Originally called the Ontario Railway and Municipal Board in 1906 and later renamed the Ontario Municipal Board in 1932, the OMB is an independent tribunal that makes decisions on municipal planning matters at an arms length from the Provincial government. As of 2010, the OMB was designated under the Environment and Lands Tribunals Ontario (ELTO) cluster, reporting to the Ministry of the Attorney General. Typically, all decisions at the OMB are final, unless a declaration of provincial interest has been made on the case by the Minister of Municipal Affairs.

Appeals of municipal planning decisions can currently be made to the OMB for a variety of reasons, but what we hear most commonly in the news is when a developer's submission to a municipality (such as Zoning-Bylaw or Official Plan Amendments) is either refused or fails to receive a decision within 120 days of the application (180 days for Official Plan Amendments). In a given year, the OMB averages about 1,400 appeals throughout Ontario, with the majority of appeals being, however, for minor variances.

Toronto skyline, image by 416dogluvr via FlickrToronto skyline, image by 416dogluvr via Flickr

The City of Toronto alone accounts for 39% of all appeals received by the OMB, and has fallen on the short side for many of these hearings while developers are often granted full approvals for their proposed developments. While the OMB cites applicable laws and precedents carefully, the preponderance of wins by developers has led the OMB to be criticized as being unfair, undemocratic, that it has little concern for local interests, and spends little time on mediation. It is also criticized for being too costly by both those looking to overturn earlier decisions or uphold them.

An OMB approach that is highly criticized is the Board's "De Novo" hearings, meaning that the file municipal history is disregarded, thereby excluding input from elected officials. Since 2012, the majority on Toronto City Council have been in favour of opting out of the OMB, and have pressed the Province for a Local Appeals Body of the City's own to be established. The City is currently creating a proposal for just such a body. 

OMB public consultation, image by Craig WhiteOMB public consultation, image by Craig White

In early October, UrbanToronto covered the Province's intention to reform the OMB, and in the weeks since, more information has been released. Last night, a community consultation was held at the Metro Toronto Convention Centre, one of a dozen being held across Ontario, in regard to the review. Just shy of 200 attended.

The focus of the meeting was to receive public input for five key areas where the Province intends to improve the way the OMB is conducted. Roundtable discussions covered these five themes with citizens detailing what they would like to see be improved. The ideas were documented, to be further studied by the Province.

Prior to going through the themes, those in attendance were given clickers to answer questions regarding their familiarity with the planning process and the OMB's structure, and get a feel for the level of experience participants had in community engagement. Four of the responses are seen in the images below.

Survey on how many citizens attended a public meeting, image by Craig WhiteSurvey on how many citizens attended a public meeting, image by Craig White

Survey on controversial planning issues in citizens' communities, image by CraigSurvey on controversial planning issues in citizens' communities, image by Craig White

Survey if more could be done at the OMB, image by Craig WhiteSurvey if more could be done at the OMB, image by Craig White 

Survey on how to resolve disputes at the OMB, image by Craig WhiteSurvey on how to resolve disputes at the OMB, image by Craig White 

The first theme—OMB's jurisdiction and powers—had unanimous agreement amongst attendees, stating that they would like to see a stronger local body, move away from "de novo" hearings (although some groups wanted it intact), and that planning decisions be made on the most up-to-date planning documents.

The second theme—citizen participation and local perspective—covered how people felt a disconnect from and lack of engagement with the OMB members. In addition, the cost to participate in a hearing is expensive, so implementing a funding tool would benefit the local community. 

Clear and predictable decision making was the third theme, and one table mentioned that they would want a more diverse range of members on the OMB, as opposed to the current panel made up of only lawyers and one architect. Additionally, having panelists knowledgable of the area in question would be another benefit in having a more fair approach.

The fourth theme—modern procedure and faster decisions—looked at ways to create a less formal and adversarial culture, by means of allowing active adjudication, and to facilitate a shorter timeline for decisions. With limited resources and the complexity of hearings, many targets set in the past have not been met.

The last theme—alternative dispute resolution and fewer hearings—looked at encouraging disputes to be resolved through alternative methods. This could be done by promoting mediation, which many participants agreed would be an effective tool, especially for smaller files such as minor variances.

Participants considered several questions about how to reform the OMB.Participants considered several questions put to them about how the OMB might be improved, image by Craig White

After closing remarks at the end of what was arguably a very productive meeting, the path moving forward is becoming clearer: create a system that allows for a more affordable and meaningful public participation; support clearer decision making; give municipal and provincial level government more weight in decision making, which in turn would result in fewer OMB hearings. 

While this process is still a long way away from finalizing any changes, we will keep you updated when more information becomes available. In the meantime, feel free to leave your comments about the suggested changes in the space provided below.