Could province finally be about to reform OMB?

Ward 22 councillor Josh Matlow believes the Ontario Municipal Board could be reformed after all.

The controversial body, conceived as a final authority for land disputes but seen by many midtown residents as a way for developers to force approval of unpopular proposals, is currently being evaluated by Attorney-General Yasir Naqvi and Municipal Affairs Minister Bill Mauro.

Since last June, the two have led an extensive review of the principles, rules, and practices guiding the OMB, culminating in a series of public town hall meetings late last year. Matlow attended one at the Metro Toronto Convention Centre on Nov. 15.

“The general perception is that this is a genuinely substantive review,” Matlow says. It’s reviewing a number of issues that reflect the concerns councillors and residents have repeatedly raised.

“If the government takes real action rather than playing lip service, there will be cause for celebration,” Matlow said.

Matlow, along with other members of the midtown community including the Leaside Property Owners’ Association and Ward 27 councillor Kristyn Wong-Tam, has been advocating for years to reform or even abolish the OMB so that the city can, in Matlow’s words, “plan for people rather than condos.”

Even with talk of abolition off the table, Matlow says that removing Toronto from the OMB’s purview could not only help ensure that future buildings would reflect the city’s official plan, but let city planners focus on infrastructure and social services.

“The status quo is making community-focused planning impossible in Toronto,” he says. “The developers have the upper hand, and that’s not acceptable.”

Thus far, the ministry of municipal affairs has released materials emphasizing the project’s guiding principles and “themes,” which includes examining the OMB’s jurisdiction and powers, gathering local opinions of the board, and reducing the number of hearings. The ministry is expected to release a final report discussing its findings sometime in spring.

Matlow says that much of the review has followed the pattern illustrated by the “jurisdiction and powers” discussion, in which the province has acknowledged that the OMB’s current practice of de novo (starting anew) hearings often results in decisions that ignore the input of city staff, duplicate the municipal decision-making process, and overlook factors any councillor would consider vital, such as the amount of green space included in a project, its impact on traffic, and the number of schools and community centres available nearby.

Eliminating de novo hearings alone would level the playing field for residents working against developers, Matlow says — yet the government has also been told the OMB is needed to provide planning evidence-based decisions when municipal councils are swayed by local concerns that may not reflect the broader public interest.

“I expect the government will, in the coming weeks, announce a series of reforms to the Ontario Municipal Board … and I expect there will be some substance in those reforms,” he says.

“But let’s wait to pop the champagne bottle until we read the fine print of what they do.”