Council last met on June 25, so there’s lots to do this week. The meeting starts at 10am Tuesday, and I’ll be live-blogging it on Twitter via @hfxExaminer. The highlights:
Development fees for transit
When I reported in California in the early 1990s, development fees were already a long-established fact of municipal government. In California’s case, such fees were created in response to Proposition 13, the so-called “revolt of the haves” that reduced and capped property taxes. The development fees weren’t covered by the proposition, and so cities increasingly relied on them to fund basic city infrastructure.
While the fees may have started as an end-run around the proposition, there’s a solid basis for imposing them: Without the fees, new developments unfairly burden all taxpayers with the cost of infrastructure.
Developers have always had to pay for the roads, waterlines, sewers, and other infrastructure within the new subdivisions they build, but the developer fees pay for such infrastructure outside the new subdivisions, say for example a new highway interchange built to access a subdivision, or an oversize sewer main that has to be built to connect the subdivision to the existing mains in town.
These developer fees pay for only the cost of constructing the new infrastructure, not for the cost of on-going operation and maintenance, which is paid for by all taxpayers through their property taxes.
After California took the lead on implementing the fees, other jurisdictions across North America followed suit—the fees are a fair and politically popular way of apportioning the cost of new infrastructure. Well, they’re politically popular assuming the politicians are looking out for the broad interests of average home owners, and not just the narrow profit interests of developers. For whatever reason, Halifax is a couple of decades behind the trend, and only got around to instituting its first development fees in 2006. (Here, the fees are called “capital cost contributions,” or CCCs.)
The 2006 CCCs only applied to roads, and didn’t exactly do the job. Many new highway interchanges, the Larry Uteck/102 intersection for example, wouldn’t have had to be built were it not for the development in the area, but typically the developers are only charged about two-thirds of the cost of construction. Staff argues disingenuously that people who live outside the development will now travel to visit their friends and family in the development, so therefore those outsiders should pay as well, through their property taxes.
In other cases, city calculations for CCCs fail to bring in the required funds because the development never happens. For example, CCC calculations for the Mount Hope interchange in Dartmouth were based on the assumption that the Shearwater air base would be sold off and developed into housing, but after the federal government reversed its decision to sell the land, the city ended up eating $7 million in construction costs that had been allotted to developers. Now, in a desperate attempt to recoup the loss, the city is trying to get other land in the area developed, with the new subdivisions connecting to the interchange via a dubiously placed new road parallel to the Shearwater air strip.
And does it do any good to assess CCCs if council simply builds the infrastructure up front with only vague hopes that the development will one day be built? That’s what happened when council agreed to spend $2.1 million to build a sewage pipe to access a 900-acre Sandy Lake development that under city rules can’t be built until after 2026, and even then could be rejected after a public hearing process. Under the CCC process construction of the pipe would be paid for by the developer, but the city subverted that process, and in effect gave the developer a $2.1 million unsecured 15-year loan. We should all be so lucky.
Still, despite all those faults, and despite being two decades behind the times, Halifax is finally making progress on the development fee front. It’s taken eight years to get here, but council will tomorrow finally discuss how to apply CCCs to transit infrastructure.
Staff has three options for council to consider, all of which look at the fee structure through a different set of assumptions. The bottom line is that council is being asked to raise $2.1 million annually (it’s mere coincidence that’s the same amount as the Sandy Lake sewage pipe) through the fees. The development industry will likely object, which is why whatever council decides, there will ensue many months of “consultation” with the industry. We’ll see what, if anything, comes back after that politically contentious process.
Tender awards made by council are normally just rubber-stamping decisions made through the procurement process, which is set up to ensure fairness and to keep the politicians from meddling. I am not here alleging anything untoward with that process, and certainly not with the companies involved, but I do think it’s worth pointing out that by dollar amount Dexter Construction is by far the largest winner of tender awards. Just for my own interest, I’m going to start tracking how much exactly Dexter wins, so maybe we can start thinking about how competitive, or not, the local construction industry is. Tomorrow, Dexter is slated to be awarded $893,522.45 for repaving Rolling Hills Drive in Waverley.
The province has given the city about $15,000 through the Archival Development Program, and the city is going to put the money towards the approximate $20,000 cost of digitizing pre-amalgamation council records. This is good; up to now, to access the records you’d have to drive out to the archives in Burnside and go through the paper indexes to find a microfilm, which you’d then have to transcribe by hand. In my experience, the archive staff has always been extremely helpful, but through no fault of theirs, it’s been an annoying process. It’s not clear if the money will cover the cost of digitizing all the records, but even if not, it’s progress.
Incidentally, $20,000 is chicken feed. These are important records, and need to be protected and brought to a more accessible location, such as the Dartmouth history museum proposed for the waterfront. This can’t happen soon enough.
McIntosh Run trail
The McIntosh Run Watershed Association has done an excellent job protecting the stream and building trails along it, and now wants to build a 30km trail reaching from Spryfield to Herring Cove. The trail will be “single track,” meaning not the wide active transportation trails the city builds but rather a narrow trail for hikers and mountain bikers. It will be entirely on city and provincial land, and council will tomorrow give the group permission to construct the portion on city land; it already has permission from the province to build the first stage of the trail on provincial land.
In fact, this trail (or one very near it) already exists, but there’s no doubt the MRWA will improve it, make better and safer water crossings, and generally clean things up. It’s a great project.
St. Pat’s high school
St. Patrick High School at Quinpool Road and Windsor Street was closed in 2007, after which the school board used it for adult education programs. In 2012, however, the board declared the school surplus property, which means ownership reverts to the city. Council will tomorrow discuss what to do with the building.
The staff report on the school contains a considerable amount of public input (scroll to the end), much of it expressing desire to keep the school auditorium or to provide some sort of public access, but staff’s recommendation is to raze the building and sell the 3.5 acre site for redevelopment.
There’s a lot of development planned in the Quinpool corridor. Council has already approved the development of an eight-storey building at 6112 Quinpool, the corner of Vernon Street where Cyclesport and Tim Hortons are, and construction should start soon. Additionally, there’s a proposal to tear down the 10-storey Armco building and parking garage at the corner of Quinpool and Robie, and to replace them with two new apartment buildings, of 22- and 11-storeys. And Westwood Construction wants to build an 18-storey building on Robie Street, just north of the Armco building.
Food truck ordinance
Council is being presented with a proposed bylaw regulating food trucks. There’s lots of minutiae in the proposal, but the most interesting involves the distance trucks must keep from existing “brick and mortar” restaurants. The separation distance comes at the behest of the brick and mortars, who argue that they should be protected because they pay more taxes. That’s just silly. Welcome to capitalism, restaurant owners: people are always innovating and figuring out how to do things better, and often cheaper. Surely the buggy whip manufacturers wanted protection from the car companies.
And can you imagine, say, the Chronicle Herald arguing that the Halifax Examiner should be blocked from any computer within 150 metres of a Herald stand? That kind of separation is what Restaurants Canada wants between food trucks and brick and mortar restaurants. As applied in downtown Halifax, the separation would effectively block any food trucks from operating, as this graphic shows:
Thankfully, staff is suggesting a much less restrictive 25-metre separation, which would look like this:
I don’t see why there should be any separation at all—brick and mortar restaurants open right next door to each other all the time, with no obvious ill effect. Regardless, the staff report also includes suggestions for food trucks in some parks (like at Black Rock Beach), and other generally enlightened policies.
The food truck ordinance won’t be discussed tomorrow; rather, this is the introductory “first reading” announcing that it will be discussed and debated at the next council meeting.
North Preston is one of the last 10 (out of 201) “communities” in HRM to have its boundaries be officially “ratified” by council, but that will change tomorrow. There doesn’t appear to be anything controversial about the boundaries, and property owners and the North Preston Ratepayers Association have agreed to them.
But it gives me the excuse to post this, from the staff report:
The community of North Preston was originally part of the Preston Township. The township was named after Preston, in Lancashire England and was originally settled by Black Loyalists and disbanded soldiers in 1784. In 1796, over five hundred additional persons arrived from Jamaica (known as “Maroons”).
Probably some historic work has been done on this, but I’m unaware of it. I’m curious to know why that particular piece of land ended going to the black loyalists, as opposed to something somewhat closer to existing communities. If you know anything about that, please pass it along.
Barry Dalrymple and David Hendsbee will be appointed to the board of Halifax Water, but it hardly matters: Against all spirit of open government, board meetings are not open to the public. This is simply wrong.