Council Update: Plastic Bags, Willow Tree, Stormwater Management, and more

Plastic Bags: The item that captured the headlines on Tuesday’s agenda was the report on curtailing the use of plastic shopping bags. The original recommendation was for HRM to ask for a Province-wide approach while also consulting the retail industry and experts on ways to reduce or eliminate plastic usage. When it hit Council though, thanks to some strong advocacy from Councillor Mancini, the discussion quickly became focused on whether HRM should ban plastic bags like Montreal and Victoria have done (for an extensive list of what the rest of the world is doing about plastic bags see this).

The big change around the plastic bag issue is China’s recent decision to prohibit the importation of recycled film plastics. Since China bought the bulk of the world’s recycled plastics, this has overturned the global market leaving HRM and others without a buyer. It’s not a small problem. HRM’s report indicates that Nova Scotia goes through 300 to 500 million plastic bags every year. Of that total, it’s estimated that 40% are used in HRM, meaning our little municipality of 400,000 people uses somewhere between 125 to 208 million plastic bags. That’s a lot of plastic! Far more bags than we could ever reuse to pickup dog poop or reuse for garbage bags.

Many of the bags in HRM that aren’t resued for household tasks end up being recycled, which is better than having them end up in the landfill. When it comes to waste though, the best of the three Rs is, and always will be, Reduce. Even if China ends up reopening its borders to the world’s plastics, we would still be better off environmentally to reduce how many we use. There are competing claims as to whether paper bags are really better because of the trees, water and energy that is used in manufacturing paper. For me though the clincher is that plastic isn’t biodegradable. A stray paper bag decomposes, but each piece of plastic that we make will be with us for 1,000s of years. There is truly horrifying research coming out about the growing plastic contamination in the world’s oceans. Some estimates of the scale of the problem indicate that by the 2050s there will be more plastic in the sea than fish. All those plastic particles work their way up the food chain eventually making their way onto our plates.

Staff will return to Council in the future with a report which, given the discussion, will consider a potential ban. One of the challenges on this issue is the Charter gives HRM the power to ban plastic bags, but not to impose a levy. In Victoria, where the municipal government isn’t as encumbered, the City opted last week to impose a ban on plastics and a levy on paper bags. The goal of that dual approach is to direct people to reusable bags rather than allowing single-use paper bags to simply replace single-use plastic ones. It’s something that both HRM and the Province are going to need to look at. It takes time to study and consult so this issue will return to Council in about a year.

The Willow Tree proposal

Willow Tree: Two of the other big issues at Council concerned potential developments, including the Willow Tree proposal. The question for Council and members of the public who attende the public hearing was whether to allow a 20 storey building at the corner of Quinpool and Robie. It was a strange public hearing in that the developer, Armco, was actually asking Council to vote no so that they can ask for 25 instead. Armco indicated that they would be willing to provide some affordable housing in exchange for the extra height. After a long hearing and debate, Council voted to ask for a supplemental staff report on having Armco provide affordable housing and other public benefits. The report will return to Council in March. So no decision yet.

I spoke in the debate concerning arguments around traffic, the developer’s economics, the centre plan, and the potential exchange of height for additional public benefits. We’ve been advised by legal that since Council hasn’t rendered a verdict, we should avoid commenting on the matter. I have received a few emails though asking for my take on it so I thought the best thing to do would be to include the clip of my “on the record” four minutes. You can watch it below.

The Eight Limbo Developments: The other development piece that Council had to consider was whether to initiate eight planning amendments that have been in a sort of limbo for the last several months. These are the eight projects that staff recommended against pursuing back in August because they didn’t align with the direction identified in the Centre Plan. The reason they’ve been in limbo is Council was essentially split right down the middle in August and both motions to reject them and to initiate them failed. For a detailed account of that unusual meeting you can read my blog from August here.

The key point for me is that planning amendments are optional and the advice from staff has been that Council shouldn’t pursue projects that are far outside what the Centre Plan envisions. The Centre Plan’s direction has been adopted in principle, but some of my colleagues feel that Council shouldn’t consider the Centre Plan at all until it is fully adopted. I think ignoring the Centre Plan entirely is an overly rigid perspective that ignores the general consensus that seems to be emerging. It would be more worrisome to me to pretend the Centre Plan and all of the feedback that has been provided by residents doesn’t exist than to be using it as a background study of sorts to guide how staff and Council approaches current applications.

This was the second kick at the can for these eight project and over the last few months, three of the developers have modified their proposals to now get positive staff recommendations. Council voted to initiate those three (two on Quinpool Road and one on Wellington Street), which will now proceed through the usual process of public information meeting and public hearing. The other five that haven’t been adjusted enough to generate a positive recommendation from staff will continue to be worked and will return to Council in the future.

Stormwater. Photo: Jimmy Benson

Integrated Stormwater Management Policy: Council set the direction for the creation of a Stormwater Management Policy. The policy would be a shared project between HRM and Halifax Water. The seven priorities for the policy are:

  1. Capital Investment
  2. Ownership and maintenance of the stormwater system
  3. Land development
  4. Drainage from private property
  5. Wetlands
  6. Combined sewers
  7. Flood design standards

In District 5, I know of several places where stormwater is an issue, the most damaging of which is probably Hazelhurst where homeowners have been flooded a few times during big storms. There needs to be further work done to deal with that issue since it’s the combined storm and sewer infrastructure that is at the heart of the problem.

The approach to managing stormwater has changed significantly with time. Past practice was to get water into pipes as quickly as possible, but pipes only have so much capacity. Best practices today focus on slowing down the movement of water so that the land can absorb it and so that it can be released gradually. The other advantage of slowing down the flow of water is that pollution and silt isn’t as readily transferred from developed areas into the environment. There are several pipes along Lake Banook that take water directly from the Prince Albert Road and the Parclo straight into the lake. Hopefully the policy will set the groundwork for future projects to better manage stormwater. We’ll have to wait and see what comes back.

The new gym in Dartmouth South Academy

Score Clock Dartmouth South Academy: Also on the agenda was a local Dartmouth item: a score clock for the new Dartmouth South Academy School in Southdale. The Province and Halifax Regional School Board have done a fantastic job with the new school, but a score clock for the gym isn’t standard equipment. It’s not something the Province or School Board pays for. Schools aren’t just used for education, they also serve as recreation and community centres. HRM and the School Board recognize this reality and have an agreement on access to facilitate community use. Dartmouth South Academy is slated to be one of the hubs for the Dartmouth Lakers Basketball Association. The Lakers have 38 teams with over 400 players from all across Dartmouth. The Lakers approached Dartmouth’s Councillors about splitting the cost of a score clock for the gym 50/50. Karstin, Mancini and I agreed to contribute half the $15,000 cost from district capital funds ($2,500 each), but we needed a Council override of the district capital policy because the policy doesn’t allow contributions for improvements inside school buildings. District capital can be used outside on the playground, but not inside in the gym, even though both are serving a recreational purpose. It’s a bit arbitrary. I’m pleased that Council agreed to the override so that funding for the score clock can go ahead, allowing the gym at Dartmouth South Academy to be a bit more useful to the wider community.


  • Approved a Sea King fly past by the Dockyard on January 26 (inclement weather January 29) to mark the end of Sea King operations on the East Coast.
  •  Adopted the Off-Leash Dog Administrative Order
  • Voted to enter into a cost-sharing agreement with Halifax Water to allow the installation of bike lanes in Fall River as part of the water extension.
  • Appointed two new heritage officers
  • Received an update on HRM’s activities related to indigenous community
  • Re-established the Youth Advisory Committee
  • Requested a staff report on HRM potentially funding the CeaseFire program
  • Renewed the contract with Miller Waste for the Burnside Composting Facility (contract runs from April 1, 2014 to March 31, 2019).
  • Entered into a Shared Services and Facilities Agreement with Trade Centre Limited for the World Trade Centre (it’s being sold but is interconnected with the Metro Centre).
  • Final request to the Province to fund the Herring Cove Water extension. If funding isn’t provided HRM will cancel the project and reapply when Phase II  of the federal infrastructure program launches.


  1. This is very informative Newsletter and I really appreciate the effort you are making to keep residents informed of the issues as well as the role Council is taking to address them.

    • Thanks Bernie. Glad you find it useful. It’s about 4 hours to put together so I’m always happy to hear that it’s worth doing.

  2. Sam: on the one hand, when developers point out the need for financial viability and return on investment, they receive the “not our problem” refrain from the community. On the other hand, whenever the community comes up with a blockbuster inspiration or add-on related to any particular development, it is almost always accompanied with “the developer can pay for that”. This is an unhelpful approach, especially in a city that (presumably) aspires to urban regeneration and improvement. Is it too much to hope that the community accept that, in exchange for the risk they accept, developers will wish to maximize profit potential?

    Glad to see you’re giving short shrift to the tired old traffic canard. It’s about time to do the same thing with the twin myths of ‘shading’ and ‘wind-tunnel effect’ as well.

  3. Thank you for your prompt reply. Much appreciated. I await, as do you, the Council’s decision based upon the supplemental report. I only hope that it complies not only with the letter of the Center Plan but with its spirit for the future of that area.

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