At the end of the Free Toronto from the OMB town hall meeting on Jan. 26, a member of the audience asked residents in attendance how many had come because they wanted to see the Ontario Municipal Board abolished.
More than 80 percent of the auditorium’s hands went into the air.
While “abolish” was popular with the more than 200 visitors to the meeting, it was the word “reform” that was most often applied to the board — an unelected body which has final say over every appealed planning decision made in Ontario.
The meeting featured a high-profile panel, including host and Ward 22 councillor Josh Matlow, Etobicoke-Lakeshore MPP, Toronto Liberal caucus chair Peter Milczyn, city planner Kerri Voumvakis, and FoNTRA co-founder Peter Baker. It was moderated by Toronto Star urban affairs columnist Christopher Hume.
“I didn’t think I was going to come here and hear people talk about ways to work with the OMB,” Trish Wood said. “I think a lot of people in this room are sick of the OMB.”
Another resident, Charles McLeod got some laughs when he said he came to see what might change, and admitted “I don’t feel any better right now.”
None of the residents’ frustration was directed specifically at Matlow, who began his introduction by acknowledging his own bias against the OMB.
“Why are we invited into a democratic process, and then allow for an anti-democratic institution to have the last say?” Matlow said. “Why is Toronto allowed to have an official plan … yet developers are allowed to change that plan virtually every single month based on their interests over the community’s?”
However, Matlow also acknowledged, as did the other panelists, the development process is a complicated one in a city the size of Toronto, and even without the OMB a third party would be needed to mediate development-related disputes.
“If you don’t have this appeal mechanism, what appeal mechanism are you going to have?” Milczyn said. “Because there has to be some.”
FoNTRA’s Baker said solving Toronto’s planning woes would require reforming not only the board, but the entire planning process, which he said should include funding and training for residents’ associations so during OMB hearings they would have equal footing with developers, who can typically afford high-priced legal advice that residents cannot.
Voumvakis said any meaningful change would require amending Ontario’s Planning Act. In particular, she said nobody — developers, residents, the city, nor the OMB — should be allowed to amend development guidelines, such as the city’s Official Plan, or Midtown in Focus, which covers the Yonge and Eglinton area, once all of the parties involved have agreed to them.
While he didn’t outrightly criticize or defend the OMB, Hume began his introduction by reminding the audience that Napoléon III’s famed 19th-century renovation of Paris was forced upon its people despite fierce opposition, and that certain OMB decisions — including, in his opinion, the 37-storey and 54-storey Minto Midtown towers at 2191 Yonge St., south of Eglinton Avenue — could be viewed in a similar way.
The towers’ former site “was kind of a dead space,” with a government building and parking lot, Hume said. “Now it’s full of life…. If we’re trying to get people out of cars in this city, that is exactly the kind of project that we need to build.”
Near the beginning and end of the meeting, Matlow invited residents to sign a petition against the OMB. He also encouraged them to visit his website, where under “issues” visitors can find out who they should write to if they want to free Toronto from the OMB.
He told the Town Crier he plans to submit the petition to both Queen’s Park and Toronto city council.
Before adjourning the meeting, Matlow answered a question from McLeod on whether anyone coming to a similar meeting in five years will feel any better than they do now.
“That’s up to all of us,” Matlow said. “We need you to be active, as a community, across Toronto, because if we don’t raise our voices we’re not going to make any change.”
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