A new review commissioned by the provincial government’s housing task force recommends Halifax reduce public consultation around development, fast-track projects for “trusted” developers, and make a suite of other changes to speed up development applications.
The HRM Housing Development Barrier Review by Deloitte, released Wednesday, recommends the provincial government’s Executive Panel on Housing in the Halifax Regional Municipality, also known as the housing task force, create its own parallel planning department to address the recommendations. There are 15 in total.
Geoff MacLellan, the chair of the task force, hired the consulting firm “to identify barriers to efficient and effective housing development in HRM and provide advice to address the key barriers,” according to the preface of the review.
“Deloitte was asked to identify barriers at all tiers of government as well as within the development community. This document summarizes the advice to the Chair and the analyses that support that advice.”
In a news release, MacLellan said the task force is “committed to identifying barriers to development.”
“Before we begin our work on long-term strategies and goals, it was important for the task force to hear advice and ideas from an independent third party to ensure we had a fulsome understanding of the issues from all sides. We appreciate the analysis and advice from Deloitte and will use this report as a guide as we continue our work with our partners to improve the housing situation in our province’s biggest city,” MacLellan said.
Municipal Affairs and Housing Minister John Lohr told the Halifax Examiner at Province House that the recommendations will require discussion between the province and HRM. He wouldn’t commit to implementing all of them.
“We think it is a comprehensive report, but in terms of what exactly gets done, that’s a moving target,” Lohr said.
Deloitte’s first recommendation is to “Create a parallel planning team to assist HRM in clearing up the backlog of planning applications, piloting many of the recommendations as described herein and implementing solutions for quick win barriers identified during this process.” That team would report to the task force and work to clear the “current planning backlog” in HRM.
Lohr said the province is starting work on that recommendation.
That team would be responsible for the implementation of nine of the other recommendations. Those include: increasing allowable building height along transit routes; eliminating single-unit zoning in serviced areas; and removing parking requirements for new development.
Deloitte also recommends the planning team set timelines for planning applications and create a system of “deemed approval” for when those timelines aren’t met. That means that if the municipality’s planning department didn’t process an application on time, it would be approved by default.
Consultant calls for less public input
It’s also tasked with clarifying the purpose of public input and appeals processes.
“There is an overreliance on public hearings to make land use decisions, which tends to favour certain voices over others and rarely affects outcomes,” Deloitte wrote.
This is in line with the task force’s work on so-called special planning areas in HRM, where the minister approves developments based on a recommendation from the task force with no public hearing.
The new planning team, Deloitte recommended, should: “Limit public meetings to those required by legislation;” “Exempt from public consultation all projects ten units or less that conform to the Regional Plan;” “Reduce the number of times applications/projects are reviewed by an advisory board or combine reviews where possible;” and “Consider exempting from public input if a development has a minimum (e.g. 30%) affordable housing component.”
Halifax regional council’s role in development approvals should be diminished, too, Deloitte recommended.
“Increase the level of authority among HRM staff to effectively and efficiently move files through the development approval process (e.g. development variance permits, minor variance approval). Matters that are straightforward and technical in nature should fall within the purview of staff,” Deloitte wrote.
“Adjust statutes to only require Council decisions on Municipal Plan adoption and amendments.”
The municipality itself is tasked with three recommendations: “Simplify and streamline MPSs and by-laws;” “Accelerate completion of Regional Plan;” and “Develop Trusted Professional Program to reduce rework and grow trust of industry professionals.”
That trust professional program would see HRM “Partner with professional firms and/or associations to audit work of approved professionals (i.e. engineers, architects), rather than perform a detailed review of each deliverable.”
Similarly, the task force planning team and HRM are both tasked with developing what Deloitte called the “Establish Trusted Partner Program,” which would include “enhanced fast-lane service” for developers with a “track record of high-quality submissions.”
“A customer relationship manager (single point of contact) from HRM will be assigned to each Trusted Partner, and will be responsible for ensuring timelines are met and communication is frequent and up-to-date,” Deloitte wrote.
The provincial government is tasked with legislating “HRM to be accountable for setting and meeting targets for minimum land supply for housing development,” and with boosting the number of qualified tradespeople by expediting immigration, removing restrictions on tradespeople moving from other provinces, and providing free education.
Halifax says most recommendations already underway
In a statement following the release of the report, HRM said it was “pleased to see that the recommendations of this independent report serve to validate the important work of the municipality, including efforts to address affordable housing.” It continued:
Many of the recommendations reflect work that is well underway and the municipality is confident that this work will be completed in a timely manner. There is an immediate need for more skilled trades and construction workers to support the creation of housing by the private and not-for-profit sectors – and the Halifax Regional Municipality is prepared to support provincial and federal efforts in that respect, in collaboration with the development industry.
In an interview Wednesday, Coun. Waye Mason said the municipality is already on its way to implementing most of the recommendations.
“We’re doing all those things. Thank you province for agreeing with us,” Mason said.
The Peninsula South councillor doesn’t think the parallel planning team is a good idea.
“I don’t know why they would want to duplicate our job,” Mason said. “Tell us what you expect, set some goals for us. If that’s your concern, what are the benchmarks you want us to hit? Right? And then get out of the way.”
As for the recommendation around public consultation, Mason said he doesn’t think Deloitte understands the types of public consultation happening now. He also rejected the idea that councillors should only approve municipal plans because he said it’s important they are involved in writing land-use bylaws and design guidelines.
“Council doesn’t want development going to council either,” Mason said. He pointed to the Centre Plan’s approval process, which doesn’t include council, but was designed with council approval.
“There’s no city in North America where the city doesn’t have say over land-use bylaws and stuff that is outside of by-right development,” he said.
With files from Jennifer Henderson
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Over the course of my planning career, there have been numerous committees established consultants paid and plans approved to revisit, re-engineer, refocus, and re whatever to better our municipal planning processes. Obviously, none of these efforts – the most recent being the Regional and Centre Plans – have been successful so the Province retained a consulting firm with little experience in municipal planning to get it right. A couple of immediate thoughts though:
1. Creating additional bureaucracy has generally not been considered a means to streamline planning processes. However, this proposed “parallel planning team” will not be burdened with accountability to elected officials or public consultations. It will only report to the non-elected housing task force which also is not accountable to elected municipal leaders or burdened with public consultations. Maybe it can work (obviously, at least for the development industry) but I keep thinking of the motto adopted by another digital news outlet that I subscribe to: “Democracy Dies in Darkness”.
2. “The Province should legislate HRM (and possibly all NS municipalities) to be accountable for setting and meeting targets for minimum land supply (i.e. lands which have been granted planning permissions) and development approvals based on Housing Needs Assessment projections.” HRM is not in the business of developing land and municipal approval requirements are not the only factor developers consider when deciding whether to initiate a project. Borrowing costs and the ability to obtain a loan are also fundamentally important. Some of us are old enough to remember what soaring interest rates did to the development industry in the early 80s. Is this happening again today? Stay tuned. Should HRM councillors or senior planning staff be jailed or executed if provincially mandated targets are not met? Maybe not a bad idea after all.
3. “Establish a Trusted Partner Program whereby developers who meet set criteria (including a proven track record) will have an enhanced relationship with HRM.” Yikes!! Who chooses the developers (besides Clayton Developments) that will be eligible for this status and the benefits it brings? Probably, the housing task force. Any possibility for corruption? hmmmn.
4. Introduce a deemed approval process whereby applications are deemed to be approved under standard conditions when a decision does not meet the mandated timelines. Developers could then submit projects that are deemed “complete” but would not otherwise meet the approval criteria and wait out the timelines for a deemed approval.
.5 “Support access to tradespersons through a variety of mechanisms.” This recommendation is obviously not directed at HRM but may be getting more to one of the root causes of the housing crisis. The report states that “HRM would need to complete ~7,600 units per year between now and 2027, compared to the historical rate of only ~3,000 per year.” Actually, historically new housing units averaged a little over 2,000 units per year until the rate accelerated over the last 5 years. The housing crisis may have less to do with HRM approval processes and more to do with a local development industry that is having difficulty keeping up with a vastly increased housing demand.