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Making a case for local planning autonomy

As Woolwich debates the latest unpopular bid for yet another gravel pit, the Town of Halton Hills has a solution: put control of such planning issues in the hands of local councils, rather than the province.

Specifically, it calls for the elimination of the Local Planning Appeal Tribunal (LPAT), what was formerly the Ontario Municipal Board.

The town’s motion from earlier this month – included in this week’s Woolwich council agenda for endorsement – addresses the issue of housing affordability by noting municipalities spend millions of dollars on legal appeals at hearings before LPAT, which has the power to override municipal decisions. The town argues that arrangement takes local planning decision-making out of the hands of democratically elected councils and puts it into the hands of a non-elected, unaccountable tribunal.

Its motion calling for an end to LPAT says the process slows delivery and adds costs to housing supply via expensive and drawn out tribunal hearings.

The same is true of a host of other planning issues in the wishes of local people are overridden by an unaccountable provincial body.

That’s certainly true of gravel pits, where there are few if any reasons to approve applications, except for the fear of an expensive legal battle in which LPAT or the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry simply overturns the democratic process. Woolwich councillors have certainly voiced concerns about voting ‘no’ only to face hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal expenses before the unwanted project goes ahead anyway.

The process is lengthy and costly, with the concerns of municipalities often swept aside by the MNRF and LPAT. The municipality does all the work, but gets little for its efforts aside from a great deal of political grief, as we’ve seen in debates here previously.

To make matters worse, municipalities receive only a pittance in revenues from gravel operations. The cost-benefit analysis alone is reason enough to deny all applications. Aside from the process itself, gravel pits bring increased truck traffic that put residents at risk, create more wear-and-tear on the roads, bring environmental problems such as dust and noise, and threaten to despoil prime agricultural land and the accompanying vistas.

In the case of gravel pits and other unpopular developments, the argument is made that the process is necessary to prevent NIMBYism: if every decision sided with the public, nothing would ever get done, including some things that are necessary.

Eliminating the LPAT and the appeal process makes sense in most cases, as its typically corporate interests looking to override the public interest. There are times, however, when the public uses the appeal process to challenge sometimes poor decisions by municipal councils. The two situations must be differentiated.

There is also good cause for ensuring planning power remains with the municipality – only when acting in the public interest, which isn’t a given – when it comes to dealing with the region, for instance. That, too, has been a longstanding concern in the township, which has seen the regional government take a heavy-handed approach in grabbing power through official plan reviews.

Commenting on regional official plan (ROP) reviews in the past, Woolwich has requested more planning control be put in its hands. The rationale is that local governments, not the detached regional level, are better placed to decide what’s right for their citizens. The priorities set by Woolwich should come first, not be constrained unduly by centralized power at the largely unaccountable upper tier, which isn’t much more accountable to the public than are provincial government agencies.

If the idea is to get planning closer to the people it affects, doing away with LPAT is a good first step.

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