A Halifax councillor wants developers to stay in their lane. Some of her colleagues aren’t sure that’s possible.
Coun. Kathryn Morse brought a motion to council’s virtual meeting on Tuesday seeking a staff report outlining “options for requiring large construction projects to be contained on private property rather than being permitted to close sections of public roads and sidewalks.”
“Closing roads and sidewalks interferes with the safe and efficient movement of vehicular traffic, buses, cyclists, pedestrians, and other users,” Morse wrote in the reasoning for her motion.
“The report should also address options for a new fee structure for use-of-road permits when roads are required to be used for construction, possibly including a range of charges based on square metre used, traffic volume of the road and duration of the project, with the goal of limiting the private use of public roads for construction staging and equipment, as in other Canadian urban centres.”
Morse said she wanted to see whether council had any options to try to keep streets and sidewalks “as open and unimpeded as possible.”
“Obviously there are a lot of safety issues when sidewalks and streets are closed and I experienced it in my district where there is often very little notice and all of a sudden cement barricades go up in the street and and it it can sometimes cause real bottlenecks,” she said during Tuesday’s meeting.
“Our fees for this sort of thing haven’t gone up for several years, so I’m hoping that perhaps we could have a look at whether that could there could be some increases that would encourage the least amount of time in the streets and on the sidewalks as possible.”
Daily encroachment fees range from $60 for up to 1.5 square metres to $125 for over 2.5 square metres, with lower fees for so-called temporary encroachment. The administrative order governing those fees dates back to 1999.
Construction spilling out onto the sidewalk can lead to serious issues for people with disabilities, including blind or partially sighted people. Milena Khazanavicius, for example, found herself stranded in an intersection next to a Halifax construction site last year.
Coun. Patty Cuttell said the municipality can at least do a better job of providing an alternative sidewalk for pedestrians, noting there are often cases where people are directed to backtrack and use a crosswalk.
“It doesn’t work. People walk into the road and it’s because we’re not prioritizing the pedestrian,” Cuttell said.
Coun. Shawn Cleary supported the motion, but noted HRM has maximum setback rules in many areas.
“Buildings on a pedestrian oriented main street, for example like Quinpool, can’t actually be further back than a few metres,” Cleary said. “And so there wouldn’t actually be enough room in most cases for construction to be contained entirely to their lot.”
Coun. Waye Mason agreed there are areas where builders have no choice but to rent the right of way. But there are other cases where it’s unnecessary.
“What we don’t want is what I’ve seen in construction downtown where we’ve had people paying the city the relatively low amount of money so that some of the workers could park their trucks there,” he said. “And and so we’ve lost sidewalk capacity we’ve lost street capacity for no reason directly related to construction.”
Mayor Mike Savage was the sole vote against the request, arguing the city should be looking at fees, permitting, and builders’ conduct, rather than trying to bar them from using the right of way.
“We are going to have a lot of construction in the city. It’s going to continue and there are going to be inconveniences. I think we have to manage them as opposed to completely assume that we can get rid of them,” he said.
Morse said her motion is about mitigating the inconveniences.
“I do think that looking at the fees is important as part of the overall picture and and I understand we have to be flexible here,” Morse said in closing.
“But this is about balancing the needs of our citizens and being consistent with people.”
There was no timeline attached to the staff report.
Environmental concerns in regional plan proposals
Councillors approved the next steps in the municipality’s regional plan review on Tuesday, but they’re looking for some more information on how the plan will prioritize the environment.
The regional plan is the overarching set of planning and development rules for all of HRM, setting out where development can and can’t happen. It was created in 2006, and refreshed in 2014. Municipal staff are now midway through the process of updating the plan again, with a goal to tackle some urgent areas this spring, and a draft final report due by the end of the year.
Staff presented a 1,200-page report to council’s committee of the whole on Tuesday, summarizing the public engagement conducted on the plan so far, and the numerous site-specific request from developers and property owners hoping to enable development rights.
For example, the Stevens Group has a proposal in the report to develop its land between Highway 102 and Susie’s Lake. That land is designated as an “Urban District Growth Centre” in the regional plan, meaning there needs to be a “comprehensive secondary planning process” before it can be considered for serviced development.
The developer wants to build more than 3,000 units in the space, and encroach into the conceptual boundary for the city’s long-planned Blue Mountain-Birch Cove Lakes park.
Coun. Iona Stoddard asked municipal regional policy program manager Kate Greene to sum up what the proposal’s inclusion in the plan means for the park.
“Our approach that we go through when we do these master planning communities starts with the environment,” Greene said, suggesting there’d be a rigorous environmental assessment.
“That said, Blue Mountain-Birch Cove is very special and is becoming more special as we work on it and council’s set up a committee and, I believe, has endorsed study work to happen.”
The results of that work will inform the planning process, Greene said.
Coun. Kathryn Morse wanted more assurances, and brought forward a motion hoping to tie together the regional plan with some of HRM’s other planning:
That Halifax Regional Council recommend that the Chief Administrative Officer be directed to prepare a staff report outlining an overall policy and process to coordinate the work of the departments of Planning and Development and Parks and Recreation. The aim is to ensure council can effectively implement HalifACT, IMP and the Green Network Plan. The staff report should consider the need for a coordinator to lead the Green Network Plan and an updated parks strategy, in light of the following:
1. the current Parks Canada urban park planning process for Blue Mountain-Birch Cove Lakes,
2. the pending Sandy Lake study,
3. recently identified key wildlife corridors,
4. HRM’s natural asset inventory, and
5. housing development pressures.
Councillors also approved a motion from Coun. Patty Cuttell for a staff report on prioritizing rezoning around planned bus rapid transit routes, along with another one asking to continue considering a property in her district for rezoning, and one from Coun. Becky Kent for a property in her district.
‘Good’ streets will cost tens of millions
Halifax will have to spend $72.4 million over the next four years to bring two thirds of city streets up to snuff.
That’s the bottom line from a report to council on Tuesday recommending a new method of classifying municipally-owned roads, and a new goal for their quality.
The municipality used to evaluate roads’ state of good repair with “visual windshield surveys performed by a field technician,” meaning the technician drove the road and then graded it from 0-10. In 2014 the city hired a consultant to try to find a more formal method, and started using a vehicle outfitted with a “Laser Crack Measurement System” to come up with those grades. That data is then used to create a “Pavement Quality Index,” “a composite performance index composed of both surface distresses and roughness,” graded out of 100.
In the report to council on Tuesday, staff proposed to classify roads as either poor, fair, or good, based on their type and their PQI score.
In 2020, 61% of the network was in good condition. After council passed the staff recommendation on Tuesday, the goal is to bring 67% of the network up to that standard.
But “due to the historical backlog” of street maintenance, that’s going to be expensive. Councillors will iron out the details over the coming budget debate, but currently none of the extra $72.4 million required is in the budget.
Council’s budget committee meets next on Friday to work out the coming 2022-2023 tax increase.