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Residential construction pushes into farmland in Milton in this Dec. 10, 2012, photo.

Peter Power/The Globe and Mail

The development industry warns that the Ontario government's plan to dramatically weaken its controversial land-use tribunal, the Ontario Municipal Board, will empower NIMBYs and make it harder to build more housing.

The reforms, officially unveiled on Tuesday, would strip the OMB of its overarching powers and give local municipal councils much more control over their own planning.

The OMB, renamed as the Local Planning Appeal Tribunal, would be limited to ruling on whether a project adhered to provincial policies and a municipality's official plan, and no longer have the power to approve its own version of a development from scratch.

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The proposals were welcomed by municipalities and residents' groups, who have long criticized the OMB as heavily weighted toward developers. The changes come after a controversy erupted in Liberal Premier Kathleen Wynne's own riding about a high-rise tower that will overshadow an elementary school.

But some in the development industry warn the changes will embolden NIMBY (Not in My Back Yard) planning by local politicians, making it even harder to get new housing developments or condo towers approved – exacerbating the lack of supply and helping drive real estate prices skyward.

Joe Vaccaro, chief executive officer of the Ontario Home Builders Association, warned that establishing a new weaker tribunal and leaving power in the hands of local city councils could even undermine the province's Growth Plan, which calls for greater density.

"If this new Tribunal puts local politics ahead of Smart Growth planning, it will only serve to empower NIMBY councils to make planning decisions to get re-elected," he said in an e-mailed statement.

Julie Di Lorenzo, president of condo builder Diamante Development Corp., warned the reforms would cause real estate prices to rise and make housing less affordable. She also said the elimination of what are known as de novo (Latin for "from new") hearings, where the OMB can make its own decision on a project based on new evidence, would choke off development.

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"The city will be stifled both in its growth but also in its ideas and creativity because without de novo evidence, the presumption is that the city bureaucracy knows everything and is always right," Ms. Di Lorenzo said. "Sounds like a very short-sighted plan."

In an apparent move to address concerns that NIMBYism would frustrate the province's policy goals to put taller buildings near new transit lines, one provision would allow councils to bar challenges to developments they approve within 500 metres of transit stations.

Reaction at Toronto City Hall, where critics say the OMB's shadow often forces planners to surrender to developers' demands for extra density, was positive. Midtown councillor Josh Matlow, long a critic of the OMB, said the changes would start to tip the balance toward local planners and away from "a developer's financial interests."

Mayor John Tory praised the reforms, although he said he had not had time to study them in detail: "I believe these reforms move us in the direction that we want to go, which is more local responsibility for local planning decisions."

Many of the changes were on a wish list drawn up by Toronto's chief planner, Jennifer Keesmaat. She dismissed concerns that under the new regime, NIMBYs would undermine the city's policies on growth and density, adding that large areas of the city are already zoned for higher densities.

"We actually don't have a NIMBY council," Ms. Keesmaat said. "You don't get the kind of growth that we have in our city with a council that's primarily saying no."

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Geoff Kettel, co-chairman of the Federation of North Toronto Residents' Associations (FONTRA), welcomed most of the reforms, but he said the provision to block challenges near transit stations was a concern. But he said the move to provide free legal assistance to residents launching challenges would help ratepayers who are now often outgunned by developers' legal teams.

"The devil's in the details. It appears to be real reform. When the bill comes out, we'll have to examine it," he said.

A bill spelling out the reform package is expected to be tabled at Queen's Park within the next three weeks, before the legislature leaves for summer recess.

Among the changes unveiled by Municipal Affairs Minister Bill Mauro on Tuesday are provisions that would:

  • Eliminate the current lengthy court-like hearings by moving the new tribunal to largely written arguments, and imposing strict deadlines;
  • Limit the new tribunal to reviewing whether a municipality’s decision conforms with provincial policy and its own plans, with the power to send a decision back to the municipality for reconsideration before the tribunal could make a final decision;
  • Allow for panels of multiple tribunal members to hear large cases;
  • Set up an office to provide free legal help to citizens challenging developments before the tribunal;
  • Disallow challenges of entire municipal official plans and for two years on new neighbourhood secondary plans.

With a file from Alex Bozikovic

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