Explainer - What's the Ontario Municipal Board?

By Robert Janelle

Where does the Ontario Municipal Board come from?

The Ontario Municipal Board is a quasi-judicial tribunal—that is, a government body that hears evidence and renders decisions—that hears applications and appeals on issues relating to municipal planning and land use within Ontario.

The OMB can tackle a wide range of appeals relating to things like zoning, official plans, sub-division planning, development charges and land expropriation.

Applications to change election ward boundaries also go before the OMB. The OMB is headquartered in Toronto, though hearings are often held in or near the municipality where disputes occur.

How did the OMB come to exist?

The OMB’s history dates back 114 years to 1897, when a board was formed “to supervise the then rapidly growing rail transportation system between and within municipalities,” according to the OMB’s official history.

In 1906, the board was given additional powers by the provincial legislature under the guidance of MPP John Hendrie, who was a minister without portfolio. Then called the Ontario Municipal and Railway Board, the independent tribunal assumed the power to regulate railway issues, such as train fares, and set standards for rail construction.

Additionally, the new tribunal was given the mandate to determine appeals in land assessment disputes that arose during railway construction.

The Ontario Municipal Railway Board was also granted the power to compel municipalities to allow construction of electric passenger lines under certain circumstances.

Finally, they also had the ability to regulate the safety of utilities.

The name was formally changed to The Ontario Municipal Board in 1932.

Why are these people in Toronto making decisions about municipalities around the province?

The OMB gets its power from a fairly long list of provincial laws. A short list of those laws taken from Your Guide to the Ontario Municipal Board: The Ontario Municipal Board Act, The Planning Act, The Municipal Act, Aggregate Resources Act, Development Charges Act, Expropriations Act, Consolidated Hearings Act, Environmental Assessment Act, Ontario Heritage Act.

The OMB reports to the Ministry of the Attorney General.

How do board members make decisions?

A hearing with the Ontario Municipal Board is similar to a regular court hearing. Parties in a dispute submit evidence, call witnesses and present their case.

Board members will consider the evidence and testimony, as well as all relevant laws and the “principles of good planning.” (According to OMB communications consultant Karen Kotzen, those principles depend on the evidence submitted to the board during a hearing.)

A full decision is usually rendered within 45 days of a hearing.

Are these decisions binding?

Not quite. According to the OMB website, parties to a dispute are expected to respect the decision. However, should a party decide to ignore an OMB decision, a certified copy of the decision can be obtained and brought to court.

What if someone disagrees with an OMB decision? What recourse is there?

Within 15 days of an OMB decision, an appeal can be filed to the Divisional Court of the Ontario Superior Court of Justice where it can be challenged under an “Error of Law” (that is, challenging a misunderstanding of law, powers or facts.)

If there was no misunderstanding, does that mean there’s nothing that can be done about an OMB decision?

Pretty much. In an extreme circumstance, the provincial legislature could theoretically intervene, but that would require tabling legislation.

In 2008, though, North York Community Council, a City of Toronto committee, voted to rename a street “OMB Folly Lane,” to protest the board’s approval of a condo tower the councillors had previously denied. Not that it stopped the condos from being built. And, well, the name change decision was eventually reversed.

So how does one become a board member, anyway?

Apply online. Application forms are available from the Ontario Public Appointment Secretariat website.

The job requirements include: problem-solving and analytical skills, writing and communication skills, and the ability to resolve disputes.

Those requirements sound a little subjective, and according to the Public Appointment Secretariat, specific requirements aren’t listed as they change over time. Most current members come from legal and/or municipal planning backgrounds.

The appointments are formally made through an Order-In-Council, and last three years.

It’s a full-time job paid at Senior Management Group levels, which range $98,000-$188,950.

Which other OMB decisions have had an effect on Ottawa?

One of the last times the OMB made big headlines in the Ottawa area was in 2009, when the board allowed Minto Group Inc. to go ahead with a 1,400 home subdivision in the former township of Manotick— a subdivision that was heavily opposed by both Manotick residents and Ottawa’s city council.

Going back further to 1992, the OMB became involved in the construction of The Palladium—now Scotiabank Place. The area now occupied by the arena was designated farmland, and while then City of Kanata’s council approved the change in zoning, the provincial government did not and some local residents were firmly against the move.

Hearings at the OMB ultimately led to approval of the zoning change, with the condition that the arena be smaller than previously planned and that the owners pay for a necessary Highway 417 off-ramp.

The earliest OMRB decisions in Ottawa approved and ordered the annexations of several areas including Ottawa East, a portion of the Township of Nepean and the Village of Hintonburg in December of 1907.