North Toronto councillor Josh Matlow is girding to fight a mighty enemy. For city councillors and neighbourhood groups, the Ontario Municipal Board is the meanest ogre in the kingdom, a half-blind beast whose arbitrary decisions impose looming condominium towers on pleasant neighbourhoods.
"Free Toronto from the OMB!" read a pamphlet at the town hall meeting Mr. Matlow organized last week to discuss his crusade against the appeal tribunal. "Stop inappropriate development!"
Many local residents are right with him. "Why are developers entitled to make millions of dollars while we suffer in the shadow of their giant projects," said one woman who came to Mr. Matlow's event in a local high school auditorium. "I think a lot of people in this room are sick of the OMB." The crowd burst into applause "The Ontario Municipal Board," Mr. Matlow said from the stage, "is an anti-democratic, unelected, unaccountable body that has the last say on virtually all planning matters in the province of Ontario."
He would like more power put in the hands of elected representatives such as city councillors. What a mistake that would be. Few councillors can resist when residents organize to block a new building in a neighbourhood, no matter how appropriate for the area. As Mr. Matlow conceded at his town hall, some councillors will "get up on their high horse and rail against any development" that has drawn more than two e-mails of complaint. That is not always the case, he says, but it happens.
In its role as an impartial review panel charged with handling development disputes, the OMB takes the politics out of planning and judges a case on its facts. Sometimes the developer wins, and that makes residents furious. Sometimes residents win and the building is cancelled or scaled down. Sometimes the two sides strike a deal.
Aaron Moore, the author of a book on the OMB, says the board can be a useful crutch for councillors. When residents are up in arms over a developer's plans, the councillor can tell them: We had better compromise because we might lose at the OMB and the developer will get everything he wants. Compromise is usually best anyway. Developer and community can find a solution both can tolerate.
Peter Milczyn, a Liberal MPP and former city councillor, says that although the OMB needs some reform – the provincial government is reviewing it – it can discourage city councils from making plainly political decisions on development issues.
"It tempers bad decision-making on the part of councils," he said. Besides, city hall's record at the OMB is not as bad as people think. It wins slightly more cases than it loses, he says, and a lot of the cases it loses are those where politics have eclipsed common sense.
If the OMB were the ogre its opponents say it is, quiet Toronto neighbourhoods would be sprouting condo towers. That is not happening. Almost all of the high-rise building is going on at the places where the city's official plan says it should: key intersections, main streets and other hubs that city hall has targeted for dense development.
Yonge and Eglinton, just around the corner from Mr. Matlow's town hall, is a case in point. It is already served by the Yonge subway. In a few years, it will have the Crosstown light rail line, too. The arrival of thousands of new residents is lending the area a great urban buzz.
Many of those in the surrounding streets do not like the construction and the noise. Like Mr. Matlow, they say the city has not done enough to provide green space or room in local schools to keep up with the growth. If that is so, it is not the fault of the OMB. It is the fault of city hall.
Regardless, North Toronto still boasts blocks and blocks of sturdy houses in stable, established, untouched neighbourhoods. The city's official plan aims to protect areas like that, and the OMB has done nothing to frustrate that aim.
If Toronto has something to fear, it is not the excessive power of the Ontario Municipal Board. It is the prospect of city councillors bowing to irate neighbourhood groups at every turn. They, not the board, need curbing.