Ontario is planning to scrap the independent tribunal that adjudicates planning and development disputes and set up a new one that will give municipalities more power.
Municipal Affairs Minister Bill Mauro announced Tuesday that the Ontario Municipal Board will be replaced by the Local Planning Appeal Tribunal with legislation that will be introduced later this month.
"If our reforms pass, there would be fewer and shorter hearings and a more efficient decision-making process, and there would be more deference to local land-use planning decisions," Mauro said.
The major reforms were welcomed by some municipal politicians but met with a warning from the development industry that they will hinder the province's plans to build up Ontario cities by empowering the NIMBY (not-in-my-backyard) tendencies of communities.
The Ontario Municipal Board is a tribunal that hears appeals from local residents and developers when they object to municipal decisions on planning and development matters, including issues relating to zoning bylaws, new developments and ward boundaries.
The new Local Planning Appeal Tribunal will have less power to overturn local government decisions.
Under the new process, the tribunal will decide if a municipality has followed its official plans in the disputed decision. If it has failed to do so, the issue will be sent back to the municipality for reconsideration. Only if the municipality fails to come to a decision or fails to follow the planning process a second time would a full hearing be held, with the tribunal making a final decision.
It will mean fewer municipal decisions can be overturned than under the current process, in which each dispute is treated as if it were new, disregarding the decision the local government has made.
The reforms will also give municipalities the power to prohibit residents and developers from appealing local government decisions in areas immediately around major transit hubs, said Mauro.
The status quo has long been criticized as tilted in favour of developers, who've been able to appeal a municipality's decision and ultimately build something more profitable, such as a taller condo building with more units than the local council called for in its official plan.
When Mauro announced the changes, he noted that the development industry would likely not welcome them, which proved to be the case.
Joe Vaccaro, CEO of the Ontario Home Builders' Association, said he fears the new tribunal will rubber stamp local governments' decisions, which will "only serve to empower NIMBY councils to make planning decisions to get re-elected."
Ontario's efforts to see more housing and commercial space built in cities and towns will be sidelined when local politics convince councillors not to allow taller, bigger buildings to built, he said.
Mauro disputed that, saying the tribunal will ensure that municipalities follow their official land use plans, which abide by provincial law requiring them to approve denser development.
The process will allow new developments to proceed more quickly, Mauro said, which is in line with the province's plan to boost the supply of housing to ease the pressure on the hot housing market.
Meanwhile, municipal politicians welcomed the changes.
Toronto Coun. Josh Matlow said the new changes will make it easier for local leaders to plan their communities, without having to bargain with developers and fear being overruled by the tribunal.
"Finally, the government is taking substantive steps to tip the balance of power towards communities, locally-elected bodies and local planners, rather than developers' financial interests," said Matlow.
Sarnia Mayor Mike Bradley gave the province credit for making significant reforms, but argued an unelected tribunal should not be necessary.
"What a shame that elected people would exercise their power and their mandate, being elected by the public," Bradley said.
The reforms also include giving legal information and support to residents who want to appeal a municipal decision. Decisions will be written in plain language and made public, said Attorney General Yasir Naqvi.
Hearings will be also quicker, relying only on written submissions without witness examinations.