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Why Official Plan is a problem

One of the mysteries of municipal government – and one of its most misunderstood functions – is the role of the municipality in land development matters.

Let’s see if I can shed some light on the issue in the 500 words I am invited to contribute to this month’s Leaside Life.

Begin with understanding that the entire matter is subject to provincial policy and statute law, just as Ontario municipalities themselves are creatures of the provincial government. The operative statute in land development matters is the Planning Act, and ultimate provincial control is manifested in the right of appeal to the Ontario Municipal Board (OMB), an appeal tribunal established under that act.

The Planning Act requires each municipality to maintain an Official Plan (OP) and a set of zoning bylaws. The OP sets out the broad vision for planning and development in general terms; the zoning bylaws backfill with the details.

Here’s where it gets complicated.

The OP is required to undergo regular review and be updated accordingly. Although the exercise is not taken lightly, the fact that it is written in general terms means that it is not an insurmountable challenge. So Official Plans get updated.

On the other hand, updating a set of bylaws – with all their complexity – is time consuming and expensive. So bylaws tend not to keep pace with Official Plans.

The result: a city in which the Official Plan peers far into the future and anticipates the needs of a community that is growing and is expected to evolve, but also with a set of bylaws that reflect a past that has long since disappeared into history. 

Typically, bylaws are updated only when a property owner decides to take on the cost of making it happen. What sort of property owner would do this? A property owner that wants to build something that the Official Plan invites it to, but which the zoning bylaw prohibits. We call these property owners developers.

A Toronto planner who moved here from New York expressed Toronto’s situation to me quite simply by explaining that Toronto, in effect, is unzoned. What he meant by that was that to a property developer Toronto’s bylaws are effectively irrelevant; it is the Official Plan that matters. Where the two are out of step with one another, it is the Official Plan that prevails and it is the zoning bylaw that gives way.

What if the municipality pushes back and refuses to grant the rezoning that the developer demands? The developer invokes the protection of the Planning Act provisions and takes its case to the OMB.