London,_Ontario,_Canada-_The_Forest_City_from_above

As a planner educated in British Columbia, there are number of things about Ontario’s system that make little sense to me, first and foremost the Ontario Municipal Board and its stranglehold on urban development. There are other oddities too, like the lack of coordination between provincial plans and lower-tier plans within the same upper-tier municipality, and the seemingly unending appeals that are allowed on virtually any planning decision–despite the requirement of the Planning Act to include public participation/consultation in planning processes.

No other province has an independent administrative board that hears as many appeals on municipal planning disputes as the OMB: in 2011, the City of Toronto had 121 cases at the OMB involving 240 days of hearings. The system favours the party who can pay more for legal advice, usually developers, while community associations hold fundraisers to build up hundreds of thousands of dollars in anticipated fees. And most disturbing of all, it isn’t just cases of individual buildings or lot disputes that make it to the OMB–it is currently permissible to appeal an entire municipal official plan. Even though a municipality is required to update its official plan every five years, the plan has often not made it through the OMB by the time a new one is required (go online and download your municipality’s OP and you’re likely to see an entire section at the front listing all the policies that are still at the OMB due to “site specific issues”). This “death by a thousand swords” is diluting any sustainable, innovative planning approaches that municipalities dare to produce and slowing planning to a standstill. And it’s completely unnecessary: no other province has an adjudicative tribunal with the scope and power of the OMB.

Surprisingly, all of this might be changing in the near future. When Kathleen Wynne won the provincial election last summer, she set out mandates for the provincial ministries. The priorities for the Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing included:

  • Moving Forward on Social and Affordable Housing
  • Improving Land Use Planning
  • Reviewing Provincial Growth and Greenbelt Plans
  • Reviewing Municipal Governance
  • Strengthening Partnerships with Municipalities
  • Amending the Building Code
  • Reviewing Disaster Response
  • Developing a Community Hubs Policy

MMAH is making steady progress on these goals, including the coordinated review of the Growth Plan for the Greater Golden Horseshoe, Greenbelt Plan, Oak Ridges Moraine Conservation Plan and Niagara Escarpment Plan, which is now at the stage of public consultation.

A couple of weeks ago, MMAH announced that it is proposing sweeping changes to the way land use planning is done in the province, in fulfilment of its mandate which recommended a review of the scope and effectiveness of the Ontario Municipal Board, amending the Planning Act and Development Charges Act to improve planning and develop more sustainable communities, requiring citizen input during the planning process and reducing the number of applications to the OMB. The proposed Bill 73, Smart Growth for Our Communities Act, aims to introduce the following changes to the Planning Act:

  • Two-year moratoriums on development applications–no official plan may be amended within two years of its adoption. This also applies to zoning by-law amendments.
  • Limitations on applications to the OMB, including put an end to global official plan appeal, ending appeals to lower-tier plans not in conformity with upper-tier plans, and ending appeals to any part of an official plan implementing provincial policy related to the Greenbelt Act, Clean Water Act, Growth Plan forecasts, or settlement area boundaries
  • Additional emphasis on public participation–requiring Official Plans to include a description of public participation to be undertaken during OP amendments, zoning by-law amendments, minor variances, consents, and plans of subdivision and requiring Councils to actually explain how public comments affected their decision on development applications
  • An extension of the 180-day period for decisions on Official Plans and Official Plan Amendments–currently anyone may appeal an authority’s failure to make a decision in respect to an OP or OPA if a notice of decision hasn’t been made within 180 days. It is proposed that this be extended by another 90 days
  • New criteria, designated by the Minister, for minor variances that would be over and above those set out in subsection 45(1) of the Planning Act
  • Extending the review cycle of the Provincial Planning Statement and Official Plans to ten years, rather than the current five year cycle
  • Requiring park plans and reducing cash-in-lieu of parkland for residential subdivisions
  • Introducing additional transparency and accounting requirements for Section 37 (Community Benefits), which allows municipalities to collect money to be used for community benefits such as affordable housing and public amenities
  • Introducing mandatory planning and advisory committees for upper- and single-tier municipalities in the province
  • Allowing the Minister and upper-tier municipalities to require a Development Permit System for prescribed circumstance

Proposed changes to the Development Act include:

  • Improved capital recovery for transit through development charges–currently capital costs for services are reduced by 10% when calculating development charges unless the service is included in a list of services for which no such reduction is required. Bill 73 proposes to add transit to this list
  • The requirement for background studies supporting development would be expanded to include an asset management plan, showing the financial sustainability of all assets through their life-cycle
  • Additional reporting requirements on the use of funds

This is a remarkably bold set of amendments which will likely do a lot to streamline planning within the province. Putting an end to several of the most controversial practices (appealing an entire official plan, amending an OP days immediately its adoption, and appealing policies that aim at implementing provincial policies or plans) is likely to find favour among planners and public administrators in the province and contribute to a less complicated system overall. Extending the deadline for issuing a decision on an OP or OPA also makes sense–it’s often difficult for smaller municipalities, or overworked larger ones, to respond within the current timeline. The City of Toronto, like other municipalities in the province, has been working towards a Development Permit System. Many of the other proposed amendments deal with clarity and legitimacy–wouldn’t you like to know how your comments were used in a development application decision, or how your municipality used the funds they collected to be used for public amenities? Clarity and legitimacy were addressed in the debates on Bill 73 in the Legislative Assembly as well. Overall, it’s like a breath of fresh air is finally making it past the stodgy gatekeepers of Ontario Planningland.

The First Reading of Bill 73 was on March 5th and by April 21st it was in the debates preceding the Second Reading. You can monitor the progress of Bill 73 here.

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