Council Update: Convention Centre, Code of Conduct, Secondary Suites, Chickens

Halifax Convention Centre. Photo: Shadow Security

A bit behind over the last few month on my council blogging. Catching up in this two-for-one that covers the April 10th and March 27th meetings.

Convention Centre: Probably the biggest item in terms of public interest on April 10’s meeting was the Convention Centre. HRM and the Province are partner’s in the Convention Centre, with each agreeing to pay for 50% of the operating costs (federal contribution was a one-time lump sum towards construction). HRM’s agreement is with the Province and the Province has the agreement with the building’s owner. HRM’s original plan to pay its share of the ongoing costs was to take the tax revenue collected from the whole Nova Centre complex and put it in a reserve fund. Over a ten year period, the revenue raised in the reserve would cover the Convention Centre’s costs, or at least that was the idea. The problem is that expenses are higher than projected while tax revenue is less. The combination means that the reserve account is no longer projected to balance. There is more coming out than going in.

The miss in tax revenue is due to the HRM’s high office vacancy rate. Vacant space doesn’t produce any rent and a high vacancy rate puts downward pressure on the rent in occupied spaces as landlords compete for tenants. Since commercial buildings are valued based on how much money they generate, the result is lower assessments, and less revenue coming into HRM. If past real estate cycles are any indication, the commercial market will likely take at least a few years to absorb the excess space. A quick turnaround is unlikely and HRM has to figure out a Plan B for the Convention Centre reserve. Staff will return in the future with a revised plan for Council to consider.

In terms of options, HRM doesn’t have many. The MOU with the Province commits HRM to paying half the cost for 25 years. There is no getting out of the lease or the operating costs. There is a clause in the MOU, however, that contemplates the current situation in which property tax revenue is less than expected. Starting in 2020, HRM can opt to defer its share of the bill that exceeds the property tax revenue collected up to a maximum of 25% of the total municipal cost. The Province will charge HRM interest though on the deferred bill so there is a cost to consider. It’s an option that I have asked staff to evaluate when they return with the revised report so that Council can weigh the pros and cons.

I also floated the idea of approaching the Province to see if there is any ability to renegotiate the MOU. We may be partners in the Centre, but right now only one partner’s revenue is being negatively affected. If delegate counts remain high, the Province’s revenue from the HST will be fine. It’s might turn out that it’s primarily HRM’s revenues that are less than expected. I doubt the Province will be amendable to renegotiating the MOU, but there is no harm in asking.

More than likely, HRM will simply have to top up the Convention Centre Reserve with other tax revenue each year or dedicate some other source of funds. It’s always unfortunate when costs are more than expected. At the same time though, putting the Convention Centre tax revenue into a reserve account was always a bit of a paper exercise. It’s not like the Convention Centre can stand alone separate from other municipal services that it needs to function like police, fire, transit etc. At the end of the day, it’s all tax revenue. It would have been cleaner for Council to have just identified the Convention Centre as an expense rather than fixating on whether the revenues collected in a very narrow way offset its costs. More to come on this in the future as Council tries to identify how to right the reserve account.

Secondary Suites: Council opted to initiate a municipal wide process to look at the loosening the rules around secondary suites (basement or granny apartment, maybe laneway housing). This initiative has come out of the Housing and Homelessness Partnership, which hopes to see 500 secondary suites created each year. Secondary suites are desirable because they use existing services more efficiently, they typically accommodate growth without disrupting existing neighbourhoods, and they can often help with housing affordability (basement apartments tend to be cheap while the extra income can help homeowners pay the bills). HRM’s planning bylaws are fairly restrictive when it comes to secondary suites and haven’t kept up with best practices from elsewhere. Most of the plans in place in HRM date back to well before amalgamation and there is a real lack of consistency. As an example, Dartmouth’s R-1 zone doesn’t allow secondary suites, but Halifax’s does.

For Dartmouth and Peninsula Halifax, change was already coming through the Centre Plan, which aims to accommodate 14% of the Regional Centre’s growth in established residential areas. If we don’t allow for secondary suites than that target will be pretty much impossible to reach, which would mean growth would have to be accommodated somewhere’s else in some other form. So change was already coming to District 5, but now there will be a Region-wide component as well. Public consultation on the topic will occur in the future.

Photo: Mountain Express

Chickens: Besides the Convention Centre, the other topic I heard a lot about was Councillor’ Hendsbee’s motion for a staff report on backyard chickens. There seems to be fair bit of interest in this question so I will provide some background on what the current rules are. Like the situation with secondary suites, whether chickens are allowed depends on the plan in place for each area. Since almost all of the plans in effect in HRM predate amalgamation, there is a great deal of inconsistency. Hendsbee motion was to ask staff to look at chickens from a Regional perspective.

Backyard chickens isn’t a new discussion point in HRM. You might recall the issue coming up a few years ago on the Peninsula. The zoning in Halifax’s residential areas provides a narrow list of permitted uses and, as is usually the case with zoning, anything not listed isn’t allowed. The Halifax Plan is silent on chickens so staff’s initial interpretation in 2008 was that chickens weren’t allowed on the Peninsula. After looking at the issue in more detail though, staff revisited their interpretation and decided in 2013 that a small flock of hens is an accessory use. An accessory use is a minor activity that’s related to the main land use. Other examples in a residential area would be keeping a dog or having a backyard garden. They’re activities that don’t need to be explicitly listed to be allowed. There is still some ambiguity around chickens on the Peninsula though since the point at which a few hens stops being an accessory use and becomes a land-use hasn’t been tested.

In Dartmouth, the accessory use interpretation doesn’t apply because both the Downtown Dartmouth and the Dartmouth plans explicitly prohibit keeping fowl. The Dartmouth plans aren’t silent on the issue like on the Halifax side, they ban chickens in most zones (the list of prohibited zones for fowl in Dartmouth doesn’t include park so the Sullivan’s Pond Geese get a pass).

HRM is currently working to harmonize the zoning in the whole urban core, which includes Dartmouth inside the Circumferential and Peninsula Halifax. The new Centre Plan made a commitment to allow chickens in residential areas. Consultation for the Centre Plan’s growth areas is currently underway and it’s expected that consultation for the established residential areas (Package B) will start either this fall or next year. Hendsbee’s motion really doesn’t affect District 5 since we were already heading for a chicken discussion as part of the Centre Plan. What Hendsbee’s motion does is it potentially avoids creating new arbitrary lines. If the Centre Plan results in chickens being permitted in Dartmouth, the new arbitrary line would be the Circumferential Highway. Chickens would be permitted in Penhorn but not in Woodlawn. Hendsbee’s motion seeks to avoid that and stop us from answering the age-old question of “why did the chicken cross the road?” with “because it was a legal land-use on the other side.” Hendsbee’s motion for a staff report passed.

Code of Conduct: Second time was the charm for Councillor Mancini’s push to reform the Councillor Code of Conduct. Council opted to request staff reports on having councillors sign off on the Code of Conduct annually and to hire an external consultant to review complaints. The Code of Conduct is something I’m lukewarm on. I get the impulse to set expectations, but at the same time, being an elected official is a job like no other. We’re not really employees in a conventional sense where there is someone in charge and a whole process of progressive discipline to draw upon. There are no political parties at City Hall, which I think is generally a strength, but the lack of a party structure also means that there is no party discipline to control conduct. Councillors are ultimately responsible to their residents and anything outside of that has to be considered very carefully.

I voted against Councillor Mancini’s motions on the Code of Conduct when he first brought them to Council. It wasn’t something I thought was needed. Let’s just say that intervening events have changed my outlook on that. I was happy to correct that mistake and support Councillor Mancini this time around. In particular, having an outside party to review complaints to determine if there is merit in Council looking into the matter would be helpful. Complaints that are judged to have merit would still have to go to Council, but it would insert an outside perspective and, potentially, give the people making the complaints a little bit more confidence in the process. Complaints are likely going to be a regular part of City Hall from now, not because this Council is worse than those that have come before, but because the process of making complaints is becoming increasingly more well-known. More to come on this issue when staff return with their report.

Other April 10:

  • Rescinded a past motion of Council asking staff to look at allowing staging for the Harbour Hopper on Lower Water Street because staff have already worked out a solution.
  • Banned segways from the ferry due to the limited space and safety concerns.
  • Approved the sale of the old fire hall in Herring Cove to the Herring Cove Community Association who will run it as a community centre.
  • Set the area rate for Sheet Harbour to pay for the community’s sidewalk (rural tax rate doesn’t include sidewalks so Sheet Harbour has to pay for it as a special area rate).
  • Authorized staff to complete regular debt financing for the coming year’s capital projects
  • Set a date to consider the sale of the Khyber to the 1588 Barrington Society who plan to restore the building as an arts hub.
  • Added the Chain of Lakes Trail to the Rum Runners Trail
  • Increased the size of the low-income bus pass program from 1,000 to 2,000. I added an amendment to have staff include the length of the low-income bus pass program waiting list as one of transit’s key performance measures so that Council will be able to keep an eye on it.
  • Directed staff to proceed with updates to the Traffic Control Practices and Warrants (the guide for engineers) so that it can reflect the changing priorities set out in the Integrated Mobility Plan.
  • Set a December 31, 2018 deadline to wrap up the Barrington Street Conservation District incentive program.
  • Made appointments to the Police Commission and Western Commons Advisory Committee.
  • Dealt with a variety of property matters including the Hartlen Road extension, sale of surplus property on Chebucto Road and an industrial lot buyback.

Other March 27:

  • Requested staff reports on the municipality providing capital grants to Hospice Halifax and the YMCA. Both will be back before Council for a decision at some future date.
  • Amended the Halifax Municipal Planning Strategy to allow the expansion of the municipal compost facility in Ragged Lake.
  • Approved changes to HRM’s process for surplus properties to create two options for properties with community interest (directed sale or a call for submissions)
  • Adopted changes to the User Charges By-law to allow refugees to ride for free
  • Set the policy for commemorating conflicts on the Grand Parade Cenotaph (new dates and wars on the back). Poignant that when it was unveiled after World War One they didn’t really leave space for much else. The hope was, sadly, that the Great War would be the last.
  • Appointed two new building officials
  • Discharged a bizarre restrictive covenant imposed on 90 Sunnybrae Avenue by the former City of Halifax that prevented the owner from renting out the basement apartment to anyone except their immediate family
  • Requested staff look into purchasing a small section of land in East Preston
  • Awarded a tender for the ice slab replacement of Scotia 1 in Cole Harbour Place
  • Initiated a capital cost study for the Port Wallace development and turned down a request by the developer (Armco) to start developing a small portion of the property now (it was actually a tie vote)
  • Opted not to proceed with rezoning the Conrod Quarry Lands in Waverley outside of the Port Wallace planning process that is currently underway.


  1. I am very concerned about the serious shortfall in Convention Centre revenue and the resulting payments HRM will have to make. While it is obvious minor discrepancies are to be expected, those shown in your chart are unacceptable. My sense is that we are owed an explanation as to how this occurred.

    • It is messy. The explanation on one hand is very simple: tax revenue is less than projected. The question for a future audit, if HRM does one, would be why were the projections so far off. I don’t have an answer for that. My sense is that when the projections were done back around 2010, the Downtown vacancy rate was very low, so low that it was actually generating new office construction (TD Building expansion and Waterside Centre). The market since has as done a complete 180 due to both new supply and because the average space needed per office workers has really started to decline. Should the dramatic change in the commercial market have been anticipated? Maybe. I expect that this won’t be the last we hear of this one.

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