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.

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 on Thursday, Oct. 7, 2021. Photo: Zane Woodford

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.”

A woman wearing a black blazer, white shirt and glasses speaks at a podium. In the background are four Nova Scotia flags, coloured blue, yellow and red.
Public Works Minister Kim Masland speaks to reporters in Halifax on Thursday, Oct. 7, 2021. Photo: Zane Woodford

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.

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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. Will be interesting to see how many affordable housing projects are enabled through this legislation compared to developers building whatever they want. A cynic would guess very few.

    So much for the just recently, and belatedly enacted Center Plan.

  2. In the introduction to this article, Zane characterizes the Province’s plans to “dip into municipal affairs” through the adoption of two pieces of legislation pertaining to planning & development and transportation in Halifax Regonal Municipality (HRM). I would suggest that these are more incremental and dangerous moves toward authoritarianism which seems to be afflicting governments around the world (the U.S. seems to be moving even further towards fascism).

    Encyclopaedia Britannica describes authoritarianism as “principle of blind submission to authority, as opposed to individual freedom of thought and action. In government, authoritarianism denotes any political system that concentrates power in the hands of a leader or a small elite that is not constitutionally responsible to the body of the people”.

    In the planning & development legislation, a four member panel is established with membership appointed by the Minister. The panel would not meet publicly and would not hold any public consultations before making recommendations to the Minister regarding amendments to municipal planning documents or development agreements and the Minister could then make the recommended changes without consultation with the elected representatives on the Municipality’s regional council or community council.

    This is all very contradictory to the provision made in the HRM Charter (the provincial legislation that gives all legislative authority to the Municipality). With regard to planning & development, the Charter states that one of it’s purposes is to “establish a consultative process to ensure the right of the public to have access to information and to participate in the formulation of planning strategies and by-laws, including the right to be notified and heard before decisions are made”. Presumably, this section will amended to grant a blanket exemption to any decisions made by the Minister of Municipal Affairs and Housing on the recommendation of the panel.

    So why is consultation important? I worked as a planner for HRM for 31 years in which my work was largely involved with the approval of development related policies, regulations and development agreements. Public consultations and presentation of recomendations to Regional Council and Community Councils were a large and sometimes unpleasant part of the job. On the face of it, one might think a planner would be quite positive towards a proposal that elminates public consulations. While I would concur that my work would have involved less stress, the outcomes would likely have been much less desirable.

    I was often required to attend closed door meetings set up by developers and attended by senior municipal staff and elected reprentatives. In fairness, these meetings could allow for frank discussions of ideas but without approval by the elected municipal representatives after hearing from the public, I would hate to think of what developments might have proceeded. In the current context of development proposals for the Blue Mountain – Birch Cove Lake lands and the Owls Head lands, any decision by the Minister to grant approvals without public consultations or Council authorization seems ludicrous.

    The legislation contemplates the Municipality would foreward two nominees to the Panel for approval by the Minister but, if the Municipality failed to do so, the Minister would make the appointments. My recomendation to Regional Council would be to tell the Province to blow it out their wazoo as any public outcries towards decisions made under this legislation would be met with a Provice would respond to criticismzMunicipal representa

    1. The last sentence should have been continued to read “would be met with a Provincial reponse that the Municipality had representation on the Panel”.

  3. I think that the Provincial government may look at, for example,the Shannon Park lands as a potential large scale ,affordable family development ,much like the surrounding streets of low density townhouses. HRM has silly visions like putting a ferry to run to Bedford what a waste .
    Also the transportation plan the HRM entity envisions focuses on the obsolete notion of a central business district.which all roads lead to? Road widening is not a good option and is a waste of public money. Commuter roads should be tolled like the Halifax toll bridges, the maintenenace andpolicing and EHS costs should be paid for by tolls.
    HRM seems blind to the realities of telecommuting and the savings to employees working at home. It pays no respect to walkable communities where the people can both live and work, not take a risky commute.

    1. I think ferry runs to Bedford or other highly populated areas around the harbour that get people off already congested roads and delivers them to the Downtown centre or Burnside Industrial Park etc. Is a good idea. Certainly beats commuter rail.

  4. Isn’t the simple solution that government come together and build a miniscule percentage of housing with public funds?

    The development community can still have their millionaires and the well to do can still have their harbour views. Give people some simple dignity not hotel rooms (where public money gets funneled back to private interests). Who is entitles in this scenario?

    The market will not serve all of those who require housing, The private sector wants profits not equality or simple human dignity. That’s how we got into this mess.

    Check out the documentary Push Housing as a human right not as a investment option.