Monday, March 2, 2009

John Ralston Saul on the OMB and Municipal Impotence

I've been reading 'A Fair Country' by John Ralston Saul, an extraordinary book that is starting to produce a seismic shift in my perceptions on a whole range of issues. I plan to write a great deal about this book and its implications on my various blogs in the coming weeks, but this one passage caught my eye as being particularly relevant to the denizens of Sprawlville.

... the core of the problem has been the willingness of political parties and property developers to combine their interests, as if the cities were not real places. Toronto has suffered most. In urban affairs columnist Christopher Hume's words, it is "a city of vast private wealth, and civic impoverishment." While London is announcing a new $33-billion rail link across the city and Madrid is building "tens of kilometres of subway", Toronto is cobbling together a few bus lines and can't even build a rail link to the biggest airport in Canada.

If you were to look for an example of the heart of the Toronto problem, I would point to the Ontario Municipal Board (OMB), a body of developer-friendly provincial appointees. Their power to overrule the city's planners has made it impossible to develop any physical strategy for the city. Instead, the largest metropolis in Canada is held hostage by the unpleasant relationship between developer influence and provincial political parties. The city's official plan may set building heights at fifteen stories on a street. The developer simply comes in and says he wants sixty. The city knows the OMB will back him. So after an expensive fight, they settle for fifty-five and even then the OMB may insist on sixty. And, if the complainant is a citizen body of volunteers, the OMB may insist that they pay the costs, just to teach them a lesson for trying to interfere.

Now, take that situation and magnify it tenfold and you have some idea of the situation in Canada's fastest growing municipality. A few examples:

- Town Council approves a condo development, not because they support it, but because they know the OMB will make it happen regardless.

- The appeals court upholds an OMB ruling against the Ministry of Natural Resources and Halton Region's efforts to prevent a Campbellville quarry from potentially contaminating Escarpment groundwater with imported fill. The MNR and the Region also have to foot the bill.
The issue was briefly discussed at the Region's planning and public works committee meeting Wednesday by Halton Hills Mayor Rick Bonnette.

He said he's glad the Region is pursuing an appeal of the premium fee and went on to express his displeasure with the OMB's decisions.

"We're trying to protect our well water and not only do we get criticized by the board, we get slapped with a $60,000 premium in costs," he said. "That really ticks me off."

- A citizen's objections to new developments at the foot of the Escarpment are dismissed by town councillors on the basis of how much it would cost the town to fight them at the OMB.

The list goes on and on.

In that last article, one councillor asks the citizen why he didn't voice his objections when the Town was first holding public consultations on the proposed development. One wonders what the point of that would be, given that between the OMB and the province's 'Places to Grow' plan, the Town of Milton claims to have no control whatsoever over the size, the placement, or the design of housing developments in this town.

I don't show up at those meetings either because I know they will say exactly what they have always said: "We appreciate your input, but it's out of our hands. What can we do?"

In the words of J.R. Saul:
The argument of a colonial elite is always about control and domination. It always insists that choices are limited, that the pie is of a fixed size. Less is power. More is anarchy.

The result is a local council that views itself as impotent, and therefore is. So why would anyone want to talk to them?


Erigami said...

I get how the OMB is generally evil (they've been overturning policy made by elected officials for as long as I can remember), but I don't see how political parties are involved in the process. What do they have to gain by it?

It would be interesting to know if Madrid and London can levy their own taxes. That degree of freedom, which is unavailable to Canadian municipalities would certainly give our city councilors a lot more control.

Jennifer Smith said...

Unlike federal politicians, provincial parties and candidates can accept very large donations from corporations like land developers aggregate companies, and they in turn make appointments to the OMB (as well as the NEC).

Dwight Williams said...

And the problems with the OMB don't confine themselves to Toronto either, do they?