Earthroots' Queen's Park deputation on Bill 26-The Stronger Communities Act
Deputation presented by Josh Matlow

Introduction

Thank you Chair and to the committee members for allowing me the opportunity to speak to you today.

Earthroots, as you may know, is an Ontario-based environmental organization. Founded in 1986 with a mandate to protect wilderness, wildlife, and watersheds through research, education, and action.

Earthroots has been involved in preserving greenspace in southern Ontario for many years. Our organization and its members have been actively engaged in working to protect the Niagara Escarpment and the Oak Ridges Moraine. As a result, we have taken a keen interest in all of the government’s recent initiatives aimed at curbing urban sprawl in the Greater Toronto Area and throughout the Golden Horseshoe.

Primarily through Earthroots’ experience with our campaign to protect the Oak Ridges Moraine, our group has been an outspoken critic of how the Ontario Municipal Board, and the land-use planning process in general, has operated in this province. Therefore, we are encouraged by the reforms to the Planning Act that the government has laid out in Bill 26- The Stronger Communities Act . We are cautiously optimistic that, in tandem with other measures that the Province is taking and others that we hope to see, Bill 26 will help to curb sprawl, thereby protecting ecologically sensitive greenspace areas and wildlife corridors from urban development.

Section 2- Planning Matters “Consistent with” Provincial Policy

Earthroots is pleased that section 2 of the Bill amends the Planning Act to ensure that all planning decisions made in Ontario must be consistent with Provincial policy instead of merely making reference to it. Without this change, municipal councils, the Ontario Municipal Board, and other decision making bodies could nullify the efforts of the province to control sprawl and protect much needed natural areas.

While we applaud this initiative, our friends at the Pembina Institute have stated, and we agree, that it is imperative that Bill 26 be put in place after the government adopts the revised Provincial Policy Statement (PPS). If Bill 26 were to become law before the new PPS is adopted, planning decisions would have to be consistent with the current PPS, which does not entirely espouse the principles of sustainable development, and greenspace protection that the current government claims to support.

Sections 3&4 OMB Reforms

Earthroots is encouraged by the reforms to the OMB appeals process included in Bill 26. First, the extension of the time period given to municipalities to make a decision on a planning matter before the applicant can appeal the decision to the OMB is a sound decision. Currently, developers are able to appeal to the OMB, and in some cases, before a municipal council even has a chance to review the merits of the applicant’s proposal. There are cases such as some high profile developments in Richmond Hill and in the Yonge and Eglinton area of Toronto, where developers have, in my opinion, purposefully gone to the OMB before the municipality has had an opportunity to make a decision, because they believed their permit would be rubberstamped. I would ask each committee member to take a look at the very sound recommendations that FONTRA, the Federation of North Toronto Ratepayers Association has made on how to reform the OMB. I would also direct members to read through legislature hansard and read speeches on this subject by your colleague Mike Colle, MPP for Eglinton- Lawrence. I would be happy to provide these documents to you. These are prime examples of how the OMB has been used by some developers to usurp local democracy. We are glad that this Bill will give municipal councils the time that they need to make informed decisions on how their communities will grow in the future.

Second, the right to appeal to the Board would be stripped in situations where an applicant is requesting an alteration to the boundary of an urban settlement area or wishes to create a new urban settlement area. In most cases where that could conceivably arise, this is a good reform. There have been far too many instances where planning has been done by developers with the consent of the Ontario Municipal Board. This reform would eliminate their right to appeal a municipality’s decision not to extend their boundaries and encroach on greenspace or agricultural land. Earthroots is, of course, strongly in favour of this consequence of this reform.

However, there have been many decisions by municipalities to encroach on greenspace and agricultural lands. I have concerns about what the consequences are of this reform in cases such as these. I have been told that there is Ministry staff available to answer questions. I will read out the exact portion of the Bill for you that and then I would appreciate it if staff would answer the following question after the conclusion of my deputation

S.4 (7.1) of the Bill states that:

“a person or public body may not appeal to the Ontario Municipal board in respect of all or any part of a requested amendment if the amendment or part of the amendment proposes to alter all or any part of the boundary of an urban settlement area in a municipality or to establish a new urban settlement area in a municipality”.

Would this amendment restrict the right of an individual or citizen’s group to appeal to the OMB in a situation where a municipality adopted an amendment to their official plan that expanded their urban settlement area, or if a citizen’s group put forward an amendment to appeal their municipality’s current urban boundary on the basis that it was originally adopted as a result of a poor planning decision?

Let me tell you why I asked. According to the Toronto Star, one-third of the total land that is designated ‘urban’ in the GTA has yet to be developed. If some of the proposals that the Liberal government are trying to put in place right now are an indication of a shift towards more sustainable land-use practices including urban infill, brownfield development, and building communities at a higher density in general, then I would argue that a lot of that land that I mentioned, that is as yet undeveloped, is not necessary for commercial or residential development. Let us leave it as greenspace for now. I am worried that the public’s right to enact these changes will be lost with this Bill.

The other reason why I posed this question is that I am concerned that the Act is too focused on the Ontario Municipal Board, and does not address the impact that decisions made at the municipal level have on sprawl. There are certainly many development proposals that are antithetical to the principles of sustainable community building that never get to the Ontario Municipal Board because they are approved by the municipality.

Even with a share of Provincial and Federal gas tax money, the majority of the revenue raised by municipalities will still come from property taxes. As a result, unless a drastically different arrangement is worked out and a genuine New Deal for Ontario’s cities is initiated now, many municipal governments will still find it in their best interest to opt for expanding their communities to balance their budgets.

Many developers in this province, for many years, have contributed significantly to municipal politicians’ campaign coffers. By doing this, and having the financial means to do this, developers have been in an advantaged position to have an undue amount of influence on decisions made at councils on decisions regarding urban planning.

When an appeal is taken to the OMB, developers have the financial ability to hire the best experts and lawyers and are not overly concerned about work days spent in the proceedings.

This is, however, a very different scenario for private citizens and community groups fighting an appeal at the OMB. Most are not in a position to hire expensive experts and lawyers or take days or weeks off work. The Province must do something to make this process more equitable.

Matters of Provincial Interest

In this context, I would like to move on to the last section of the Bill Matters of Provincial Interest. Bill 26 allows the Minister to advise the Ontario Municipal Board that a matter before them is likely to be adverse to the Provincial interest. In those cases, the Board’s decision is not final and the decision rests with the Lieutenant Governor in Council. While Earthroots agrees with this amendment to the Planning Act, we feel that this right should be extended. Given that there is a great deal of development that is adverse to the Provincial interest which never comes before the OMB, we feel that it is essential for the Minister to have the same privilege in planning matters before a municipal council or other planning body while they operate under the status quo.

There must be election finance reform. If the Province can contribute towards restraining the influence of developers over many municipal councils, I believe that it will find that more councils will operate and make decisions in the long-term interest of the people of Ontario, rather than the short-term financial interests of some developers.

Along with restoring integrity to the planning process through municipal electoral reform, I believe that the manner in which OMB members are selected must be reformed as well. OMB members should merit their appointment because of their expertise in the issues that they will be given the privilege to deliberate over. Really it should be simply about what they know rather than who they know with respect to how they are selected.

In conclusion, I want to thank the committee very much for taking on this honorable and timely task to make our municipalities, provincial government and the OMB work for the people of Ontario.