Tuesday, May 22, 2012

NIMBYs and the OMB, who's right?

NIMBYs (or Not In My Backyard) and the Ontario Municipal Board (OMB) are often topics of media attention and we are witness to the fights that take place in each of the communities in Toronto.

"Just build to the current zoning" says an angry resident. Or if the zoning is the opposite of the result you seek "1960s planning is bad planning". We are often amused by the banter on either side.

The recent firestorm created by an application for a 6-storey condominium apartment in "The Beach" recently got us thinking once again!

Contentious issues with the application were that it stepped back at the 4th storey instead of the 3rd, that it was 6-storeys (bringing shadows down on neighbouring properties), that the modern architecture was out of place in the 'village' context of The Beach, that traffic would be congested, that the area is a family neighbourhood and the introduction of young singles would interrupt that, among several other complaints.

Now some of these complaints were valid and some were not. Our thoughts: there are already 6-storey buildings in The Beach. In terms of shadows - is the expectation when you buy a home that the neighbourhood will never change? In addition, only 25 resident parking spaces will be added, and according to my discussions with the developer, the majority of purchasers were move-down empty-nesters from the area, many retired - doesn't sound like a lot of extra traffic in the morning or rowdy 20-somethings partying it up at night.

However, regardless of the arguments on either side, Urbanation would like to pose a question: in the planning process (including the work by the councillor and the OMB), should the goal be to minimize negative externalities to current residents, to maximize positive externalities to current and future residents, or a some combination of both?

By example, a couple residents will be hurt by new shadows on their property, noise from the construction site, and others will mourn the loss of the 'village' feel of their community and be forced to look at architecture that they perceive as "too modern", 25 more cars will be added to the area - these are a few of the negative externalities.

Positive externalities include - the owner of the property cashes in on the land sale, the developers make money (in theory!), the community adds a modern tower with more customizable retail space, a more green / energy efficient building is added to the area, local empty-nesters can "age in place" and move to a maintenance free condominium near their old home, a family looking for extra space can now buy their old home, and the additional folks in the neighbourhood can support some of the lagging existing retail space. Of course there are several more, including the jobs created by the construction of the building.

In the end, how does one balance these competing interests? Often times they cannot, and the case is brought before the OMB for a resolution. This quick resolution is what brought several Vancouver-based developers to Toronto instead of having a site tied up for years working on a compromise (an example of a negative externality is the public and private time and money spent on these compromises).

Just recently several councillors proposed having Toronto exempted from the jurisdiction of the OMB. These councillors are reacting to pressure from their constituents that are not happy with recent OMB results. At Urbanation, we tend to agree with comments made by American scholar Cass Sunstein in his assesment of similiar situations south of the border, that this is a poor set of priorities, that reflect a reaction to public pressures more than careful objective analysis.

He goes on to say that lawmakers and regulators may be overly responsive to the irrational concerns of citizens, both because of political sensitivity and because they are prone to the same cognitive biases as other citizens.

NIMBYs look to drum up attention (particularly fear) in local residents about "ghost cities", poor vertical communities like St. James town, out of place towers that threaten the lifeblood of the community - the more emotionally charged the message, the better [keeping in mind that the valid objections can often be overshadowed by the non-valid objections or the method of delivery].

Once a few people are "outraged", the emotional reaction becomes a media story, which grabs more attention and creates more worry and public arousal.

Mr Sunstein suggests that the United States should seek mechanisms that insulate decision makers from public pressures, letting the allocation of resources (negative externalities vs positive externalities) be determined by impartial experts who have a broad view of all risks, and of the knowhow available to reduce those risks.

Is that not exactly what we have in the OMB? Might be a good idea to keep it.

1 comment:

  1. Isn't the question whether or not the OMB is in fact composed of "impartial experts who have a broad view of all risks"? I think that's very much an open question, given the nature of the appointments process (political patronage). If I chose a different set of experts, I could get a very different outcome. What I think might be better is if the OMB was directly elected and accountable to the people, rather than the circuitous route in place at present. Not entirely devoid of problems either, though.