Housing Minister John Lohr introduced an amendment to the Halifax Regional Municipality Charter on Friday that will “nullify” or cancel any HRM bylaw that slows down residential construction activity. Although the bylaw appears to have a very broad reach, Lohr said the change was prompted by a very specific concern.
In August, HRM councillors voted 12-5 to make a change to its noise bylaw that would cut-off construction activity by 8pm on weekdays. The bylaw had previously permitted construction noise from 7am to 9:30pm throughout the week.
But during the summer, councillors received many complaints from residents about the ongoing din from development. Lohr’s amendment means construction hours will return to what they were before the bylaw changed.
“This bill is looking at the noise bylaw, which HRM is bringing in and we will nullify that bylaw if it is enacted,” Lohr told reporters. “We’re in a housing crisis. We have immense challenges to have more housing units built. It’s well understood that we have a shortage of skilled labour. So, to curtail the number of hours these people and the construction industry can work, we can’t accept that right now.”
The amendment applies only to housing construction and will not apply to long-standing bylaws.
Lorelei Nicoll was a long-time municipal councillor and former HRM deputy mayor before being elected as a Liberal MLA for Cole Harbour-Dartmouth. Even though Lohr said the legislative change is dealing with the noise bylaw, Nicoll said she worries it may open the door for more interventions in areas of municipal jurisdiction.
“I am skeptical this amendment may overreach,” Nicoll said. “The noise bylaw is contentious to the development world but at the end of the day, municipal government is about the voice of the people and responding to their concerns. So, this is going to remove the ability of councillors to respond to their concerns.”
Loopy talk on the Atlantic Loop
Scott Balfour, president of Emera, Nova Scotia Power’s parent company, also chairs the board of directors of Nova Scotia Power. Balfour told CBC News that because of the Houston government’s decision to limit how much money the power company can request through higher power rates, Emera would not be spending any money investing in the Atlantic Loop, a proposed megaproject still on the drawing board that would involve building new transmission lines to bring renewable power from Hydro Quebec.
“That’s one of the first projects that we’ve said to the team that, you know, we have to push pause on for now,” Balfour told CBC. “There isn’t enough money in order to continue to pursue that, let alone the ability for us to go to the investment community and say, you know, please invest more money in Nova Scotia in order to enable that kind of project of that kind of scale.”
Nova Scotia Power did not include any money to build the Atlantic Loop in its application for a 13.7% rate hike over the next two years.
On Friday, Premier Tim Houston was asked to comment on whether the Atlantic Loop is, indeed, dead. He noted that whether the $2 billion-plus project gets off the ground has always hinged on whether the federal government is willing to contribute financially.
“The Loop discussions have been dragging on. There have always been lots of questions,” Houston said. “The federal government has been cagey on whether they will fund it, how much they will fund it. That’s why we always have been focused on other ways to meet our targets — wind, solar, hydrogen.”
Until the spring, importing renewable energy from Quebec had been touted by both Emera and the province as “key” to closing coal-fired power plants by 2030. In recent months, both Nova Scotia Power and officials with the Nova Scotia government have suggested that large-scale procurements of more wind energy — as well as investments by Nova Scotia Power in battery storage technologies — could help wean the province off coal if the Atlantic Loop failed to materialize.
The government’s move to protect ratepayers from double-digit increases in their power bill only goes part way down the road. Skyrocketing prices for fossil fuels like coal and natural gas mean rates will still go up, despite the 1.8% cap the government is imposing on “other” costs. The Houston government said it is allowing rates to go up 1.8% over two years so the power company can make investments in tree-trimming and other measures to prevent future damage from storms such as Fiona. But the power company said that “allowable” increase falls far short of the revenue it needs to do that work.
“As part of our rate application, we requested over $500 million to strengthen our energy infrastructure and fund 60 new front-line jobs directly related to reliability,” said Nova Scotia Power president Peter Gregg in a statement Wednesday. “The proposed legislation limits this planned investment and the amount of storm preparedness and system hardening we can do in the province.”
That should give Houston and ratepayers more to worry about than the future of the Atlantic Loop, which seems to have faded some months ago.
Interpreting the latest COVID numbers
In the past two weeks, the province has reported 28 deaths from COVID, an amount double that for the entire month of September. Despite that increase, Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Robert Strang said the province is “not really seeing signs of increasing spread.”
He said that’s because at least 11 of the deaths reported last week (Oct. 10-17) took place before that reporting period; given that, Strang said it is not likely community transmission is higher.
Sometimes it takes weeks after a person has died — particularly if they are elderly and have several chronic health conditions — to confirm if they also had COVID. In an earlier report, the province indicated that of the 14 people who died in September, half were residents of long-term care homes.
Long-term care homes are seeing outbreaks. On Friday, Health Minister Michelle Thompson replied to a question about nursing homes with active COVID cases. There are 12 homes in the province with at least two or more cases. Whether they close their doors taking new admissions or allowing visitors depends on the facility, Thompson said, in consultation with Public Health. She didn’t know if any nursing homes are “locked down” or closed.
Strang said what the number of hospitalizations and the number of deaths in the past two weeks do tell us that COVID is still among us.
“Since the seventh wave this summer, across the country there has remained a fairly substantive level of ongoing transmission of COVID. It’s almost as if we have reached a plateau that continues,” Strang told the Examiner. “So, there is this ongoing risk in Nova Scotia and across the country.”
Strang continues: “What we are watching for is, is it going to increase again by itself or in combination with flu over the next few months? We are fairly stable so far.”
At this time, the Health Minister said the province is not considering strengthening the masking rules from “recommended” to “mandatory” for indoor public places.
“We are watching things closely,” she said, “and asking people to do what they can: get their immunizations, stay home if unwell, and wear a mask indoors.”
Strang said some effort is also being made to figure out a way to better report the number of COVID deaths taking into account the actual dates when people died. Doing so would make it easier to understand how much of the virus is circulating when the data is released.
More money for Hurricane Fiona victims
The province announced more financial to agencies helping low-income people deal with housing costs and home repairs. The Canadian Red Cross will receive $1.39 million to cover hotel costs for people displaced by the storm, and the United Way of Pictou County will receive $200,000 to help people with housing repairs.
“I know that many people in our province have endured severe hardship in the aftermath of Hurricane Fiona and recovery efforts are ongoing,” said Karla MacFarlane, Minister of Community Services. “Our government wants to ensure there is further support available for people who were displaced from their homes and for emergency housing repairs.”
Insurers are now estimating Hurricane Fiona caused more than $350 million worth of property damage in Nova Scotia.
This assistance is in addition to $830,000 in funding recently provided to United Way organizations to provide emergency home repair and other essentials to people in need. That included:
— $700,000 to United Way Cape Breton
— $100,000 to the United Way of Pictou County
— $30,000 to the United Way of Colchester County.
So far, the province has announced more than $40 million in assistance to help with the costs of hurricane recovery.
Toll-free information line for people with questions about provincial storm recovery supports: 1-888-428-2256 (Monday to Friday, 8:30am to 7pm)