever

TheGlobeandMail.com – news/national/Toronto
Published Friday, Mar. 11, 2011.   Marcus Gee

Few government agencies take as much flak as the Ontario Municipal Board. Planners complain that it overrules them on how cities should grow. City politicians complain that it overrides their democratic decisions. Residents groups say it steamrollers their objections when building projects threaten quiet neighbourhoods.

One Toronto councillor, Josh Matlow, wants to ban the “unelected, unaccountable” OMB from making any rulings in this city. A respected planning consultant, Joe Berridge, calls the OMB’s interventions “arbitrary and ineffectual.” He wants it tamed if not replaced. Critics even have a Facebook page, Abolish the OMB, featuring horror stories about the board.

But, for all the complaints about it, the board plays at least one critical role. It is the last line of defence against rampant Nimbyism.

This city is struggling to absorb hundreds of thousands of newcomers. It can’t afford to have “not-in-my-backyard” groups stand in the way every time a developer wants to put up a tall building. Local politicians, fearing defeat at the polls, often side with noisy Nimbys even when their worries about more traffic and noise are overwrought. The OMB, with no axe to grind, can look at the development with a cool eye.

If the politicians have made an arbitrary decision to halt a developer’s perfectly sensible and legal project, it may rule against them. If the development truly threatens the neighbourhood, it may rule against the developer.

It can go either way. Those who want to kill the OMB overlook the fact that it often sides with residents. In 2009, the board stopped a developer from putting up big-box retail stores in Leslieville south of Eastern Avenue, a plan opposed by the city and some residents groups. Last year the city won again when the board put the brakes on the Giraffe condo tower proposed for Dundas and Bloor.

In 2007, by contrast, the OMB overruled local concerns to allow three condo projects in the Queen West Triangle near Dufferin Street. The city, residents groups and developers eventually reached a compromise that has resulted in an exciting urban revival of the area.

Even when the OMB is not called to rule in a case – and these days more and more development quarrels are settled through talks instead – it can be a leavening influence. City councillors who might be inclined to vote with Nimby residents to block a controversial development sometimes hold off because they know the project will get a green light from the OMB regardless. When councillor Karen Stintz went out on a limb last year by backing a developer’s proposal to redevelop a windswept office plaza at Yonge and Eglinton, she could tell her fellow councillors that if they blocked the project, the developer could take it to the OMB and win.

The argument that the OMB is undemocratic doesn’t wash. The board is appointed by the elected provincial government. It is just one of many administrative bodies, from the National Energy Board to the Canadian Radio-television Telecommunications Commission, that governments empower to make complex regulatory decisions on their behalf.

Rather than thwarting democracy, the OMB aids it. When Nimbyism is on the rise, as it is today, the interests of a vocal few can overwhelm the interests of the majority. In this case, the common good calls for denser, taller development at key points in the city. Without it, Toronto will never be able to accommodate its booming population growth without endless urban sprawl.

As a check on unreasonable Nimbyism, the OMB is needed more than ever.

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