Is Centretown Being Shaped by the Ontario Municipal Board?

September 24, 2010 at 2:06 pm 5 comments

Over the next few weeks, we will be posting a new discussion topic, ranging from Community facilities to defining the Character of Centretown, to generate dialogue about the future of Mid Centretown. We look forward to hearing your ideas in the comments.

People don’t always agree on how their communities should evolve. Disputes arise where certain types of uses should be located or what form of building is appropriate. When people can’t resolve their differences, the Ontario Municipal Board (OMB) provides the forum for resolving disagreements. The OMB is an independent tribunal that resolves land use and development disputes between different parties. The Board deals with a variety of issues including: official plans, zoning by-laws, subdivision plans, consents to sever land, minor variances from local by-laws and development charges, amongst others.

In Centretown, there have been many cases brought before OMB for resolution. This is not an uncommon for mature urban communities where land is at a premium and disagreements as to what constitutes good planning are a regular occurrence. What is unusual for Centretown is the number of times that the OMB supports the proposals brought before it and allows the development to occur – even if the development doesn’t ‘fit’ with the planning framework. From our review, less than 10% of cases brought before the Board were refused.

It should be noted that this low refusal rate does not mean that the City of Ottawa has lost 90% of cases, as not all cases were brought against the City. In many cases, the City did not appear, appeared under subpoena by the developer, or, were in some cases in agreement with the developer (subject to modifications of proposals). Nevertheless, this low level of refusal does indicate that the existing regulatory framework provides an inconsistent message and is open to interpretation by many interests. Part of the Mid-Centretown Study is to help create a consistent and realistic vision for what the future of the community will be and update the planning framework accordingly.

The Centretown OMB Review Memo (80 KB PDF) summarizes 25 decision documents (see the 140 KB OMB Decisions Summary for an overview). Appeals taken to the Board cover a wide range of issues, including rezoning (height and density) and minor variances (setbacks, parking, lot width, projections, amongst others). A detailed summary of each case was prepared and are attached to this memo. Please have a look at the OMB Review Memo to see our take on why the Board allows so many proposals and refuses so few applications across Centretown. Do you think we have interpreted the Board’s decisions accurately? Click here to let us know your thoughts.

Entry filed under: Uncategorized.

What Community Facilities Does Centretown Need? Can you improve Centretown without changing its streets?

5 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Dan  |  January 4, 2011 at 3:40 pm

    It has been some time since the last posting to this blog. In the meantime I have a new appreciation of the OMB process, so thought I would add a note. I totally agree with the last comment from the administrator. It is far better to have discussions, debate, arguments and conflict resolution outside of the quasi – judicial realm. In the context of the planning exercise before us, it would seem appropriate that a revised and unique development review process for Centretown should not be overlooked as a possible innovation.
    In reality Centretown is not an enormously large geographical area. Yet there are so many issues that uniquely impact the community as whole, to the extent I do no believe it is appropriate to fragment the community on the basis of Mid, East, West, Mid-far west, northwest and so on. Issues affecting one segment apply to the larger community.
    My sense is that there should be a methodology or a framework in which the issues affecting Centretown can be brought to the public in a more comprehensive and collaborative manner. It does not make sense to rely on a consultation framework that pre dates amalgamation – or the internet, for that matter. Matters deemed of importance, such as this planning exercise, are dependent on a framework that requires notice be posted according to a predetermined formula. Pick the process and you have the consultation process: A billboard on the property; a letter to property owners within 200 meters; a notice on a Friday, thank you, in a print medium (that’s a newspaper!); maybe, a notice on the city’s web site. And by the way, the bill for this is borne by someone who has no control over the cost.
    As well, the management of each process can be different, depending on the planner handling the file. It is the planner who decides the extent of the information made available to the public. I could elaborate on this factor. Or I could mention there has not, to the best of my information, been a single evaluation of a consultation process in 25 years. There are no performance indicators or an accountability framework for the process of consultation/collaboration.
    That being the case, I was involved with a consultation process. Without going into all the details, I felt the process was flawed and the decision was inappropriate. Then I was told my only recourse was to appeal to the OMB. This is what I did. I paid my money and waited for notice of the appeal hearing. I waited four months, and nothing. I had plans to travel to the west coast; had paid for my tickets, (with insurance) and was confident there would not be a conflict with the hearing. It was an error in judgment on my part. To return early would have cost me $1,000 to alter the tickets. I asked for a postponement, which I felt was reasonable, but the lawyer for the city refused to consent, and since both parties had to agree that was not going to be possible.
    It was during this ordeal that I had an extended conversation with the solicitor for the developer. I will not relate the conversation, but rather summarize the points:
    It is a quasi judicial process and I had better show up as if I were going to trial.
    Without the benefit of “expert” witnesses, I was like the lawyer who chooses to represent himself.
    Based on the information I had presented requesting the appeal, I was going to loose. No ifs, ands or buts! I may get satisfaction of knowing I fought the development, but I was going to loose. Guaranteed!
    Depending on who was hearing the appeal I could be subjected to questioning and examination that would not enhance my self esteem!
    If the developer wished, depending on the unfolding during the appeal, they could ask for costs, which are sometimes granted if there is a belief the appeal was frivolous or not well presented.
    The solicitor then went on to say that based on their experience the public is not well served by the appeal to the OMP. In most cases the public, in frustration, wants to be heard by someone who will listen. The experience with the planning process is most often totally unsatisfying and unproductive. An appeal to the Planning Committee of Council, in the 2 minutes allocated, is pro forma, sometimes sympathetic but totally paternalistic in its attitude. The success rate at the committee level of council is negligible. It is a “pantomime”, I believe is the word that was used to describe it.
    The best advice the solicitor offered, was that I abandon the appeal. It was suggested, if I were to drop the appeal, their client would not ask for costs and hopefully, it was added, neither would the city.
    I wrote about my concerns with this project on this blog early in the spring, before I filed the appeal. I mentioned the application was for the re-zoning of a non conforming structure in Centertown. The developer wanted a change in zoning to allow commercial as well as residential use and to obtain relief from the parking requirement. The developer wanted to remove all amenity space from the building, since the tenants did not use it. The excuse that was called landscaping was going to be removed and there was no provision for garbage storage. My list of concerns could continue, but the fact is I had not engaged the services of a professional to make the arguments and give credence to the case. Meanwhile the city planner saw this change from tenant amenity space to commercial as being appropriate “intensification”.
    I spent the $150 for the appeal. I saved the $1,000 by not changing my reservations. I saved some self esteem by not being embarrassed in the appeal. I buried my frustration for a consultation process that is a joke.
    So yes, I would argue there has to be a better way of engaging the public.

  • 2. nanancers  |  September 30, 2010 at 9:07 am

    Hi there,

    An interesting read! Can you post a list of the 25 OMB Decisions that were reviewed?

    The purpose of OBHAC (Ontario Built Heritage Advisory Committee) is to provide professional advice on heritage matters to the City- with a specific focus on heritage, OBHAC helps the City deal sensibly and responsibly with its heritage resources. Sometimes this advice runs counter to the opinions and main goals of the City, who in turn takes the decision and comments of OBHAC into consideration as they go about their planning activities. This division of ‘allies’ could be seen as detrimental for City cases at the OMB, but I see it as a healthy function of our local democratic processes.

    One of the biggest problems I’ve seen with the OMB (While doing a planning exercise for school, I reviewed many OMB decisions), is that it tends to pit planning documents against each other. There are sometimes contradictions between the Official Plan and Secondary Plans, the Provincial Policy Statement or the Ontario Heritage Act. Too often, it’s the developers, with experts who ‘speak the language’ and have a number of well-developed, legally-binding documents on their side that ‘win’ against the local population with heritage planning documents that tend to be guidelines and not actually legislation. Planning documents need to adequately address heritage issues in their text.

    Especially with the precedent of so many granted variances in the area, It is important that our Community Development Plan be clear about what our heritage resources are and suggest how they should be handled, but also be in line with other related planning documents.

    • 3. Administrator  |  September 30, 2010 at 2:05 pm

      Well articulated thoughts nanancers – thanks for contributing. I agree that the development world can be pretty tough going for regular community folks at the OMB. Often it comes down to experience and availability of resources (time and $$) to create a convincing and creative argument. However, when policy documents don’t stand on their own or have direct conflicts with each others, it makes the task of arguing against City policies that much easier.

      I agree 100% that the Plan needs to be clear about what Centretown’s heritage resources are and how they can be better protected/promoted/improved.
      PS The 25 cases are indentified by the address and case number in the Summary table. Cases can be accessed from the OMB website by case number.

  • 4. Don  |  September 27, 2010 at 3:59 pm

    It is important to note that the OMB is a “quasi” judicial body, i.e., it is not a court but is run like one. Thus it privileges legality and tends to favour testimony from “experts” rather than citizens or volunteer organizations. The OMB follows the official plan, which is very general. Developers know this and know how to stretch zoning bylaws by showing how their proposals “fit” with the intent of the official plan (often based on urban intensification). They also have the resources to hire experts that know urban planning and how to argue in front of the OMB. Urban citizens, arguing for neighbourhood character, scale, and appropriateness, are using a language that the OMB doesn’t understand and of which the official plan has proven unhelpful (infill guidelines are just guidelines).

    • 5. Administrator  |  September 27, 2010 at 4:20 pm

      Hi Don – the OMB is certainly not a perfect system and Ontario is quite envious of places like BC that do not have this system in place. Instead, BC relies on a clearer (and stronger?) planning framework built around consensus and agreed rules. Personally, I fully agree that the OMB system does not allow much room for community opinion and evidence. Once it makes it to the OMB, it is a tough battle for regular folks. That is why building concensus, establishing clear planning rules and an agreed future is so important – stop the battles before they get to the Board.


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Welcome to Mid-Centretown Tomorrow, the official project blog for the Mid-Centretown Community Design Plan, commissioned by the City of Ottawa! This is the place to learn about and participate in discussions regarding the future of Mid-Centretown.

Bienvenue sur Mi-centreville de demain, le blogue officiel du projet de Plan de conception communautaire pour le secteur médian du Centre-ville, commandé par la Ville d’Ottawa!

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