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.

A man wearing a black pinstriped suit, white shirt, yellow tie and glasses speaks at a podium. In the background are three Nova Scotia flags, coloured blue, yellow and red.
Housing and Municipal Affairs Minister John Lohr speaks to reporters in Halifax in October 2021. — Photo: Zane Woodford

“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.

Waye Mason. Photo: Halifax Examiner

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.

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Zane Woodford is the Halifax Examiner’s municipal reporter. He covers Halifax City Hall and contributes to our ongoing PRICED OUT housing series. Twitter @zwoodford

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  1. I don’t see what’s being lost?

    I had a glass monstrosity put up behind my heritage house with little public consolidation. They were ready to blast 10ft from the back of my house. We got a lot of “my hands are tied” from Mr Mason and the Halifax planning department. The project was going to go ahead no matter what anyone said from the second it reached the planning department.

    Then Councilor Mason went to bat for the developer to not have to have him play by the rules for heritage neighborhood’s commercial frontage.

  2. The provincial government is following the standard Conservative line that less regulation will solve problems. We have a shortage of housing, especially affordable housing. The quick, simple, and proven efficient solutions would be steps like rent control and renoviction control (to reduce speculation in rental properties), supporting co-op housing, and building housing. Instead, the government is using the shortage to reduce regulations (which were put in place for reasons) and relying on the market and private industry – even though the goal of the market and private industry is making money, not supplying housing.

  3. I worry for the people living in apartments that developers had requested be torn down and had that request denied at the community level that they will now get approval and just dump a ton of people on the street.

    Will those of you with more knowledge on the subject instruct me as to how my fears are just anxiety related.

  4. I am gobsmacked. How does less input make a decision better? As in radio, you can only get bad output from bad input. But you can get good or bad output from good input. We won’t even know what input is going into decisions. Worrisome.

  5. Private meetings between developers and elected officials have been going on for as long as there have been elected officials. The information exchange can be quite useful as the elected official may make the developer aware of community concerns and issues. If incorporated into designs, the chances of approval increase, as the project passes through the public review and community council/regional council approval processes. And contrary to the statement made by Minister Lohr, the various review committees have often led to design changes before approvals were granted.

    With this new approach, public consultations through the committee review system are totally eliminated and even entertaining any public consultations is totally at the discretion of the housing task force. No doubt, however, if there are community complaints with the outcome, the Province will respond that it had the benefit of input from the two municipal staff members on the task force.

    What I found most shocking was the statement by Minister Lohr that he personally would assume approval authority for the nine special planning areas, thereby eliminating the approval authority granted to elected municipal officials under the HRM Charter. The amount of development proposed for these “special” areas is huge and is largely under the control of one developer – Clayton Developments Ltd.

    Looking at what’s happening around the world, I have concerns that democratic institutions are constantly being undermined by the rise of authoritarianism. These measures do nothing to allay my concerns.

    1. Under the Centre Plan there is no need for public consultation if the project meets the standards laid out in the plan. Prior to the Centre plan a developer who wanted more than what the existing zoning allowed was required to go through a public hearing at council or community council. After hearing from the developer and the public the application was rejected or approved. In such a process the councillors were acting as judge and jury and were to take into account all the evidence provided at the hearing; and were allowed to ask questions of the applicant and members of the public who appeared at the hearing. In such circumstances members of council knew and were also told that it was inappropriate to meet with a developer or the members of a community; and should not make any pronouncements upon the merits of an application. Simple rules and easily understood.
      In the case of a project on Ochterloney the applicant appeared at a Public Information Meeting and told attendees that he had met seperately with members of council, an MLA and an MP. When the meeting ended the councillors told several people that no such meetings took place; the MLA wrote to me to deny ever meeting with the architect, and the MP denied meeting with the architect.

  6. The changes will put an end to certain members of council who have had many private meetings with developers and the public is never told what a councillor discussed with a developer and what the councillor wanted/asked for in order to support a proposal. I favour greater density with more row houses with a maximum width of 20 feet, very common in Toronto. Time to put an end to 30 x 60 feet lots, we need a rapid increase in affordable housing.

    1. You have trust issues with councillors ( and committees ) but are fine with consolidation of power into fewer players?

      1. A councillor at a public hearing is the same as a jury member at a trial. Not too hard to understand the issue is it ?