The provincial government is moving to suspend the city’s planning advisory committees for three years, removing one of the public consultation steps in the development approval process.
Municipal Affairs and Housing Minister John Lohr introduced Bill 137 on Wednesday, comprising amendments to the Halifax Regional Municipality Charter designed to streamline the process of getting new housing approved.
The amendments, among other changes, remove the requirement to advertise planning matters in the newspaper (the Chronicle Herald); shorten the time in which the province approves HRM planning bylaw changes; and “suspend the referral of planning decisions to planning advisory committees and other advisory committees established by Halifax Regional Municipality Council for a period of three years.”
That last clause includes all advisory committees: the Heritage Advisory Committee, the Design Advisory Committee, the Halifax Peninsula Planning Advisory Committee, and the North West Planning Advisory Committee. Those committees are composed of councillors and residents, and they review development proposals and make recommendations to Halifax regional council and the community councils. In the case of the Heritage Advisory Committee, the members weigh in on how and whether applicants should be permitted to substantially alter their heritage properties.
“As you all know, we’re in a housing crisis in Nova Scotia, particularly in the Halifax area, seeing a huge number of people are struggling to find places to live. We need more housing supply, and we should have started five years ago,” Lohr told reporters during a bill briefing on Wednesday.
“This bill takes bold steps and will take months, in some cases years, off the approval process.”
Lohr said public engagement, environmental, and permitting requirements will remain in place. But he argued advisory committees, which are a form of public engagement, were just slowing the process down without changing any recommendations for councils.
Another clause in the bill appears to suspend the work of community councils for three years. Those are committees of local councillors that make decisions on planning applications in their areas. For instance, the Harbour East Marine Drive Community Council handles those matters on the Dartmouth side of the municipality.
But Fred Crooks, deputy minister of Office of Regulatory Affairs and Service Effectiveness, said those councils would continue to work as they do now.
“There is no change to the decision-making authority, either at the council or the community councils. They get to continue to do everything that they do,” he said.
Coun. Waye Mason, a member of the Halifax Peninsula Planning Advisory Committee and the councillor for downtown and south end Halifax, said the changes are misguided.
“I find the whole thing depressing because it’s clear the people who are advising the government don’t know how municipalities work,” Mason said in an interview.
Mason said “stripping out the public process” may save four months on the back end of a development application. But he said that’s not what developers complain about.
“What they complain about is not enough staff, not enough horsepower, things taking too long before they get to council,” Mason said.
“It’s a bunch of nonsense. It’s a complete lack of understanding of how the legal structure of planning and approvals actually works and where the holdups are.”
Informed that the effected committees include the Heritage Advisory Committee, Mason said, “That’s a disaster.”
In the paper news release handed to reporters during the bill briefing, Mayor Mike Savage is quoted:
A number of these amendments will be very helpful to us as we continue to grow as a municipality. We all want to create quality, sustainable and affordable housing units for all of our citizens.
That quote does not appear in the news release emailed to reporters and published online following the introduction of the bill.
The changes are the result of discussions by the Executive Panel on Housing in the Halifax Regional Municipality, the provincial task force working to speed up development approvals in HRM created with a bill last fall. But Neither Lohr, Crooks, or Paul LaFleche, deputy minister of the Department of Municipal Affairs and Housing, could say when the task force discussed the issues, or whether there was a motion or vote on the matters. LaFleche is a member of the panel.
The task force is the same group that recommended Lohr create nine special planning areas in HRM with the promise of 22,600 homes in HRM in the coming years. Some of those, like the Southdale Future Growth node, are subject to serious environmental concerns.
Lohr confirmed on Wednesday that he alone will make the final decisions on those nine developments, without any involvement from Halifax councillors. And while there may be public meetings, there won’t be public hearings.