Independence of Land Use Planners Challenged

On February 28, 2018, Donnelly Law will be before the Public Service Grievance Board (the “Board”) arguing one of our most important cases involving the Greenbelt and Places to Grow. Specifically, we will be defending the independence of professional planners in government to speak truth to power, even when government doesn’t like their opinions regarding growth management and urban sprawl in southern Ontario. Here’s the background. Several weeks ago, Victor Doyle RPP MCIP, one of Ontario’s most experienced professional planners and an “architect of the Greenbelt”, begrudgingly left the provincial Ministry of Municipal Affairs.

This is a huge loss at a critical time given the release of the new Growth Plan and Greenbelt Plan, the preparation of documents supporting the Plans, municipal implementation of the Plans and the current initiative to Grow the Greenbelt. Mr. Doyle had been at the epicentre of provincial planning in the Greater Golden Horseshoe for almost thirty years, serving 9 provincial governments under all 3 political parties.

Why is he leaving? On June 5, 2017, Mr. Doyle was found to be in “conflict of interest” under the Public Service Ontario Act and re-assigned from arguably one of the most influential planning jobs in North America to a redundant research position investigating driverless cars. He was given an office on an empty floor, stripped of his staff and even denied access to the government computer data server.

Subsequently, Mr. Doyle filed a grievance with the Public Service Grievance Board (the “Board”) asking that the Board rescind the “conflict of interest” finding. Donnelly Law is asking to Board to withdraw this finding and recommend systemic changes so that planners are free to express their independent opinions (provided of course no confidential information is disclosed).

What was Mr. Doyle’s so-called “conflict”? On May 7, 2017 he disseminated publicly The Growth Plan and the Greenbelt Plan – Setting the Record Straight a paper refuting spurious claims by the development industry that Ontario was running out of developable land (greenfields) for ground related housing and that this shortage was the cause of dramatic increases in housing prices.

In fact, Mr. Doyle’s paper showed there were upwards of 125,000 ha (over 300,000 acres) of land approved for urban use and yet we have only used about 20% of it by the end of 2016. This represents an over-supply of land to accommodate growth to 2041. David Crombie called the Paper an excellent piece of “ground-truthing”; the Neptis Foundation wrote, “Bravo – somebody had to do it.”

Industry spokespeople in the media were using the claims of a land supply shortage as the pretext for asking the Government to compromise its strategic Growth Plan, and possibly the Greenbelt.

The Ministry, in its legal arguments against Mr. Doyle, also cite an interview Mr. Doyle gave to Jeff Gray of the Globe and Mail as a source of the conflict of interest, which Mr. Doyle believes is the true source of the disciplinary action against him.

This is odd, as his Job Description lists as a primary responsibility “Frequent contact with stakeholders, including: … the general public and the media… to explain, resolve or exchange information regarding land use planning.”

The Ministry isn’t even alleging the paper’s dissemination is a true conflict i.e. there is no allegation of an outside business relationship.

Instead, the Ministry is alleging he broke arbitrary rules designed to stifle his professional opinion critical of the development industry’s misuse of greenfield land supply statistics.

This is the second time Mr. Doyle was found in conflict of interest – the first being in 2010 when he shared his professional views on the ill-conceived Simcoe Strategy – which were also subject to media coverage.

As a result of the 2010 finding, he was removed from his position of Manager of Community Planning – Central Ontario where he oversaw planning applications for most of the Greater Golden Horseshoe including reviews of numerous, large-scale developments involving tens of thousands of acres in Simcoe County, which were subsequently approved for development. The proposals were opposed by Environmental Defence, Campaign Lake Simcoe, Ontario Nature, and other environmental organizations[note]Continuing to Promote Sprawl in Simcoe County Campaign: Lake Simcoe’s Response to the Proposed Simcoe Amendment to the Growth Plan, Environmental Defence et al, 10 January 2014. [note][/note]. Simcoe has been referred to as the "Wild West" of development in Ontario.[note]“The county is the "Wild West" of development in Ontario, says Rick Smith, executive director of Toronto-based Environmental Defence.” Phinjo Gombu, Sprawl Hits Above the Belt, The Toronto Star, 10 March 2007.[/note]

It is the opinion of Mr. Tony Usher, Past-President of the Ontario Professional Planners Institute (“OPPI”), that Mr. Doyle’s release of the paper was not a conflict of interest, and more importantly, Mr. Doyle had an ethical duty as a professional planner to speak freely and openly with the public and media about critical decisions affecting land use planning, environmental protection, transit, housing and urban sprawl. Mr. Usher is being called as an expert witness.

We all support the fight to preserve the independence of scientists in the federal government and their right to speak freely. On Wednesday February 28, 2018, we will have a hearing on whether the planners that control environmental protection, farmland preservation and urban growth expansions in Ontario are truly independent from the influence of bureaucrats, politicians and industry. The conflict of interest finding against Mr. Doyle has already had a “chilling effect” on provincial planners.

A Board decision is expected sometime this Spring.

Skeleton Lake Cottagers Organization

Friends of Grand Trunk Ravine Inc.