Municipalities calling for an end to the unaccountable provincial appeal system to planning issues have a long history of costly, undemocratic processes to bolster their case.
The Ontario Land Tribunal (OLT) was formerly the Ontario Municipal Board and, briefly, the Local Planning Appeal Tribunal (LPAT). It’s theoretically a venue for those who feel a municipal council made a bad decision to seek a neutral, third-party adjudication. In practice, the process favours corporate interests, often overriding the will of local residents.
There are cases, of course, where citizens have used the process to contest local decisions that favour, say, a developer or gravel pit operator, but those are the exceptions.
For its part, Woolwich is looking for changes to the OLT rather than scrapping it outright. Councillors this week called on the province to review the process in consultation with municipalities in order to eliminate red tape and to come up with alternatives to what can be a costly appeal process. In the last five years, for instance, the township has spent some $528,000 for tribunal hearings.
Woolwich would like to see more weight given to municipal decisions and planning policies in the appeal process, with limits placed on what can be challenged, for instance.
While individual municipalities can and do make bad decisions – we see then all the time – removing the ability of monied interests to simply keep pushing legal buttons until they get their way would be a good first step to overhauling the tribunal system. (While voters can ultimately penalize local politicians, legal recourse for citizens to recall politicians and seek compensation for bad decisions should be a priority, though that’s another matter.)
Township residents are certainly familiar with the appeal process when it comes to gravel pits, where the wishes of local people are overridden by an unaccountable provincial body.
The process is lengthy and costly, with the concerns of municipalities often swept aside by the MNRF and OLT. The municipality does all the work, but gets little for its efforts aside from a great deal of political grief, as we’ve seen in debates here previously.
To make matters worse, municipalities receive only a pittance in revenues from gravel operations. The cost-benefit analysis alone is reason enough to deny all applications. Aside from the process itself, gravel pits bring increased truck traffic that put residents at risk, create more wear-and-tear on the roads, bring environmental problems such as dust and noise, and threaten to despoil prime agricultural land and the accompanying vistas.
In the case of gravel pits and other unpopular developments, the argument is made that the process is necessary to prevent NIMBYism: if every decision sided with the public, nothing would ever get done, including some things that are necessary. This attitude says the need for gravel overrides the health, safety and quality of life considerations of those who live near pits.
Eliminating the OLT and the appeal process makes sense in most cases, as its typically corporate pursuits looking to override the public interest. There are times, however, when the public uses the appeal process to challenge sometimes poor decisions by municipal councils. The two situations must be differentiated.
There is also good cause for ensuring planning power remains with the municipality – only when acting in the public interest, which isn’t a given – when it comes to dealing with the region, for instance. That, too, has been a longstanding concern in the township, which has seen the regional government take a heavy-handed approach in grabbing power through official plan reviews.
The priorities set by Woolwich should come first, not be constrained unduly by centralized power at the largely unaccountable upper tier, which isn’t much more responsive to the public than are provincial government agencies.
If the idea is to get planning closer to the people it affects, doing away with or reining in the OLT is a good first step.