A bill described by Halifax’s deputy mayor as “anti-democratic” is moving ahead without changes after a meeting of the legislature’s Law Amendments Committee on Monday.
Municipal Affairs and Housing Minister John Lohr introduced Bill 137 last Wednesday, and it passed second reading at Province House on Thursday. As the Halifax Examiner reported last week, the bill is a set of amendments to the Halifax Regional Municipality Charter designed to speed up development approvals in HRM.
The amendments come from discussions by the Executive Panel on Housing in the Halifax Regional Municipality, the provincial task force working to speed up development approvals in HRM. Included in the amendments are two clauses, Clauses 13 and 14, that suspend some municipal planning committees for three years. Lohr said the changes could shave months or even years off the approval process, but Coun. Waye Mason told the Examiner they’d save four months at best. The bill passed second reading on Thursday, and went forward to the Law Amendments Committee.
During the committee’s meeting on Monday, MLAs heard from HRM chief administrative officer Jacques Dubé, Mayor Mike Savage, Deputy Mayor Pam Lovelace, and Coun. Kathryn Morse. Each of them expressed varying levels of concern around the bill.
Morse urged the committee to make changes to the bill.
“Without changes I believe this bill will result in less engaged voters and residents, more expensive infrastructure costs, poorly integrated housing developments as well as unmet housing needs,” Morse said.
“With a higher volume of projects moving through, I feel we need more scrutiny, not less, and residents need to feel informed and able to comment on new developments happening in their neighbourhoods. We need a more democratic approach to growth if we want cohesive communities.”
Lovelace asked the government to delay the passing of the amendments to consult with African Nova Scotian and First Nations communities, and regional councillors.
“I’m here today to tell this committee that Bill 137 is anti-democratic, it reduces transparency. And takes power away from community,” Lovelace said.
The bill “sidesteps” consultation with African Nova Scotian and First Nations communities, and will “greatly reduce community consultation” and “residents’ awareness of developments.”
The committee heard from members of the public, too.
Kortney Dunsby, sustainable cities coordinator at the Ecology Action Centre, echoed Lovelace’s concerns about awareness. She mentioned the government’s recent decision, also stemming from the task force, to designate nine special planning areas in HRM — despite environmental concerns at some of those, including Sandy Lake and Southdale.
“People are losing trust and people are angry,” Dunsby said. “And so many of the decisions brought forward by the Joint Housing Task Force, including those I just mentioned, but also Clauses 13 and 14 of this bill, are sort of eroding people’s faith in the planning process.”
Dunsby asked the committee to consider removing Clauses 13 and 14 from the bill and moving forward with the other changes.
Instead, as expected, the committee moved ahead on a motion from PC MLA Kent Smith to forward the bill back to the house for third reading without amendments.
While there were concerns raised about the bill on Monday, others were alleviated.
During last week’s bill briefing, Deputy Minister of the Office of Regulatory Affairs and Service Effectiveness Fred Crooks told reporters the bill covered all advisory committees. He said that included the Heritage Advisory Committee.
Liberal MLA Lorelei Nicoll asked Dubé whether the Heritage Advisory Committee is affected, and he said it’s not.
“We’ve looked at that through our legal department and our planning folks, and it has no impact on heritage plans themselves, on submissions, or on the Heritage Advisory Committee, so we’re pleased about that,” Dubé said.
Asked for further clarity on the bill, municipal spokesperson Ryan Nearing provided the following statement* regarding the Heritage Advisory Committee:
The affected bodies are ones that are advisory only, not decision-making. The Heritage Advisory Committee’s advice to Regional Council on heritage properties is not affected by the proposed amendments, as it is enabled under the Heritage Property Act, not the Halifax Regional Municipality Charter.
The Examiner also asked about community councils, as the bill was unclear in that regard. Nearing said they would still make decisions, but not act in an advisory capacity:
Local planning matters such as rezoning, development agreements, variance and site plan appeals would still be within the jurisdiction of community councils. The change is that new or amended municipal planning strategies and the subdivision by-law (these are defined as “planning documents” under the Halifax Regional Municipality Charter) would not be routed to community councils for recommendations to Regional Council who are the decision-making body for those matters.