Even before Halifax regional council approved its draft regional municipal planning strategy on Tuesday, the deputy mayor was calling it a “profound moment.”
“This is probably the most important work that this council’s going to do. We’re just at this interesting place where we’re facing crises on many fronts, from climate change to housing, which all tie into planning,” Sam Austin said.
“We also see opportunity out there for our municipality that I don’t think anyone would have imagined five, 10 years ago. Just the pace of growth that we’re experiencing. So we have opportunity and challenge, and this potentially is a policy framework to get at much of that.”
Leah Perrin, Halifax’s manager of regional planning, told councillors the new draft is a “repeal and replace” of the 2014 plan. She described it as a full rewrite intended to respond to a “rapidly changing community.”
“We’re responding to a number of key drivers, those being increased population growth and pressure on housing, a need to act on climate and equity, and integrating the various actions from the priority plans,” Perrin told councillors.
Expected population growth
The draft plan notes that projections indicate the municipality is on track to double its population to about one million people in the next 25 years.
“This Plan asks: What does Halifax look like as a region of 1 million people,” the document said.
“The policies of this Plan have been developed with a forward-looking view to supporting this growth in population over the long term, by strategically directing housing, jobs, and community infrastructure in a way that supports our goals for healthy, connected, inclusive and affordable communities.”
According to the draft plan, if population growth continues at its five-year trend, so will the short-run pressure on HRM’s housing market.
“This analysis demonstrates that the Regional Plan and supporting Community Plans must ensure planning policy and regulations use a range of strategies to enable sufficient housing to support future population,” notes the draft plan.
‘We don’t have the tools’
Just a little more than three weeks after communities in her district were impacted by wildfires, Coun. Pam Lovelace said she wanted community safety and connectivity prioritized.
She asked how the draft plan would address the issue of developments where private lanes make it challenging for emergency services to access communities. She also expressed frustration over the province’s ability to override municipal planning decisions.
Lovelace pointed to HRM’s decision to not lift the growth restriction for Indigo Shores in Middle Sackville. It was overruled by the province, despite the fact there’s only one way out of the community.
“So now our issue of finding egress for that subdivision has accelerated to the point where we have to figure out how we are going to get all of those people out of that subdivision, which was extremely difficult this time around (during the recent wildfire evacuations),” Lovelace said.
“But next time around, we’re going to have, what? Twice as many families in there or more, against the wishes and policies of the municipality. I feel like my hands are tied when I look at this great guiding principle that we’re following. And we do seek to address the needs of the communities, but we don’t have the tools.”
Wildfires have become ‘a very real threat to us’
Kate Greene, director of regional and community planning, said these issues have been “top of mind” as they examine the impacts that wildfires and a changing climate have on communities.
Greene said the legacy subdivisions were built at a time when growth management tools weren’t in place. She said tighter controls now exist, and the plan includes action on wilderness areas and their relationship to development.
“We’ve been doing work on what we call the WUI, the Wilderness Urban Interface, studying other areas to understand what we need to do to improve our standards now that this is something that’s become a very real threat to us that we just haven’t experienced in this way,” Greene said.
“In terms of the design of subdivisions, we are looking at the subdivision plan and we’ve created new rules around connectivity. And that’s definitely a focus of the mobility planning team.”
Greene said as part of the engagement program, it would be beneficial to have sessions with Lovelace and other councilors to better understand their concerns.
“And we can talk about the tools that we have and other tools that we might want to see,” Greene said.
While the 353-page draft regional plan is available for review now, public community consultation runs from July 12 through to Oct. 27. Staff plan to present a “what we heard” report in December and update council on an anticipated date for the full amendment package.