Provincial Press Release
Agenda October 19
The most significant news last week didn’t actually occur at Council. The Province held a press conference to announce their response to the housing crisis and there was some genuinely good news in the announcements. The Province has sketched out a decent plan that includes committing more money to housing, continuation of rent control for at least the next two years, and giving municipalities the power to do inclusionary zoning (set % of affordable units in new development). HRM asked for a Charter amendment to allow inclusionary zoning back in 2016, but the reply from the Province at that time was no. I’m very glad to see the new government turning that no into yes.
With the good news, however, there also were two measures that are cause for concern. The Province announced their intent to interfere in HRM’s jurisdiction with the creation of a planning taskforce and a regional transportation group. There are a lot of unknowns right now around these two items, but the worst case scenario is it’s the start of the Province undermining a lot of the important work that has been done over the last few years.
In creating the Taskforce, the Province has indicated that they feel that a lack of new supply is part of the current housing problem. They’re right of course, but blaming that lack of supply on the time required to get a planning approval is hardly fair. Over the last few years, the number of new units under construction in HRM has increased significantly, but so too has the demand. There are issues that are impacting development timelines that aren’t related to planning approvals, such as access to skilled labour and the greater complexity of building large multi-unit buildings. HRM has identified that there are tens of thousands of units that have already been approved that could get building permits tomorrow. The Centre Plan, the final iteration of which Council will likely approve this evening, will create thousands more as-of-right development opportunities. Why projects haven’t proceeded is way more complicated than simply blaming City Hall planning timelines.
HRM has pointed these facts out to the Province, but, so far, the Province hasn’t been receptive to any of HRM’s objections. This Taskforce hasn’t come out of any objective review of evidence, it’s not at HRM’s request, it wasn’t part of the government’s election platform, and there has been no demand for it from the general public. This Taskforce seems to be entirely the result of a few disgruntled developers lobbying the government and that’s dangerous territory to be entering if you value good planning.
I don’t actually mind the Province taking a look at HRM’s processes. An outside review to identify areas to improve could be beneficial. My main concern is the intent to give the Taskforce approval powers. It’s not a Taskforce just to review how the planning process works, the Taskforce could literally be the approver for large new developments that will shape our community for hundreds of years. Should appointees make decisions about how our communities develop? No. There’s no political accountability in that, and no opportunity for the public to provide feedback. Will the meetings of the Taskforce even be public? We don’t know. Will the Taskforce consider all the work that HRM has done to try and direct growth to the places that can best support it, or is this Provincial intervention taking us back to a time when there were no real rules? HRM has done a lot of work to figure out where we should grow through the Regional Plan, Green Network Plan, etc. To cast that all aside and return to unfettered urban sprawl would be a big mistake that would have big environmental, social, and financial costs.
I do have one suggestion for the Province if they want to cut timelines: stop reviewing every plan amendment that HRM makes. After Council approves a planning change, it takes up to two months for it come into effect because the Province has to formally sign off each time. The Province has four planners, while HRM has over 80. HRM clearly is the centre of planning expertise here and we’re more than capable of managing our own affairs. Provincial signoff adds weeks for zero value. If the Province is concerned about timelines, cutting that unnecessary oversight is an easy reform to make that could shave 1-2 months with no impact on anyone.
In some ways, I’m even more concerned about the Province’s announcement of a Regional Transportation Group to create a master transportation plan for HRM. I’m concerned because HRM has basically already done this work. The Integrated Mobility Plan was approved in 2017, but the Province seems completely oblivious to that fact. In addition to the IMP, HRM has also finalized a Rapid Transit Plan, which includes new ferry connections and bus rapid transit lines throughout Halifax, Dartmouth and Bedford. The Rapid Transit Plan will put high-quality, frequent transit within walking distance of 1/3 of HRM’s population. HRM could access federal funding to build the Rapid Transit Plan, but what’s been missing is a Provincial commitment to provide their share. Without that Provincial commitment, the federal dollars aren’t available.
My concern is that a Regional Transportation Group made up of Provincial staff won’t consider all the work and planning that has been done in the IMP and Rapid Transit Plan and that the Province could force regressive decisions on the municipality that encourage more car trips rather than sustainable alternatives. It would be easier to trust the Province’s intent on transportation if they had a track record of progressive decision-making, but they simply don’t. Our Provincial government has never found a highway twinning project that it doesn’t like, they continue to make car-focused decisions in locating provincial facilities (schools, hospitals, parking garages on the Common), they pander on tolls, and regard transit and active transportation as municipal responsibilities (i.e. not their job). Past funding for transit and active transportation has been welcome, but it has come in the form of one-offs for special projects such as the Bedford Ferry, electrification, and the Regional Centre Bike Network. That’s not the same as the regular funding that many other provinces provide their municipalities, and it’s not the same as funding the less glamorous, but equally essential parts of running a transit service. It’s not the same as seeing sustainable transportation as a core mandate.
So what does the coming Provincial intrusion into planning in HRM mean? It’s hard to say. We have to wait and see what the actual legislation looks like, who gets appointed, and how the two committees function. The Province has indicated they will appoint the majority on each so if they want to, they’ll be able to overrule HRM. The best case scenario is the Province doesn’t meddle in planning approvals, we both identify some efficiencies, and the Province realizes HRM already has a solid transportation plan that they then come onboard to fund. That would be more than fine. The nightmare scenario, on the other hand, is the Province creates a whole bunch of highway and road widening projects that HRM is forced to accept and that get filled up with lots of new cars travelling from Provincially approved urban sprawl. Time will tell, but HRM might need interested citizens to help defend good planning. I really want to be optimistic, but past experience gives me more reason for concern than optimism.
It feels like we just finished the 2021 budget process, but budgeting almost never ends. Our first bit of business for the 2022 budget was before Council. Staff were looking for direction on preparing the upcoming capital budget. Council accepted the recommendation for a 4 year capital plan and a 10 year capital outlook based on 70% of the money being spent on fixing existing assets and 30% being spent on new stuff to keep up with growth. The budget will be weighted by categories with transportation and environment projects being the top two priorites
The process of weighting categories is a bit odd. I realize that staff need some direction to prepare a budget, but it’s hard to say if the weighting is right until we actually see what it means for what projects are in and what projects are out. It gives a good place to start, but I fully expect Council will continue to adjust and tinker with the budget each year since what makes sense in the abstract isn’t necessarily what we want when it becomes specific.
I did want to touch on that I’m expecting the coming 2022 budget to be challenging. HRM has two significant new expenses coming in the form of the RCMP pay increase and the transfer of 300 kilometres of rural roads. HRM is also feeling pressure on the capital side. It’s difficult to keep up with all the new asks, and to maintain our existing infrastructure. Adding to the mix, HRM has a number of big planning initiatives that we haven’t figured out how to pay for. Intergrated Mobility Plan, Rapid Transit Plan, transit electrification, our climate change plan (HalifACT), the Green Network Plan, Library Capital Plan, etc. Our ambitions as a city aren’t matched with our finances, and that’s a real problem.
HRM’s plans around transportation and the environment are closely related and, for me, non-optional. We need to change how we move around and delivering on climate change is a must. We’re a wealth city in a rich nation. If we aren’t willing to do what’s necessary, to do our share, just what hope do we have as a species on this planet? If the coming budget doesn’t have a plan for HalifACT, I won’t be able to vote for it.
What all this means for you (and me too) is taxes are inevitably going to go up. HRM’s options to pay for stuff is quite simple in a way. We can (1) raise more money, (2) spend our savings (3) take on debt, which means taxes go up in the end as money has to be repaid (4) cut expenses and sometimes (5) partner with other orders of government. We’re not going to be able to deliver on transportation and climate change on status-quo type budget. It’s going to require bigger moves and funds that we don’t currently have. I don’t see the 1% increase in the average tax bill that Council approved in 2021 as being something that we can do again if we actually want to deliver on what we’ve been saying.
Council approved a tender of $29,036,000 to Brycon Construction Limited for the next phase of the expansion of the Burnside Industrial Park. HRM is somewhat unique in terms of industrial development in that the municipality controls much of the supply of new industrial land directly. HRM is the planner and developer of our industrial parks and the goal is to always have a shovel-ready supply of industrial land available to support economic development.
With a booming economy, the supply of industrial land has been dwindling. HRM staff estimate that, if Burnside isn’t expanded, HRM will run out of industrial lots to sell in just six years. Six years isn’t far away when you consider construction timelines, so it’s time to expand Burnside. Burnside’s Phase 13 will be located on the other side of the 107 across from Wilkinson Avenue.
Council had a good discussion on the need to plan for sustainable transportation in Burnside. The lack of priority given to people on foot or travelling by bus in previous phases of Burnside development has rightly been seen as one of the Park’s weaknesses. New employment only benefits people if they can get to it! The next phase of Burnside will include sidewalks to make getting around on foot more attractive and 2 kms of active transportation trails. That’s a long way from the original park’s design that was only made for cars.
On the question of transit, staff indicated that a review of transit service in Burnside is coming forward and should align nicely with Phase 13. It’s not, however, enough to just build sidewalks and run a bus through the area, it also matters where buildings are located. If riders are dropped off at the street and then have to walk across great big swathes of asphalt parking to get to the front door, that doesn’t encourage anyone to take the bus. The scale of places like Burnside will always be big, because it’s an industrial park, but there is no reason why most buildings couldn’t be located close to the street with parking, storage, etc located in back or beside the building. Staff indicated that they’re updating the design standards for Phase 13. It’s something I will follow up on.
While the $29,036,000 cost of the Burnside tender is significant, it’s important to note that the development is self-funded. HRM has a capital reserve that has built up from the proceeds of past land sales in Burnside. That reserve will cover the cost of the expansion and will be filled up again as lots in Phase 13 are sold. Industrial development is self-funding.
- Held two heritage hearings to register Camp Hill Cemetery, and the Universalist Church at 5500 Inglis Street as Registered Heritage Properties
- Approved a helicopter fly past for Sullivan’s Pond, Cole Harbour, and Eastern Passage for Remembrance Day
- Increased the consultant contract for the Spryfield Lions Rink roof replacement
- Modified the Seton Ridge development agreement to remove a minor walkway that proved to be unbuildable due to major elevation constraints
- Revised the Port Wallace workplan to account for the most recent info from the Environment Department regarding contamination in Barry’s Run due to historic gold mining
- Directed the Mayor to sign onto the “Race to Zero” climate commitments in advance of the coming climate summit in Scotland