Ontario Municipal Board – Good or Bad?

July 2014

The Ontario Municipal Board (OMB) is often portrayed as an impediment to good development. In the Yonge North Corridor it is not uncommon for the OMB to be blamed for certain high-rise development decisions and resulting lack of infrastructure.

The reality is less clear.

The Ontario Municipal Board is an administrative body that hears applications and appeals on municipal and planning disputes. It listens to documented evidence and makes decisions based on what has been submitted. The OMB has an expectation that those who present to them be able to present a case in support of that issue. One side of an issue is typically a developer. The opposing view may be the City, when they oppose a specific development, or other parties. This is a less costly and more effective approach than allowing the courts to decide such matters.

Some argue that the OMB tends to side with developers and against municipal planners or local residents. According to independent research by Aaron Moore, Canadian expert and author on public policy, the OMB more often decides in favour of municipal planners who tend to be less biased and more autonomous than their private sector counterparts.

Those who want to eliminate the OMB say it is an unelected body making decisions that conflict with those of democratically elected politicians. A few unelected OMB members have the power to defy the will of elected city council. There is also the claim that citizens lack power in the process. Such arguments presume that elected politicians are better qualified to make such decisions.

Yet not everyone agrees with this perspective.

The OMB can and does serve as protection against some bad or politically motivated development.

Politicians have, at times, supported controversial development decisions based on rhetoric rather than fact. One only needs to consider the lack of subway development for more than two decades to understand how political motives can supersede good planning. It is easier for politicians to blame the OMB for their decisions to avoid controversy. This political strategy of avoiding controversial decisions may not be in the best interests of an entire community but can help get a politician elected. Recent debates over expansion of Billy Bishop Airport may turn out to be one example of this practice.

Politicians may not be qualified to make long term development decisions.  Such decisions may be best made by unbiased city employees after proper consultation, research and other due diligence. The OMB is a body that removes much of the politics from planning.

It becomes too easy to fault the OMB without considering the alternative. Politicians are not required to develop the knowledge base necessary to support good long term development and relying on them for this purpose may not be the best course of action.

In some instances the OMB can be seen as supporting the rights of minorities opposed by other, more vocal or better funded, minorities.

Without an OMB the process of development, and opposition to it, could be much costlier if opposition is dependent on the courts.

Toronto’s popularity as a place where people want to live is not an accident. It is the result of doing many things well over many years.

How we manage development and growth has got us to where we are today. We need to continue planning for 20+ years into the future and this requires stable systems that protect against short-sighted planning.

The OMB presents a forum that is relatively low cost, minimizes conflict and considers the varied interests of different parties. In this respect, perhaps the OMB is our line of defense against those not acting in the best long term interest of the community.