Ensuring reliable cellular service during extreme weather events and the Coastal Protection Act (CPA) were among several issues discussed during the legislature’s standing committee on public accounts Wednesday.
The meeting’s focus was on climate change adaptation, the Emergency Management Office (EMO) funding and preparedness for emergency disasters in Nova Scotia, and output-based pricing systems for industry.
One issue raised several times by committee members from both opposition parties concerned the Coastal Protection Act. As reported here, 12 Nova Scotia municipalities joined the Ecology Action Centre (EAC) earlier this month in demanding the province implement the act’s regulations. The EAC has accused the provincial government of shirking its responsibilities with the Coastal Protection Act and of passing them on to municipalities.
In a September media release, the Department of Environment and Climate Change announced the province was for the first time contacting coastal property owners for their input on how to plan and adapt development along Nova Scotia’s coastline in response to climate change.
That online consultation survey closed last Tuesday. Both the EAC and NDP leader Claudia Chender have suggested the delay was out of concern for private property owners who wanted to build before new regulations come into effect.
On Oct. 24, Environment and Climate Change Minister Timothy Halman told reporters that wasn’t the case
“This is about getting authentic feedback from the people who are going to be affected by the Coastal Protection Act,” Halman said. “In the two previous public consultations, the government didn’t get that clarity from property owners.”
Halman said he was committed to the Coastal Protection Act, but wouldn’t provide a timeline for the implementation of regulations.
‘Important and something we need to move forward on’
During Wednesday’s committee meeting, opposition members wanted more clarity on the act, when its regulations would be implemented, and what was happening in the interim.
“I just want to acknowledge how important coastal protection is, and government’s commitment on that topic,” Department of Environment and Climate Change Deputy Minister Lora MacEachern told the committee.
MacEachern was responding to a query from Halifax Atlantic MLA Brendan Maguire about where the province stood in terms of the act’s implementation.
“It’s definitely known that this is important and something we need to move forward on,” MacEachern said.
Noting that the engagement with coastal property owners just ended last week, MacEachern said the department will have more to say about it in the near future.
“There were a variety of questions that were coming into the department and coming in through local MLAs by coastal property owners saying they didn’t understand the legislation that was passed and not yet proclaimed,” MacEachern told the committee.
“They had questions about it, they didn’t know how (it applied) to them, they didn’t know how soon it might take effect. So there were a lot of questions that were coming forward and some uncertainty.”
MacEachern said the department is compiling that feedback, which will help inform next steps. She stressed that in the meantime, things are still happening around coastal protection in the province. She referenced the climate action plan and its 68 actions, one of which is coastal protection.
“And there’s many others we’re moving forward, including with achieving our 20% land protection goal, which includes protection of land, also water, and wetlands in the province,” MacEachern said.
Climate risk assessment
Pressed about whether coastal property owners currently faced a moratorium on building close to shorelines, MacEachern said it would be very site specific. She said many factors determine whether someone can construct up to the shore.
MacEachern cited municipal zoning requirements and whether construction intruded on property that fell under the Crown Lands Act or Beaches Act as examples.
Halifax Citadel-Sable Island NDP MLA Lisa Lachance wanted to know how many of the 40,000 coastal property owners who were consulted had participated in the engagement process. She also wondered how many had taken part in previous consultations about the act.
MacEachern said those details will be made available after the information and feedback are compiled.
Lachance also requested a working provincial definition of vulnerable coastal areas in the absence of the Coastal Protection Act’s proclamation. She also asked if the department knew how many properties have been developed in sensitive coastal areas over the last four or five years.
MacEachern responded, in part:
My first thoughts in terms of responding to it is the importance of highlighting our climate risk assessment. And so it is really a key document. We released it around this time last year and it really does provide that kind of information about what we’re going to likely see going forward in Nova Scotia in terms of potential risks on our coast and across our province.
And so that’s a key document that we’re trying to get out there, trying to help people to understand the risks and take the necessary action. And that really is a guidance for us. It should be a guidance for communities, municipalities, and we’re working to get that out there.
‘Calling on everyone to step up’
The other key piece MacEachern pointed to was CLIMAtlantic. She said that central information hub helps guide their understanding about coastal properties and coastal risks.
“It really is all hands on deck on this topic,” MacEachern said. “Definitely the province has a role, and we take that really seriously and are committed to taking action on coastal protection.”
She said others also play a key role, including municipalities.
“So we’re calling on everyone to step up,” she said. “And absolutely the province will do its part. And we are doing that in terms of the information that we have available and the steps that we’re taking so far on coastal protection.”
Lachance also asked MacEachern if she knew of instances where someone within the department had raised concerns about a coastal development. In addition, she asked again when the number of property owners who participated in the recent consultations would be made available.
She also requested a timeline for when the act’s regulations would be ready to move forward.
“We’re working on compiling the information now … We have a third party vendor that’s working with us and so we have a small but dedicated team working on that in the department,” MacEachern said.
“So that that work is happening now and we hope to be in a position to brief the minister on that in December and following that, some decisions will be made on next steps.”
Bill 329 ‘misunderstood’
Lachance shifted focus and asked Department of Municipal Affairs and Housing Deputy Minister Byron Rafuse about Bill 329. As reported here, that bill gives Housing Minister John Lohr sole control over the pace of housing development in HRM.
She wondered if after consolidating decision-making power around development in HRM into the hands of the minister, the department had the staff and capacity to deal with development applications.
In particular, she wondered about viewing them with a lens to protecting coastlines and climate change adaptation.
Rafuse said some elements of that legislation have been misunderstood. He continued:
With the change in authority for the minister, our underlying principles of planning and development approval processes has not changed. Developers must go through that process. The only thing that’s really eliminated is the final decision making process, which can come to the minister (or if) the council is not choosing to do so. So in that effect, we don’t need to increase our planning capacity at the department.
We do have planning resources, but our resources are geared towards more around facilitating the municipality’s planning efforts by giving guidance or frameworks or floodline mapping procedures. But the municipality is not going to be devoid of their responsibility to continue out those processes, and developers will have to follow them.
‘Elephant in the room’
NDP Dartmouth North MLA Susan Leblanc followed up, requesting Rafuse address the “elephant in the room.” She wondered why the legislation needed to be changed, asking why the minister was given decision-making powers if nothing else was changing.
Noting that the minister did answer the question in the legislature, Rafuse elaborated:
There have been instances in the past where staff have recommended a development agreement. It has gone to council and has been rejected or sent back to community council requiring that application to go to the UARB when the developer chose, had to choose, to appeal that decision.
Then in those circumstances at the UARB, which held up that process, and if you recall, we are trying to get more houses built in a faster time frame. It would go through that process, it would halt everything. And at that process, the UARB, a number of times, no representation from HRM, and UARB said the decision was appropriate and the development was approved. That just wasted 12 months. That is why that element is there.
Reducing energy poverty
Leblanc also wanted to know if the province was exploring ways to help people in rental units access efficiency programs in an effort to help reduce energy poverty.
MacEachern said they’re working on that issue. She also said that as of July, 1,323 low income homeowners had benefited from new energy efficiency upgrades.
‘Definitely some progress is being made. But as I said, we’re always looking for ways to increase the effectiveness of our investments,” MacEachern said. “And that is part of our action plan. To continually be reviewing our energy programs and investing and having the most impact for those who need it the most.”
Reliable cell service during extreme weather
Colchester North PC MLA Tom Taggart asked how the Department of Public Works was maintaining infrastructure, eliminating dead zones, and ensuring reliable cell service during extreme weather events.
Department of Public Works Deputy Minister Peter Hackett said while that depends on “what happens and where you’re at,” the province has recently undertaken an initiative to increase cell service across the province.
Hackett said about 21,000 Nova Scotians don’t have access to cell service. In addition, he said there are “maybe 1,000” kilometres of a major highway that doesn’t have good coverage. He said the province recently issued an RFP (request for proposal) to vendors that provide cell service in an effort to help reduce dead zones.
An RFP has gone out to vendors to look at their equipment to be used on towers throughout the province. The province, I mean, the government, has looked at the fact that cell services is important. It’s probably an essential service in a lot of parts of rural Nova Scotia as well as in the cities. They’re investing about $47 million into this program, which would be to allow the vendors to get into the towers.
Then we look at a second RFP that would go out that would advance more towers into the system, that would once again allow vendors to come in and participate and put their equipment on these towers. That way, we’d hope to get a very broad cell coverage across the province … Hopefully over the next little while, we’ll get this up and running and hopefully during the storm events these will help those on EHS as well as Nova Scotians and the public.
Shelburne MLA Nolan Young asked Rafuse why the province doesn’t have its own water bombers. He wondered what was being done to address the issue before the next wildfire.
Rafuse said while the Department of Natural Resources is the lead agency on wildfire firefighting, his department works closely with them.
“So I know that they are in the process of conducting an after action report with regard to the wildfires,” Rafuse said.
“And I know that water bombers are certainly a part of that report and a decision will be made on that, I would think, afterwards. Ultimately, their department will make that decision. But I know that is being considered.”