After a 13-year battle, the Ontario Municipal Board (OMB) has finally sided with developers on the issue of making more land available for suburban growth. Over a decade ago, Waterloo Regional Council had passed policies intended to curb suburban sprawl. However, the original 85 hectares (roughly 210 acres) of allotted land for suburban development has now been extended to 255 hectares (630 acres); this is nearly five times the Region’s recommendations. For environmentalists, green design advocates, urbanists, and planners in the area, the decision marks a major setback to the progressive urban policies that were finally on the table.
After over three decades of suburban housing booms in the Region of Waterloo, sprawl has become a major concern. Urban sprawl has been making service delivery more expensive overall, while exploiting areas of increasing provincial interest: Ontario’s rich farmland and environmentally-sensitive areas. For these reasons, Waterloo’s long-term Official Plan (OP) through 2031 is focusing on intensification policies. These policies stipulated both 40% intensification and hard urban borders, requiring developers to focus on housing projects that were taller (higher-density) and nearly exclusively within city limits.
These have not been the most favorable conditions for developers, who often do business by selling large tracts of low-density suburban homes built on cheap land. In 2003, many developers took their case to the OMB.
In Ontario, parties with land-use grievances can take their cases to the Ontario Municipal Board, a court-like decision making panel comprised of senior professional planners. This is somewhat unusual in North America, as most places have strong municipal governments with limited interference from larger bodies concerning land-use. In Ontario, municipal governments are constitutionally creatures of the Province, and therefore can be challenged directly by the Ontario government. As a result, planning in Ontario can be more centralized.
The centralization of planning in Ontario is at times its greatest asset, and at others, its biggest downfall. An example of well-conceived centralized planning power is the 2005 decision to strengthen the impact of the Provincial Policy Statement (PPS) by requiring municipalities to incorporate the PPS into their long-term planning. This meant Ontario municipalities started the first decade of the new millennium with proactive policies that encouraged intensification, saved farmland, and protected environmentally sensitive areas.
The downside to planning centralization in Ontario was demonstrated at the OMB this week, with weakening of policies supporting Waterloo Region’s hard urban borders. The consequence of this decision is the opening of even more of Waterloo’s land for suburban development. While municipal governments have rights to determine land-use planning, in Ontario the centralized OMB has the final say on all these decisions. The power of the OMB gives it the opportunity to support progressive planning policies. However, for several decades the Board has often sided with developers, pushing smart-growth (smart-city) oriented policies further to the side.
The OMB decision this week is not as ill-advised as some had initially thought. There are still substantial efforts to preserve environmentally-sensitive areas and farmland. However, it is undoubtable that in Waterloo Region, fostering denser smart-cities has just gotten a lot tougher.
Is planning land-development focused where you live? Or do progressive planning policies have greater agency? Please share your thoughts and your city's stories in the comments area below.
Credits: Images by Auditiyo Das Gupta. Data linked to sources.