The provincial government formalized its plans to dip into municipal affairs on Thursday, introducing bills to create a new agency on transportation and an executive panel on housing in Halifax Regional Municipality.
The two new groups are part of Premier Tim Houston’s plan for affordable housing, announced last week, and were met with criticism from representatives of the municipal government. As the Halifax Examiner reported last week, Mayor Mike Savage reacted to the plan with some concern, while Coun. Waye Mason was less measured:
“This is an intrusion into municipal decision making. This is not their job,” Mason said in an interview.
Mason said if the province wants to help with transportation, it should match federal transit funding and help HRM implement bus rapid transit and fast ferries.
He said he won’t support the planning task force.
“We all want development to go quicker. But what we don’t want is development to be approved outside of the Regional Plan areas and development to be approved for where we don’t have the road capacity and sewer and water capacity. It’s going to drive a lot of costs for taxpayers and ratepayers,” Mason said.
“I don’t have the assurances right now that they’re not going to just say, “Yep, build a bunch of condos in Blue Mountain-Birch Cove.’”
Municipal Affairs and Housing Minister John Lohr introduced An Act to Establish the Executive Panel on Housing in the Halifax Regional Municipality.
The purpose of the Act is to create “a body with provincial and municipal representation to recommend ways to accelerate an increase in supply of housing of all types and at all income levels in the Municipality;” and “a temporary mechanism to accelerate planning and development to address current and future housing demand within the Municipality.”
The panel would “review applications and other requests” to HRM, and make recommendations to the minister “respecting how a decision on individual applications or other requests could be expedited.”
The Act would create a new panel with a chair and two members appointed by Lohr, and two members nominated by the municipal government and appointed by Lohr. The chair would only vote in the event of a tie, giving the provincial government a majority of votes on the panel. If the municipality doesn’t nominate two members, Lohr would appoint two of his choosing.
The panel would not meet publicly, Lohr told reporters at a briefing, but the recommendations it makes would be public. The panel would be dissolved three years after the Act coming into effect.
No public consultation necessary
The Act would also give Lohr the ability to create “special planning areas.”
“On the recommendation of the Panel or the request of the Municipality, the Minister may make an order designating an area of the Municipality as a special planning area, if the Minister is satisfied that the order is required for the purpose of accelerating housing development in the Municipality,” the Act reads.
The Act enshrines broad powers for the minister to intervene in HRM’s plans, including the Centre Plan passed at council this week.
Lohr could “amend or repeal a land-use by-law within a special planning area,” “make an amendment to a municipal planning strategy,” or “approve a development agreement or an amendment to a development agreement.” Those are processes that require a public hearing under the HRM charter, but under the Act, the municipality would just provide notice that the amendments were approved.
“Any procedural, public participation or public hearing requirements that apply to the Council, a community council or a development officer … do not apply to the Minister or the Panel” in those cases, the Act says.
Asked whether there’d be public consultation on developments in special planning areas, Lohr told reporters he would assume public consultation had already been done.
“This is intended to look at larger developments that have been held up so we would presume that public consultation on those developments would have already been done,” Lohr said. “It’s not intended to short circuit those types of public consultations; it’s intended to look at large areas that have just been held up by various issues, whether it be on the provincial side or the HRM side.”
When the minister does exercise that power, “the Council or a community council may not act on the authority given to them under the Charter respecting those matters,” meaning the minister’s decisions can’t be reversed by council.
Lohr dismissed concerns from HRM that the panel infringes on the municipal government’s authority.
“We recognize the city has done great work. There’s an incredible amount of cranes operating in the city. It is not a criticism of them at all,” Lohr said.
“There’s always conversations going back and forth between municipal and provincial, but this is maybe crystallizing that into a format where we’re working together in new ways that we haven’t worked together before.”
The NDP’s housing spokesperson, MLA Suzy Hansen, said she’d like to hear how HRM feels about the plan. Hansen said she feels there should still be public consultation for development.
“I think public consultation and community consultation is huge in any any of the pieces that we use to develop any part of our province,” Hansen said. “And if we completely X that out, we’re taking away those voices that could actually influence how we do things.”
Transportation agency would create (another) plan for HRM
Public Works Minister Kim Masland introduced An Act to Establish a Joint Regional Transportation Agency. The Act would create a new Crown corporation, the Joint Regional Transportation Agency.
The agency would conduct “a comprehensive review of all modes of transportation associated with the Municipality including roads, bridges, highways, ferries, transit, rail, airports and ports for the purpose of creating a master transportation plan to ensure a regional approach to transportation consistent with the Municipality’s growth and development, and the safe, efficient and co-ordinated movement of people and goods.”
The agency would be run by a board consisting of an undetermined number of planners and engineers, including an executive director and directors of planning and engineering. There’d also be a technical advisory board with members from HRM, the Halifax Port Authority, the Halifax International Airport Authority, and Halifax Harbour Bridges.
Once staffed, the agency would have one central goal: to “submit to the Minister for approval a five-year master transportation plan to improve the flow of people and goods in and out of the Municipality, factoring in all modes of transportation.”
The plan would be public, Masland told reporters. The minister acknowledged that HRM already has plans — the active transportation-focused Integrated Mobility Plan and the Rapid Transit Strategy, with a bus rapid transit route map and a plan to electrify the bus fleet. But Masland said a new plan is necessary to “have everyone at the table.”
“I think anytime that we can bring people together and stakeholders together to collaborate, to future plan to make sure we don’t make mistakes … I think that’s good for Nova Scotians,” Masland said.
Masland said she believes the municipality is “excited” about the plan.
“I just can’t see why anyone wouldn’t be excited about this, an opportunity to come together and collaborate altogether with stakeholders from Halifax International Airport, the harbour authority, the bridges, the province,” Masland said.
“To me it’s a win-win, when we all come together and plan for future growth. And I think that’s what Nova Scotians want, they want to make sure that people are working together collaboratively to make sure that the road systems are safe and easy for them to manage.”
Masland said she hopes to have the agency up and running in early 2022.
Both bills will move to the legislature’s Law Amendments Committee for comment, likely early next week.