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Reflections on an OMB decision

Happy New Year to one and all!  Much has recently happened that will affect our community for years to come. Notably, the decision of the OMB to favour the developer’s appeal for the ‘Shell station’ site at Queen and Woodbine was not totally unexpected, but still a bitter disappointment to many who worked long and hard as volunteers to preserve the character of Queen Street East, particularly the view of the historic fire hall clock tower considered to be the ‘Gateway to the Beach.’

There were fundraising concerts, wine and cheese parties by residents, information evenings, lawn signs, door to door volunteers, and a highly respected municipal law firm at the helm. (A big thanks to lawyer Dennis Wood of Wood Bull LLP for all his firm gave to our community pro bono). The Greater Beach Neighbourhood Association (GBNA) worked around the clock to provide a strong case at the OMB hearing.

At the centre of the developer’s appeal was the “Beach Bible” of Ward 32 Councillor Mary-Margaret McMahon, known as The Visioning Study or the Urban Design Guidelines (UDG).

The UDG was a grassroots study of Queen Street East that cost taxpayers $200,000. Unfortunately, the guidelines are essentially voluntary and were by and large disregarded by the Ontario Municipal Board. At the end of the day the UDG carried no legal weight.

Many residents are now concerned about the precedent set for the upcoming hearings at the OMB given other Queen Street East sites slated for development. Many others felt the community would have been better served by an interim control bylaw if council had passed one in January 2012, which could have stopped development applications for two years.

The timing of this decision will certainly be on the minds of voters for two upcoming elections: a municipal election in October 2014 and a possible provincial election in the spring. This would be a critical time to make these matters election issues.

It is very encouraging that MPP Rosario Marchese (Trinity-Spadina) has pushed his private member’s bill to exempt Toronto from the OMB’s control of planning issues.

His bill has passed second reading in the legislature. If successful, it would give the city authority over zoning bylaws, development approvals and other planning matters. It would also allow for the establishment of a new appeals body of its own.

Ontario would then be the last province in Canada to abolish this anachronistic board and put the power back into the hands of the community and accountable elected officials.

Imagine if the people we elected were responsible for the zoning decisions of our community – and not people who were appointed at the pleasure of the government. The principle is simple: give the final word on zoning and development to a democratically elected local municipal council, not appointed OMB members, who in the vast majority of cases, side with the developers.

Last year, Toronto city council voted 34-5 to pull out of the OMB for precisely the same reasons.  However, there is little consensus (or interest in) on what would take its place, not to mention the cost to the city. The vote at this point is largely symbolic.

One encouraging light is that while Queen Street East continues to “intensify” and its small town character vanishes to condominiums and larger retail stores, there is a group of residents who recognize that our heritage and history are too precious to lose and are doing something about it.

The Beach and East Toronto Historical Society (BETHS) has recently revitalized and welcomes one and all to get involved. The purpose is to “raise awareness of local history in the east end of Toronto through meetings, special events and publications.” Clearly, BETHS has a critical role to play in preserving local history when it is under so much development pressure. A separate committee has been formed to work on the possibility of a Heritage Conservation District for parts of Queen Street East.

2014 may shape up to be a year of positive change for us. The more you become involved with local groups such as BETHS and GBNA, and involved in our elections, the better that change can be.

7 Responses »

  1. Mary Margaret - please resign now!

  2. Could not disagree with this article more. The OMB simply follows the guidelines as laid out in the official plan and the precidents that have been created to determine a reasonable course of action. It is very reasonable that an attractive low-rise condo be built on this site and the owner has every right to do so.

    My view is that Mary Margaret and the other counsellors on the left should be more forthright with what they want - their cake and to eat it too. They want control of the planning decisions that are made, but still want all the tax revenue from rising property values. Can you imagine how the bottom would fall out of the real estate market if Toronto City Council stripped the private property rights of the homeowners and property owners? What value is land and a building if one is not sure what they can do with it and there are no clear guidelines? A monument to Jack Layton and David Miller is ok, but a low rise condo where people will live and build there lives is not!?

    This entire exercise was a waste of time and taxpayer money. The development is quite reasonable, and if people want to buy them, move to the beach and make it their home, I for one say, welcome.

    • Well said Steve. Also worth mentioning is that the fact that the OMB, as was clearly shown in this case, protects us from planning decisions made to appease vocal special interests by councillors concerned only about the next election and not about good planning.

  3. "Can you imagine how the bottom would fall out of the real estate market if Toronto City Council stripped the private property rights of the homeowners and property owners? What value is land and a building if one is not sure what they can do with it and there are no clear guidelines?"

    Gee, I guess that real estate in Paris, Rome, Vienna, or even Washington DC, must be really cheap - in these cities, someone cannot go and get the rules changed so that they can build something that is nearly double the zoned height and density.

    In fact, land values would go up faster if the ability to add to the supply were limited. Basic supply and demand.

    It is the existence of the OMB (and the way in which zoning is so easily changed) that means that there are no clear rules - each development is needs to go through a complicated process because the "as-of-right" zoning is little more than a fast-track process for developers who do not want to maximise the density (i.e, one storey Shoppers Drug Mart or one-storey LCBOs)

    • I think Brian is advocating for the Kangaroo court model, where Adam Vaughan and others of his political stripes decide what is suitable for their agenda and vision for the neighbourhood at the expense of the private property rights of the property owner, regardless of precedents and the official plan. The utopian cities you mention are amongst the worst in the world in terms of cronyism and corruption, with no clear guidelines as they relate to the planning process. With this model, the anti-development crowd gets to make the rules and the property owners get to roll the dice on what they can and can't do with their property.

      There are several other buildings this height and size in the beach (a quite reasonable 5-6 stories I believe) so restricting a building to the zoned height and density is no longer relevant nor reflective of the current reality.

      The OMB made the right decision here - what are you protecting Brian - the Coffee Time doughnuts and gas station that was there? This building will be a nice upgrade - time to move on.

  4. The Provincial Plan for increased "intensification" to prevent Urban Sprawl does make some sense but, as usual. governments are short sighted as developers race to take advantage of the relaxed bylaws that make a mockery of the word "minor" variance.
    As bad as the OMB appears to be as it favors developers, Toronto city councillors generally like more property taxes coming in to cover their overspending and some like Adam Vaughn have the Miller Mania for bigger is better so it could take awhile to vote in those who are sensitive to resident's concerns.
    I think something bigger is required. To those who are aware of the California Tax Revolt back in 1978 and how a very large petition forced the government to get Proposition 13 on a ballot and passed by popular vote into law. So whether its about property taxes ( a favourite of mine) or the actual property, petitions to the government can work, or better yet, to the Ombudsman who has a great track record for getting the government to change.
    If all the ratepayers, home owners, neighbourhood Associations coordinated their efforts, it would be a serious force to be reckoned with at the municipal level as well as Provincial.
    It would be extremely news worthy as this wave or protest sweeps over City Hall that would be very difficult to ignore.

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