New legislation would give Minister of Housing “absolute power and discretion” over all planning and development in Halifax 13Oct2023

A portion of HRM. Why should it be necessary to develop on some of the most ecologically sensitive sites such as at Southdale and Sandy Lake?
Click on images on this page for larger versions.

UPDATE: Halifax considers taking Nova Scotia to court over controversial housing Bill 329 – Suzanne Rent in the Halifax Examiner, Oct 18, 2023. Intro in in Morning File
This is not good news, and is eerily eerily reminiscent of the attitudes the Ford Government of Ontario held  for its Greenbelt (until recently). It’s hard not to  interpret this new legislation as a way of getting around the bothersome facts about the exceptionally high ecological value of the lands where 6000 units would be placed at Sandy Lake – one of the nine sites identified for rapid development. 

Yesterday the province announced new legislation “to get more housing built, faster, in Halifax Regional Municipality (HRM)” (NS Gov News Release, Oct 12, 2023)

It includes, amongst other measures:

giving the minister authority to make decisions on development in HRM without a recommendation from the Executive Panel on Housing or request from the municipality
granting all variances respecting set backs or street walls unless HRM can demonstrate that they materially alter the intent of the municipal planning strategy
temporarily freezing all municipal permit and development fees, including Halifax Water regional development charges and density bonus charges, for a period of two years; any increase would require ministerial approval
creating one of Canada’s first trusted partner programs, which will offer qualified developers – working with certified professionals who have a solid track record of quality developments – expedited services, allowing them to get shovels in the ground faster

HRM issued an unusually critical statement about the legislation (HRM Oct 12, 2023)

“We should be working together on the housing crisis, advancing common goals,” says Mayor Mike Savage. “This proposed legislation is an incursion into municipal authority, undermining the public role in thoughtful, responsible planning that supports not only housing but community livability. These measures could undermine our ability to support affordable housing projects, risk our commitments to sustainability, and potentially limit access to municipal services while consolidating power in the office of the Minister.

The lack of consultation prior to today’s announcement by the province is of significant concern. While some aspects of the legislation have the support of the municipality, there are several components that are problematic, including freezing all municipal permit and development fees, including those gathered through density bonusing. This will mean the municipality can’t continue to collect funding for the municipality’s Affordable Housing Grant program.

The measures announced today do not address the larger issues regarding development and affordable housing – which include high interest rates, lack of labour and supply chain issues.

Within Halifax, our rules allow for many new units to be built, immediately. The municipality has 11,000 units currently under permit as well as development-ready land over 200,000 units. This is the result of thoughtful planning, which includes zoning changes to allow units that can be built as-of-right… 

Also view CBC Oct 12, 2023, including videoed interview with Mayor Savage

Comments EAC (EAC Oct 12, 2023)

We are deeply concerned with the unilateral authority Minister John Lohr has been given over development, without recommendation from HRM staff or the Executive Panel on Housing. This consolidation of power is lacking in both oversight and public input, and is so broad that it leaves space for exploitation. Furthermore, there was no mention of affordable housing or transit in the province’s news release or a commitment to ensure accelerated development abides by existing plans and by-laws. This includes HRM priority plans like the Integrated Mobility Plan, Halifax Green Network Plan, or HalifACT Climate Plan – all of which have undergone extensive public engagement. The Minister had previously reassured the public that he and the Executive Panel on Housing would respect HRM’s existing plans and processes…

Comments Kortney Dunsby (Sustainable Cities Coordinator at EAC):

These amendments give the Minister of Municipal Affairs and Housing (John Lohr), ultimate power and discretion over all planning and development in Halifax, irrespective of existing plans and by-laws. This effectively makes all of HRM one large Special Planning Area. Additionally, the Province has frozen collection of all municipal permit and development fees, including Halifax Water development charges and density bonus charges. This is in direct opposition to our “growth needs to pay for growth” mindset, as it is likely that these costs will be downloaded to the taxpayer.

It’s hard to understate how disturbing this legislation is for the many individuals and groups – embodied in the Our HRM Alliance – that have worked over many years to help make Halifax what it is today: a rapidly growing municipality in which, figuratively speaking, everybody wants to live.

Early on in their mandate, the newly elected (Aug 2021) majority PC Government of Nova Scotia made it clear that it wanted to take control of housing in HRM  (an initiative not floated during the election), passing the Housing in the Halifax Regional Municipality Act in Nov of 2021.

Results of the 2021 Nova Scotia provincial election, showing the winning party vote strength in the provinces single-member electoral constituencies -from Wikipedia

The housing legislation is peculiarly targeted at HRM, further deepening the rural-urban divide which tends to characterize NS politics,

In spite of the powers the Act gave the Minister of Housing, Minister Lohr said  that the provincial government would not override HRM Municipal processes, just help to move them along faster.

[Councillor] Mason is also worried the task force could override HRM’s Regional Plan and Green Network Plan, which provides protection for places like the Purcell’s Cove backlands and the Blue Mountain-Birch Cove Lakes Wilderness Area.

“I don’t see that as being something that the task force will change,” Lohr said.

“I think the vision of the city for where construction happens and where construction doesn’t happen won’t change at all. I think this is about applications that are in process that have just been delayed by various things.”   From CBC Oct 25, 2021

Clearly the new legislation removes any pretence of respect for those processes and  is eerily reminiscent of the attitudes the Ford Government of Ontario held for the Greenbelt and their manipulations on behalf of developers… until recently.  The NS Trusted Partner Program, in  particular,  is disturbing in its trust of developers over public processes.

Siltation in Eisner Cove Wetland visible on July 24, 2023. View Video The uplands were clearcut by Clayton Developments  earlier on; The LSA/EAs such as they were failed to recognize any connections between the upland and the fen (View comments). Photo & Video courtesy of Bill Zebedee/Protect Eisner Cove Wetland

Unfortunately, a lot of stress to HRM residents and significant harm to our environment  could occur (and already has, e.g, in relation to  Eisner Cove Wetland & Environs) before this government, hopefully, comes to its senses.

Surely, in 2023, a fundamental principle should be to not develop on sites of high ecological integrity & value  when land already ecologically degraded or of much lower ecological value  is available in the same area. That’s the route to addressing our Housing Issues and the linked Climate/Biodiversity Issues at the same time.

It’s hard not to  interpret this new legislation as a way of getting around the bothersome facts about the high ecological value of the lands where 6000 units would be placed at Sandy Lake – one of the nine sites identified for rapid development.

The Province invested “$2.3 million to enable the municipality to conduct critical environmental, land-use suitability, transportation and infrastructure studies to inform future planning and development decisions” (NS Gov Mar 25, 2022). Stantec was subsequently given a contract to study these factors for four sites including Sandy Lake, that study is now in progress with the report due in March 2024. They have received many documents from myself and others concerning the high ecological values of these lands as outlined in pages on this website. Will even that consideration of environmental factors now be short circuited?

Water sampling  on Sandy Lake, Aug 14, 2023, here by the outlet.  Our concerns about Sandy Lake are based on scientific observations, not platitudes.

It’s clear from the limnological studies I and others have conducted on Sandy Lake that this lake is already in a highly precarious condition, and that a development of the sort envisaged on the headwaters of Sandy Lake is not compatible with maintaining  its ecological and recreational values (view Report on Sandy Lake).

Likewise, the lands west of Sandy Lake have been identified as an important wildlife corridor locally (e.g. for movement of Snapping Turtles) and between the Chebucto Peninsula and greater NS mainland (see Wildlife Corridors on this website).

Concept plan for access to the SLSRRP. Growth areas lie to the north (Lower Sackville),  the east (Bedford), the south (Bedford West,) & to the West: (Lucasville Road and other communities).

The whole larger area of the proposed SLSRRP (Sandy Lake-Sackville River Regional Park) lies between growth centres that will see much higher populations in future, offering them  priceless outdoor recreational space on their doorstep.

The McCallum study reviewed all such materials and recommended and Halifax Regional Council accepted the recommendation (unanimously) that riparian buffers in the area of the proposed expanded Sandy Lake Park, all above Hammonds Plains Road, be 50 m for wetlands and 100 m for watercourses to address critical water quality and wildlife issues. I have been told that before the council voted on that recommendation, at least some councillors were contacted by developers who told them that development would not be possible under those conditions.

There ARE other lands of much lower ecological value in the same landscape that could be developed as an alternative.

So why do I feel that this legislation is targeted with the interests of the prominent HRM developers who own the key lands at Sandy Lake in mind – and who almost certainly would be one of the Government’s ‘trusted partners’  – and not in the interests of the community at large, and certainly not in the interest of the life on Earth that supports us all? And it’s targeted at HRM, so they are not concerned about alienating their base (see electoral results above).

View also:
Nature Nova Scotia: Save Sandy Lake
Land swaps could solve the ‘Sandy Lake versus Development Dilemma’ 6Jul2022

& Followup news etc:
Municipal officials decry ‘autocratic intrusion’ of Bill 329 to law amendments committee
CBC News · Posted: Oct 16, 2023
Lohr ‘absolutely committed’ to Bill 329
Jennifer Henderson in the Halifax Examiner, Oct 18, 2023. Intro in Morning File
Halifax considers taking Nova Scotia to court over controversial housing Bill 329
Suzanne Rent in the Halifax Examiner, Oct 18, 2023. Intro in in Morning File “Coun. Tim Outhit was the first councillor to suggest HRM take the province to court over the bill. “If we are convinced that this flies in the face of the spirit of Joe Howe and what others fought for, let’s do a court challenge,” Outhit said. “Don’t tell me they can do this under the legislature. I know they can do it under the legislature, but are they following the spirit and the intention of the legislation? That’s what courts decide…Outhit also criticized HRM for being too slow in the past in approving developments, and suggested it was up to HRM to educate and work with the province on decisions.“They [province] do not know what they do,” Outhit said””

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