01/27/2014 12:22 EST | Updated 03/29/2014 05:59 EDT

Ontario's Natural Heritage Needs a Hero

It seems that every day I hear a story in which the Ontario Municipal Board (OMB) is the villain.

Whether it's a ruling that threatens our health and environment or one that ignores fair process and transparency, the OMB has figured out how to upset more people more of the time than any other agency out there.

A year ago the OMB sided with real estate developers and overturned Waterloo Region's official plan, which would have allowed less than 90 hectares of new building on open land, and authorized 1053 hectares for development instead. The decision makes it impossible for Waterloo to fulfill its commitments under the Places to Grow Act -- so the provincial government has joined the appeal against a decision of a body that it appoints!

The OMB website lists over 70 open or recently closed cases in Guelph region. Dealing with those cases has cost the region's taxpayers about $1.2 million in the last three years in addition to the salaries paid to OMB members from the public purse. Mayor Karen Farbridge says the OMB should be abolished. "It is not serving communities, and it is costing taxpayers too much money," she says.

Just the other day I was contacted by the Concerned Residents' Association of North Dumfries. CRAND is a local residents' group which is struggling to have its concerns about a proposed gravel pit heard by the OMB. The OMB is refusing to hear an expert witness that CRAND employed to testify about air quality issues. The OMB is breaking its own rules in this case.

The details are devilish, but the matter is not trivial. Expert witnesses cost tens of thousands of dollars. Everyone involved in the hearing has to hire lawyers to represent them. Lawyers are expensive, but it's not just their fees -- the process typically requires hundreds of thousands of dollars be spent on the production of and dissemination of legal documents. Not many citizen's groups have that kind of coin.

Clearly the cost of this system favours those with deep pockets. And those deep pockets do not belong to CRAND, which is led by a resident whose father has a lung disease that will be worsened by any increase in air pollution in the area.

Ontario needs a champion to protect the places we love and local communities against large-scale, destructive development projects. Let's overhaul the OMB to make it represent our best shared interests, and let's do it now.