Council Update: A virtual meeting for non-Covid stuff

Agenda April 2

Council meetings haven’t been exempt from Covid-19 disruptions. With 17 of us, plus the staff needed to hold a meeting, it’s not possible to meet in person right now due to the need for physical distance. As part of the Provincial State of Emergency, the Minister of Municipal Affairs has authorized municipal councils in Nova Scotia to hold online meetings. HRM held its first of four scheduled virtual meetings on Thursday.

I’m pleased to say that the technology worked surprisingly well. HRM was able to stream the meeting live, which held up even when the power went off twice at City Hall, and none of the 17 of us messed up with live mics or cameras. All of this is good because virtual meetings will be our new normal for Council business for at least the next month, likely longer.

For the most part, the meeting wasn’t focused on Covid-19. Council did give notice of motion to enact changes to defer the due date for property taxes from April 30 to June 1 (see my latest covid-19 update here) to buy time while municipalities and the Province sort out what an aid program will look like. Other than that though, the agenda was routine business. It has been an intense couple of weeks for everyone and I found it nice to discuss and argue regular City Hall business with colleagues for a few hours. A brief return to normal work life. Here’s what was decided.

Recently built Nova Bus for New York City

Bus Tender:
Probably the most significant item in terms of public interest was the tender for up to 150 new transit buses. Buying new buses wouldn’t normally be controversial, but with the need to address climate change, people have rightly questioned why HRM is buying more diesel buses rather than electric. The answer is the municipality isn’t ready to run electric yet.

This isn’t a procurement issue. It’s not that some imagined short-sighted bureaucrat doesn’t want to pay the upfront cost of electric. The problem is, HRM doesn’t have the infrastructure in place at the transit garages to operate an electric fleet. We can buy the buses, the problem is we can’t run them.

To run an electric fleet, HRM needs charging infrastructure and maintenance facilities, and we need to have a plan in place for what electric technology adoption looks like. Some of the big cities that drive manufacturing, such as New York (nearly 6,000 total buses compared to HRM’s 345), are just getting serious about electric. HRM is too. This year HRM is establishing a dedicated project office to plan transit’s transition to electric. HRM also has a capital project in this year’s 2020/2021 budget at Ragged Lake that, when complete, will allow electric buses to operate out of that Garage. The situation at the Burnside Transit Garage is more complicated. HRM already has issues with Burnside being old and not large enough to accommodate the bus fleet that’s based there. Estimates on replacing Burnside indicate a project cost in excess of $100 million. Hopefully HRM will be able to tap into Provincial and Federal infrastructure dollars as Burnside’s condition is a significant impediment to both transit operations and making the switch to electric.

But wait, couldn’t HRM just delay buying new buses? Why invest in diesel now? The estimate from HRM is that the municipality will be ready for our first electric buses in two years. Not buying any buses for the next two years means that HRM would try to keep our oldest, most unreliable, and highest polluting buses on the road (no filters on the old models). HRM aims to replace buses at the 15 year mark and we already have buses on the road that are in their 17th year of service. We can’t just not replace existing buses that are at the end of their service life.

The other reason why we can’t wait for electric is doing so would delay implementation of the Moving Forward Together Plan. The Moving Forward Plan commits HRM to devote more resources to high-ridership areas where transit can make a difference in getting cars off the road. The Plan has been successful so far, achieving double digit ridership growth in the places where it has been implemented. Each phase has required new buses to improve frequency. An electric bus is better than a diesel bus, but we can’t lose sight of the fact that the real enemy here is the single-occupant vehicle. The Moving Forward Plan is getting cars off the road and that’s a desirable outcome. Delaying Moving Forward to avoid buying diesel doesn’t make sense. Replacing single-occupant car trips with a bus, even a diesel one, is still a win.

Council’s real choice on this issue wasn’t diesel or electric because electric isn’t possible in the here and now. Our choice was buy diesel or nothing, and nothing would risk transit’s reliabilty and delay Moving Forward, leaving more single-occupant vehicles on the road. Electric is coming. If all goes well, I’m hopeful that the 85 diesel buses that HRM requires over the next two years will be the last diesel buses that we buy, and that the excess capacity included in the tender (the “up to 150”) will not be required.

Replacement BusesMoving Forward Buses
*The hope is that 2022 is when electric can make its debut, which means there is a question mark on what happens with the planned 2022 bus purchase
Photo: lileez2003

Don’t Feed the Wildlife:
My “don’t feed the raccoons” motion has come back, and produced a bylaw change. Council approved first reading to amend the Animal Bylaw to prohibit feeding wildlife if its causing a nuisance. This change will give staff the ability to intervene in the more egregious situations where feeding is attracting wildlife in large numbers.

When I first made my motion, I was expecting a tougher stance given that there really isn’t any reason to feed wildlife at all. Animals that get fed lose their fear of humans, stray food can attract pests, and fed wildlife concentrate in greater numbers in one place than would otherwise be the case, leading to property damage and other problems. Importantly, wildlife can become a source for disease for both pets and people, which is particularly true for raccoons and pigeons. Wildlife don’t need us to feed them and the negatives from doing so are considerable.

Wildlife is a provincial responsibility though, and the Province discourages feeding, but doesn’t ban the practice. So in assessing what role HRM should have, staff recommended that HRM focus on where the municipal responsibility comes into play, the nuisance factor. Staff don’t support going further and banning feeding when the Province hasn’t opted to do so. The bylaw change is as follows:

Feeding of Wildlife
16A. No person shall feed or permit the feeding of wildlife that creates a nuisance to an owner or occupant of any property.

I’m okay with that response as it equips our staff to deal with the more extreme situations.

I expect second reading will take place on at our next virtual meeting on the 14th and then once the bylaw is signed, it will be law.

Ketch Harbour Concept Proposal

Ketch Harbour Development:
Council had a vigorous debate as to whether to initiate a Regional Plan amendment for a proposed senior’s focussed development just outside of Ketch Harbour. HRM staff recommended against initiating the request because the proposed density is much greater than the Regional Plan allows and because the developer has other options, but Council opted to overrule that advice and start a process for this property anyway. Myself, and Councillors Nicoll, Mancini, Mason, Smith, Cleary, and Outhit supported the staff recommendation, but we lost the vote 9-7.

As a planner, it was a fairly discouraging moment. The whole point of having a Regional Plan is to try and direct where we want density to go. We want development in the right spots and at the right scale so that it minimizes the cost of providing services, and impacts on the environment. There are massive potential cost implications to getting development wrong. A 2013 study by Stantec during the last Regional Plan review pegged the cost of different development scenarios in the billions over the Regional Plan’s 2031 time frame. Yes, that’s billions. Even just meeting the Regional Plan’s original 2006 growth goals would save HRM about $700 million.

Beyond the servicing cost for different development patterns, there are also the community impacts. We don’t do the people we serve any favours by putting them in places where there are no services. The difficulties in providing transit to Ivy Meadows in Beaver Bank comes to mind as a recent example where poor planning has put a facility with a vulnerable population in a remote location where it’s difficult to effectively provide transit and other services because the population densities are so low.

From an environmental perspective, particularly in an era of climate change, it’s really important to get development patterns right. A huge chunk of our pollution comes from transportation and the best transportation plan is a good land-use plan. We can’t continue to plow in the forests and create conditions for long-distance commuting in single-occupant cars. It’s not sustainable.

All of this doesn’t mean that there won’t be development in the rural areas or that a diversity of housing options isn’t needed in rural HRM. We definitely need towns and hubs in places like Musquodoboit Harbour, Sheet Harbour, etc. At our last Harbour East Community Council meeting, Council approved the adaptive reuse of an old commercial building right in the heart of Musquodoboit Harbour. The building will become apartments, providing rental housing in a format that otherwise doesn’t exist in Musquodoboit Harbour. That’s the sort of model we need to build up our rural towns and villages, not the introduction of suburban style cul-du-sacs in places where there are no services and the only option will be for people to drive, with the resulting costs being borne by everyone else. The developers of the Ketch Harbour lands have other options.

I’ll see what comes out of the process that Council has now initiated, but I will need to be convinced that messing with the Regional Plan to spot-zone for a specific project is a good idea.

Illegal dump in CBRM. Photo: Chronicle Herald

Illegal Dumping Fines:
Council directed staff to prepare amendments to the Solid Waste Bylaw to get tough on illegal dumping. The proposed amendments will reverse the onus when it comes to illegal dumping. Right now, it’s very hard to prove that someone dumped materials illegally, even if you find some sort of identification in the trash. You pretty much have to catch them in the act for a ticket to be issued. When someone can’t be identified, it unfortunately becomes the responsibility of the property owner to deal with it under the Dangerous and Unsightly Premises Bylaw, whether it’s their materials or not.

Cape Breton Regional Municipality recently changed their solid waste bylaw to reverse the onus to hold more people accountable for the trash they dump. What reversing the onus means is that if a bag of trash is found on the side of the road and there is something in it, like an addressed piece of mail, that clearly identifies the source, the burden of proof is now on the identified person to prove they didn’t dump it there. Leave something identifiable at a dumpsite and the assumption is it’s your trash. CBRM has been successful in prosecutions, charging six people so far under their revised bylaw. HRM is now looking to take CBRM’s success and duplicate it here. Amendments will return to Council in the future.


  • Received a presentation from the Halifax Partnership
  • Deferred a decision on amending the Sale Conditions between HRM and Lake City Woodworkers for property on Fernhill Drive to give Lake City time to review
  • Approved an encroachment with the Port Authority to allow them to install a truck counter at the Windsor Exchange
  • Approved an information sharing agreement with the Province for the upcoming 2020 municipal elections
  • Initiated a review of the Halifax Water dividend policy (the amount that Halifax Water pays HRM each year)
  • Provided a grant to the Mobile Food Market for the purchase of a permanent vehicle
  • Directed the CAO to promote and encourage flexible work arrangements in HRM (this report has been somewhat overtaken by events)
  • Gave first reading to plan amendments for a 12 storey mixed-use development on Joseph Howe Drive
  • Approved grants for events that took place earlier this year


  1. Sam: you state “This year HRM is establishing a dedicated project office to plan transit’s transition to electric.” A ‘project office to plan’ implies a decision has already been made. I’m reminded of that old saying: ‘Fools rush in where angels fear to tread’. Or something like that.

    Moving to an electric bus fleet involves complexity and expense. There are valid reasons to go slow, slower than the timeline you suggest.

    1. The technology is not yet mature.

    2. Expense; not small ‘e’, but big ‘E’. How many diesel buses can we buy for one electric bus? 1.5? 2? 3? And what exactly is the infrastructure cost delta between the current fleet and an electric fleet?

    3. Not all electric buses are created equal. It isn’t as simple as ‘electric good, diesel bad’. Knowing there are different types of electric bus technologies, choosing the right version is essential. Is Halifax planning to go the BEB or IMC ? Will we have to maintain a mixed electric-diesel fleet regardless? Has the matter been researched? Or, having decided, are we just jumping right to the implementation planning stage?

    Your update on the bus situation is appreciated. As is your enthusiasm and openness to new ideas and technology. However, further investigation is well-advised, taking into account analysis such as this by Alon Levy at CityLab:

    Let’s get the facts before moving forward with any electric procurement. At the very least, an 18-24 month trial evaluation of the electric bus concept in our city might be useful. And prudent.

    • Thanks Michael and your points are well taken and understood. Part of why the pilot project from earlier was shelved is the technology around bus range rendered what HRM was looking at obsolete. The technology is rapidly changing, but we’re pretty much at a point where it can work HRM’s operations because there is enough battery capacity to charge up overnight, and then drive for the day without having to do any charging until the overnight hours again. That simplifies things considerably. We’re not expecting a big cost difference between diesel and electric in terms of purchase price given the federal enthusiasm. The dollars are there. All of this is why we need a project office to plan out what electric looks like for HRM.

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