Over the last few months there has been a great discussion about governance in Ottawa. The candidates for mayor and city councillor have taken positions on budget processes, burrough councils, transit commissions and even mobile council committees. None of that happens in a vacuum. Candidates are coming up with these ideas because voters are getting frustrated. We want City Hall to work better and it's becoming clear that how we govern ourselves is as important as our vision for Ottawa's future.
It is unfortunate then that local decision making powers are continually thwarted by appeals to the Ontario Municipal Board (OMB). It would fine if the OMB were only called upon when the City makes a real error in judgement but too often that is not the case. As David Reevely of the Ottawa Citizen points out, developers regularly use the OMB as a tool to force the City to accommodate their overall business strategy. In effect we are not masters of our own house. Reevely cites Walton International's intention to use the OMB to force the City of Ottawa to expand the urban boundary:
"So the story Walton tells is that they've bought a bunch of land south of Kanata that's outside the urban boundary and is hoping to use the Ontario Municipal Board to punch holes in the city's official urban plan, which was approved by a city council that specifically does not want companies like Walton to do what Walton wants to do."
We cannot allow that to continue.
The OMB was created in 1897 (when Canada was still building railways) to assist fledgling communities to develop properly. I don't doubt it was needed then but today Ottawa is a mature and responsible city with a multi-billion dollar budget. Having the OMB continually at the beck and call of developers who are openly flouting the City's Official Plan simply isn't acceptable. The twenty-four local representatives we will elect on October 25th can be entrusted with planning decisions. After all - we're already going to trust them with billions of dollars of our money.
In a democracy there must always be some form of appeal in order to protect all of us from politically influenced or just plain wrong decisions by City Council. But right now the system is out of balance - the OMB needs to be reformed to strengthen the ability of local governments to plan for the future.
Extending the urban boundary indefinitely is not an option. Building twenty story condominiums and over intensifying residential communities is also not an option. For Ottawa to succeed we need to contain costs to the taxpayer (expansion is expensive) and intensify our existing communities properly.
Until the OMB is rebalanced developers will continue to have too much incentive to appeal for the urban boundary to be expanded (profitable, but unnecessary for new home buyers). Developers will also have too much incentive to build too high, too fast, in our existing communities (profitable, but undesirable to the wider community). Ottawa will be even more successful and beautiful to live in when developers, communities and City Hall are all rowing in the same direction.
Right now we're voting municipally. Next year we'll be voting provincially and as the Green Party of Ontario candidate in Ottawa Centre I'm looking forward to having a great discussion with voters and about your vision for the future.
If you've got an opinion, or have had dealings with the OMB, I'd be interested in hearing your story.