When councillor Gloria McCluskey voted for the Wellington Street development last week, she said she was upset about a very tall and dense development that was approved on Irishtown Road in downtown Dartmouth. But here’s the thing: she voted FOR the planning changes that made the Irishtown development possible.

Councillors Gloria McCluskey (left) and Darren Fisher (right). Photo: Halifax Examiner
Councillors Gloria McCluskey (left) and Darren Fisher (right). Photo: Halifax Examiner

This is the first of a three-part series on the Wellington Street development.

Last week, Halifax council approved changes in the planning laws that will allow for Dino Capital’s proposed development on Wellington Street in the south end. I explained the issue back in October, as follows:

The developer then brought forward the current proposal, which while slightly shorter than the first proposal—it calls for two towers of eight and 10 storeys—is considerably larger, with 142 apartments. It gets that higher number of apartments by basically violating every planning and design guideline the city has—the staff report blasted the proposal, and recommended council decline to allow it to move forward to the public hearing stage. As councillor Waye Mason said yesterday, the development would not be allowed downtown, “where we want high-rises,” or anywhere else in HRM, but it is being proposed in a residential neighbourhood of mostly single family homes.

On the other hand, the developer points to nearby buildings of 10 and 13 storeys that were allowed to be built in the 1980s. Opponents of Dino’s proposal, however, point out that it was those very buildings that caused new planning rules to be implemented in the 1980s, prohibiting the size of the buildings in Dino’s application.

Remarkably, even though staff had recommended council not schedule a public hearing, and even though the councillor for the area, Mason, was opposed, council voted 10-7 to allow the buildings to go to public hearing.

The hearing was held in December, and lasted four hours as over 50 people spoke against the proposal. But last week, council voted 9-to-6 in favour of it. Technically, the development proposal now goes back to the Halifax and West Community Council for specific approval, but that’s a foregone conclusion.

One of the yes votes came from Gloria McCluskey, the councillor representing Dartmouth. Here is McCluskey’s explanation for her vote in favour of the development (at the 3:19 mark):

I’m going to vote in favour of the motion, and since the residents would like to know why, I will make it very clear.

A couple of years ago, this same planning department, in my district, put in three buildings, 14, 15, and seven storeys, over 600 people in one acre of land. There was no thought of compatibility. There was no test of sensitivity. There was no thought on the affect on the community. Eighty people spoke against it. These towers, these buildings, towered over the lovely little five storey condominium building in downtown Dartmouth. The closest tall building was three blocks away. This also was nine feet from the corner of the lovely heritage Greenvale lofts. Nine feet. And bordered on the parkland, the canal greenway and its historical significance.

So if I sat here today and I said this is wrong, how would the people in Dartmouth feel? They don’t have any sensitivity when it comes to this, the compatibility doesn’t matter over there. I couldn’t do that. They would have settled for an eight-storey building over there. They would have been happy with an eight-storey building. But they didn’t get that. So that’s the reason I can’t. I don’t see anything wrong with a nine- and a 10-storey building. And this isn’t the only time it’s happened over there. But I don’t see anything wrong with it, and that’s why I tested it against this, and I feel it’s OK. Thank you.

McCluskey was talking about the three-building project on Irishtown Road, at the end of Queen Street. I think it’s a terrible project, for many of the reasons McCluskey laid out.

There’s also a bureaucratic similarity between the Irishtown Road and Wellington Street developments: both development proposals needed changes in municipal planning strategies in order to proceed. And McCluskey is right: staff recommended approval of the changes for Irishtown, but recommended against them for Wellington. In both cases, the proposed changes in planning rules were first approved by the community council for the area, then by full council. Then, in both cases, the community council gave (Irishtown) or will give (Wellington) actual approval of the exact development proposal.

But here’s the thing: McCluskey voted for the planning changes that allowed the Irishtown development. Here’s how it unfolded:

August 6, 2010: staff writes a report recommending changes to allow the Irishtown development. The staff report is quite explicit as to what was allowed (apologies for the screenshot; the document is not in a readable format):

Screen Shot 2015-01-19 at 3.07.18 PM

September 16, 2010: The Harbour East Community Council considered the proposed changes in the planning rules that would accommodate the Irishtown Road “Opportunity Site.” McCluskey was absent from the meeting, but the rest of the community council—councillors Lorelei Nicoll, Bill Karsten, Darren Fisher, Jackie Barkhouse, and Jim Smith—approved the changes on a voice vote.

November 16, 2010: The proposed changes in planning policies that would allow the Irishtown development were brought to the full city council for first reading. McCluskey made the motion for approval:

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December 7, 2010: Regional council holds a public hearing on the proposed changes to development rules to accommodate the proposed Irishtown Road development. Thirteen members of the public spoke on the issue, both for and against it.

After the public hearing was closed, staff said that the proposed 23-storey building had been reduced to 18 storeys. There was a bit of clarification on several issues, and a few amendments that don’t change this discussion. If you’re interested, you can read them here. After the debate, councillor McCluskey again made the motion for the changes, and they carried on a voice vote:

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“I do no recall ever, ever, ever approving buildings of that size,” McCluskey told me when I contacted her this afternoon by phone. I gave McCluskey the dates of her votes, and explained that they were changes in the Municipal Planning Strategy, at the exact same spot in the process as last week’s Wellington Street vote.

“Well, I may have approved an opportunity site, but that’s not a development proposal,” she said.

On March 23, 2013, there was a public hearing at the Harbour East Community Council for the specific Irishtown Road development agreement that was allowed under the planning rules that were previously changed by council. I was at the hearing and remember it well. Twenty-nine people spoke, both for and against, but the mood of the room was very definitely on the “against” side.

From the minutes of the meeting, here were McCluskey’s comments:

Councillor McCluskey advised that she is for development in downtown Dartmouth, but believes that this development is too large, suggesting that 600 people on 1.6 acres of land is not healthy living. She indicated that as an accredited appraiser, she believes that this proposal will devalue the adjacent condominium units because of the shadow and wind affects. Councillor McCluskey noted that the applicant could have built to eight storeys on the lands. She noted that she represents many of the residents at the public information meetings that spoke against this development. Councillor McCluskey noted that the petition asks for support of the “Seagate mixed use development in downtown Dartmouth” but gives not details about the development. She noted that people living away don’t know where the property is. Councillor McCluskey noted that there are plenty of vacant lots in downtown Dartmouth, and not all of the density needs to be put in one spot. She advised for the reasons of density and height she will not be supporting the development.


Councillor McCluskey noted concern with the term “compatible” in HRM planning documents as she feels the term does not mean anything.

The vote passed, but was not recorded. McCluskey says she voted against it, and it’s my recollection that hers was the sole “no” vote.

McCluskey today said that she would never had approved buildings of the size that were approved in 2013, but clearly, the changes in planning policies she voted for in 2010 made the development proposal possible. Moreover, she voted for those changes in the exact spot in the bureaucratic process for Irishtown Road that Wellington Street was in last week.

As for the actual development, the approval was given to 3200892 Nova Scotia Limited, a company whose directors are Darrell Dixon and R. Blois Colpitts. The community council’s approval required the company to sign a development agreement within 120 days. After that, they would have two years to initiate construction. There’s still no construction on the site, and I’m told that Colpitts was trying to sell the site and the approval a few months ago, but to no avail.

McCluskey told me today that she expects Colpitts to soon come back before the community council to ask for an extension to the timeline for construction.

On the Wellington issue, McCluskey said to “make sure you write that Waye Mason threatened to vote against everything that comes from Harbour East Community council.”

Tim Bousquet

Tim Bousquet is the editor and publisher of the Halifax Examiner. Twitter @Tim_Bousquet Mastodon

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  1. I love Dartmouth. I love meeting over there at the library, biking over in the summer. It was a great place to grow up and is a beautiful place. I never said I would vote against everything coming from HEMD CC, I said that if this is how it is – that local residents and Councillor’s view of developments and MPS changes in their own areas were going to be ignored, and that Councillors from other districts were going to move motions to override staff recommendations – that we should expect this to happen not just in my district, but all around HRM. I don’t think that is a threat, I think it is an observation of fact.

  2. I had forgotten that Councillor McCluskey voted for the change in the MPS. Thanks for the reminder. Thinking back, I also realize that she cannot claim that she was in the dark about what would end up on the site. As part of his presentation, the developer provided some posters with clip art representations of massive high rises. Multiple high rises were in the plan from day one.

    McCluskey’s actions aside, I have a bigger concern and that is the actions of planning staff. Unlike the Welling Street file, staff not only supported the Irishtown Road project, they aggressively pushed the project. I attended all three meetings and to say that public opinion was split 50/50 is just not true.

    Finally, I would like correct one item in your report: You stated that Colpitts was trying to sell the site a few months ago. That is true, but the fact is that Colpitts and his partner Darrell Dixon, attempted to sell the property – informally – almost immediately after approval was granted and the property was formally listed with a commercial broker within the first year. In my estimation, there was never any intension to build on the site. The entire exercise (at great expense to the city) was about pumping the value so that Dixon and Colpitts could flip the property for a substantial profit. In other words, Community Council, planning staff and Regional Council got played. The question remains; will they get played again when the developer’s request for an extension comes before them in the near future?

    1. While the ultimate conclusion (absurd buildings) is bad, I’m not sure there is anything to moan about WRT there being some specialized developers.

      Navigating the city approval process, executing construction, and then running a building are different skill sets. They have different level of risk associated with them. They have different levels and rates of return. It shouldn’t be surprising that they would attract different doers, and different investors.

  3. Seems the heart of the matter is do we trust that our decision makers are making their decisions with integrity and good faith and do we have the right to question that integrity.

    It is the root of our democracy. Thanks to the Halifax Examiner for reminding us of this. The Wellington decision reminds us how important it is to ask questions of our leadership and to not be apathetic to the consequences of their decisions.

  4. Am I being obtuse or is the second paragraph of McCluskey’s Statement in expalnation of her vote complete gobbledygook? I’ve read it three times and its as hard to parse as post modern art criticism.

  5. Thanks for this dialogue on planning and politics. This kind of article is what I’ve always enjoyed about your writing, Tim, and the informed opinions of others like Leah makes it even better.

  6. Am also bewildered by Councillor McCluskey’s reasoning. Her explanations are illogical and contradictory, You’ve provided Part 1 of 3 above, and already convoluted process, personal dynamics, and questionable motivation are on display — as well as kindergarten-level interaction, judging from the final sentence.

    You write, “Technically, the development proposal now goes back to the Halifax and West Community Council for specific approval, but that’s a foregone conclusion.” Why?

    I’ve checked HRM website for info on Community Councils, but am still largely in the dark on them. Perhaps you’ll briefly explain their structure, governance and voting power in a future post, and whether they’re a rubber stamp without actual influence, which your words would seem to suggest.

    I think this decision, how and why it’s been reached, and the transparency you’re providing around it may be an overdue Waterloo for the existing process.

    1. It’s a foregone conclusion because the community council initiated the change in the planning rules that council voted on last week. The two peninsula councillors voted no, while the three suburban councillors voted yes. It will be the same scenario when the issue goes back before the community council.

      1. Ahhh, so Community Councils do have power then, since they can initiate and suggest change to planning rules, not a small thing by any means, anywhere else I’ve lived in Canada.

        So if a majority of voting members are of like mind, even if their will is contrary to that expressed by a majority of affected citizens and their immediate Councillors, the fix is in, but “democratically,” in form, if not in substance.

        Thanks, Tim, and please correct me if I’m misinterpreting.

        1. Donna:
          The Halifax Regional Municipality Charter is a piece of Provincial legislation that lays out the powers and responsibilities of Regional Council, and the Community Councils. Regional Council must approve “planning documents” and in general there are two levels, each with different functions and there are different rules for amending them. The overall “Municipal Planning Strategy” (MPS) lays out the policy for the area – it’s intended to be a long-term policy document which guides development. Below that policy document is the Land Use Bylaw (LUB), which sets out the zoning for the area (use, setbacks, height, etc). An MPS and LUB can also designate certain areas where development is allowed to go forward “by development agreement”. A development agreement is a contract between a property/piece of land (not property owner) and the municipality – it’s basically site-specific zoning but allows the development to both have its own set of rules and the municipality can include restrictions on things an LUB can’t (lot grading, maintenance etc). In general, only Regional Council is allowed to amend policy, but Community Councils are permitted to amend the LUB, and approve development agreements. So the order of approval goes:
          1. Application is received by HRM Planning for a site-specific MPS and LUB amendment that would allow staff to write a development agreement for the proposal
          2. Application doesn’t meet the MPS – so Regional Council has to agree that they want to amend their long-term planning document to include site-specific policy to allow some kind of development (realistically, we know what kind of development, but in theory it could be anything). Once Reg. Council votes yes to initiate the process to amend the MPS, then
          3. Community Council considers the proposal, and makes a recommendation to Regional Council on whether to amend the MPS (and in the case of Wellington Street, there was a Planning Advisory Committee that also considered it, and made a negative recommendation to CC). Once CC recommends yes or no, then
          4. Regional Council considers the recommendations, holds a public hearing (typically a joint public hearing between the RC and CC), and votes yes or no to amend the MPS only.
          5. Because it’s an MPS amendment, the Province gets to review and decide whether the changes are a) things a municipality is allowed to control and b) whether they’re consistent with the Province’s Statements of Provincial Interest. It’s called “Ministerial Approval” and this is where we are with Wellington Street right now.
          6. With the MPS amendment approved, the application goes back to Community Council where the Land Use Bylaw gets amended to allow a development agreement on the site, and the development agreement also will get approved. No public hearing was held because we had that “joint” hearing back at Step 4.
          7. There’s an appeal period for all these things, usually 14 days.
          8. Appeal period expires, developer has 120 days to sign their development agreement, and upon signing, registering the agreement on the property’s title, they come in and apply for building permits.
          9. Sometimes at the building permit stage the developer changes their mind about what they want to build, and the apply for an amendment.

          I’m a planner (not at HRM), and I believe in this process, but I do not blame people for becoming disillusioned with government, when this is what it looks like.

          1. Thank you, Leah, for your welcome explanation of process! Through it, one can better understand reasons for what can (and does) appear heavily bureaucratic and unwieldy. I’m going to copy and graph it out. The time,interest and expertise you’ve provided will undoubtedly help many others as well.

            My very first job, many, many moons ago, involved office liaison with a Regional Planner, a new position and concept then in Cape Breton. I’m a believer also, and accept that decisions don’t always please everyone, but it’s vital to process, and to civilian trust, that the system not be gamed.

            Thanks again, and will look for your future participation here.I have a feeling there’ll be many more planning-related discussions. Folks want and deserve a say in how our beautiful region develops.

  7. I apologize in advance if I’m misreading something in this article, but are you assuming Councillor McCluskey voted in favour because she was the mover of the motion? (For the record, I’m appalled at her “reasoning” in the Wellington St case).

        1. The “make a motion in order to defeat it” thing only came up about a year ago. Before that, councillors would simply move to defeat, if that’s what they wanted.