Editorial: Banning fast-food chains: at least towns have a say

Local politicians in Tofino, B.C., raised eyebrows recently when they passed a motion directing municipal staff to prepare a report on banning new fast-food franchises and chain restaurants.

The idea is to preserve the popular Vancouver Island surf town’s image by limiting the presence of corporate eateries beyond those already there. Local councillors feel they have the right to do so under its official plan, which emphasizes developments that reflect Tofino’s character.

Of course, there are concerns about whether such a move would survive a court challenge. But it’s good to see a municipality raising an important issue about the rights of town councils to determine their own destiny and shape their communities in a way they feel is right over the objections of corporate interests.

It’s a question that has come up in Ontario in recent years with politicians in places like Owen Sound and Guelph saying no to Wal-Mart.

In Guelph, community and local council opposition to the store prompted a long battle that ended with a compromise allowing Wal-Mart to build there in exchange for mitigating measures that protected a neighbouring Jesuit retreat.

More recently, Owen Sound councillors blocked the retailer’s bid to expand its presence with a so-called Supercentre based on the need to maintain the viability of the downtown, in particular by limiting the impact on an existing grocery store there. In that case, the city’s official plan emphasizing downtown preservation bolstered its arguments.

Fortunately, changes to Ontario’s Planning Act now give greater weight to municipal decisions, a fact that makes it harder for companies to challenge them before the Ontario Municipal Board. That’s a good thing because communities should have substantial control over how they develop.

Already, we’ve seen a similar story play out in Toronto, where the OMB turned down a bid by SmartCentres to build a big-box retail complex in the Leslieville neighbourhood. The city had argued that allowing the development would disrupt its plans to spur the growth of film and media jobs in the area.

It’s good, then, that Ontario law has now provided for a better balance between community and business interests. The Tofino case, meanwhile, is an interesting one. Whether a ban will pass legal muster depends on how the municipality frames it. An outright prohibition, for example, might fail the test.

Alternatives include excluding chain restaurants from particularly sensitive areas of the community that merit preservation rather than proscribing them altogether. At the same time, businesses could at least have the chance to demonstrate that they could build their developments in a way that adheres to Tofino’s character.

The case, therefore, could shape up as an important legal development if Tofino comes down heavily on chain restaurants. In the meantime, it’s positive that in Ontario at least, towns and cities now have more power to determine their future.
- Glenn Kauth

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