Development and the Centre Plan: The most controversial items on Council’s agenda for this week was what to do with the 22 requests for plan amendments that have been filed with HRM given that the Centre Plan is underway. There are basically three kinds of development applications that HRM receives:
- As-of-Right: Projects or subdivisions that meet all the existing rules and can proceed without Council approval.
- Enabled: Projects that require Council approval, but were envisioned in the plan. Enabled projects are decided upon by Community Council and Council’s decision is appealable to the Utility and Review Board. A lot of projects in Dartmouth are enabled because Dartmouth requires that any multi-unit residential building of more than three units go through a development agreement, even if the underlying zoning and plan permits higher-density residential.
- Plan Amendments: Requests for changes to the underlying municipal plan. Plan amendments are completely optional and are decided by Regional Council.
The 22 proposals that were before Council were all Plan Amendments and staff had divided them, broadly, into two groups: projects that conform with the direction of the Centre Plan and projects that don’t conform. Staff recommended that Council continue with the amendment process for the 14 projects that fit with the Centre Plan and to stop work on the eight that don’t. I was very much in favour of the staff’s position because the Centre Plan’s underlying direction has been accepted by Council and Council is under no obligation whatsoever to action any of the plan amendments. Given the enormous amount of public consultation and effort that has gone into the Centre Plan, it makes no sense to me to continue to advance projects that don’t conform with the Centre Plan when Council doesn’t have too. Why undermine the plan when we’re under no obligation?
It ended up being a very contentious discussion. The vote to allow the 14 that fit passed unanimously, but the motion to effectively reject the other eight failed 7-8 (myself, Mason, Nicoll, Mancini, Outhit, Cleary and Smith lost that one). A surprising thing happened though when Matt Whitman put forward the motion directing staff to continue working on the eight projects, Councillor Blackburn changed her mind and Whitman’s motion was also defeated. Since both the motion in favour and the motion against failed, the eight projects are in a sort of limbo and will likely have to come back to council as individual requests to initiate planning amendments. A to be continued drama.
I did want to note that it was a very brave thing that Councillor Blackburn did in changing her vote. The easier path was to stick with her initial position, but she changed her mind, and she let that change her vote. Since Council was split down the middle, that decision changed the outcome. At City Hall, debates still matter. You have 17 people, not constrained by party lines, doing their best to figure out how to proceed on any given issue. Sometimes its messy, sometimes I disagree with the outcome, but it’s very real. We’re lucky to have a branch of government that still works this way.
So what is in the 14 proposals for Dartmouth? There are three big projects in Downtown Dartmouth that will continue to be refined including two twin towers on Canal Street, a 16 storey tower at the corner of Victoria Road and Queen Street, and two possible scenarios for the vacant lands at the corner of Park Avenue and King Street. The Canal Street and Park Avenue projects are on sites that have had a fair bit of past discussion as part of the Dartmouth Cove Plan and the Downtown Dartmouth Plan. The Victoria and Queen Street property is a bit more of an unknown in comparison. Expect to hear more about all of these projects when the Downtown Dartmouth plan update is finally released in September (it’s long overdue at this point). The Park Avenue/King Street block will also be the subject of a future public meeting. You can read more details about all three projects here.
Ferry Schedule during Special Events: Council unanimously supported my request for a staff report into providing additional ferry service during special events. I have had a few people ask why the ferry was only able to run on a 30 minute schedule on Saturday during Tall Ships? The problem with the ferry is it’s difficult to scale up. It’s not like putting additional buses on the road where transit just needs one more driver for one more bus and has a large pool of employees to draw from to spread the hours out over. The ferry service has a relatively small staff and to put an additional boat in the water takes at least four (five for the ferry to carry a full passenger load). Transport Canada has very specific safety rules about days of rest, which limits overtime. On Saturday, Transit would have put another boat on the water, but the only captain available was precluded from working because of rest requirements. He ended up working Sunday, allowing Transit to provide 15 minute service on Sunday afternoon. It’s also not practical or fair to try and perpetually force staff to work overtime. Transit’s staff want to take time off in the summer like everyone else and Transit can’t force them to accept overtime. We need more crew to do better.
During Tall Ships, Waterfront Development Corporation Limited (WDCL) chartered one of Transit’s ferries so that WDCL could open George’s Island for the weekend. The George’s Island ferry was staffed by a temporary crew entirely paid for by WDCL. None of Transit’s conventional staff were diverted to run the George’s Island ferry and it didn’t limit Transit’s ability to have a ferry on the Alderney run for Tall Ships. The George’s Island example, I think, does presents us with a potential solution to the repeated lineups at Alderney. If the model of a temporary crew could be expanded, than Transit should be able to offer better service on busy weekends in the Summer for events like Pride, Tall Ships, Buskers, Natal Day, Canada Day etc. The best time to have looked at this would have been a year ago before Tall Ships, but the next best time is now so that we can fix this reoccurring problem for future events.
Dogs on the Ferry: Still with the ferry, one of the items on Council’s agenda that grabbed a few headlines was Councillor Hendsbee’s proposal to allow dogs on leashes on the ferry. The feedback that I received on this one was fairly evenly split. Over the weekend, I spent a few hours researching how other cities handle pets on public transit. Almost all of the major transportation systems in North America including, Chicago, Washington, Atlanta, LA, New York, Vancouver, Montreal, Ottawa, Edmonton, Denver, and San Francisco, have variations of the same basic rule: pets are welcome if they’re in a carrier. The carrier rule is what’s currently in force here in HRM. The reason for carriers is not surprising. There are people who are afraid of dogs and others who suffer serious allergies. Adding to that is the fact that, unfortunately, there are many pet owners who aren’t in control of their dog and others who won’t clean-up after them. When Victoria looked at the issue, the visually impaired community also expressed concern about the interaction between guide dogs and regular dogs in a tightly constrained space.
Letting dogs out of their crates on the ferry was something that Halifax Transit looked at as part of the “Downtown I’m In” discussion in 2014. At that time, Transit opted not to make any changes. I would normally not vote against a simple request for a staff report, but I did in this case because Transit looked at this just two years ago, Transit’s policy conforms to how the vast majority of other cities handle things, and there are significant potential problems with the idea. Had Council requested a staff report, the report would have undoubtedly resulted in a negative recommendation from staff. Asking for one would have wasted resources, but more importantly, would have created false expectations that Transit and Council might agree to the change. Councillor Hendsbee’s motion failed 5-10.
Paying for Transit: Council approved a major technology upgrade for how we pay fares on transit. Over the next few years, the farebox on Halifax Transit buses will be replaced. The new ones will automatically count coins and print transfers. The big change will come a couple of years later when HRM joins the majority of the rest of the world’s transit systems in having smart cards. A card that you can fill with money for fares and that can be tapped or swiped on board could greatly speed up transit by enabling all-door boarding. All-door boarding, as demonstrated in this video from LA, can greatly speed up loading and unloading. It may seem like a small amount of time in each instance, but those extra seconds at each stop adds up over the course of a route. Cards will also allow Transit to truly know where people are getting on and where they’re going if they transfer between routes, allowing for better planning. This a long overdue.
Natural Person Powers: Council endorsed the proposed direction emerging from HRM’s consultation on Natural Person Powers. If the Province grants HRM Natural Person Powers, HRM would be able to do anything that a real person could do. This could help address a number of problems by allowing HRM to better coordinate with the non-profit sector. In Canada, municipal governments have no constitutional standing. They are created by Provincial governments and everything that they can do is set out in Provincial legislation. The practical impact is that municipalities can only do what the Provinces specifically allow them to. This becomes problematic when the legislation, like Halifax’s Charter, is very narrowly written. When new issues or novel solutions to problems are identified, the Charter inevitably hasn’t contemplated the scenario, forcing HRM to constantly ask the Province for Charter amendments to address the unforeseen. It typically takes the Province several years to make Charter changes, and that’s if they’re enacted at all. Recent examples of issues where HRM has run into problems with provincial jurisdiction include compelling developers to include affordable housing in their projects, and reducing speed limits on residential streets. HRM will now take the request for Natural Person Powers as well as the request for a broader grant of power (Peace, Order and Good Government) back to the Province.
Senior Housing: Council set a process in motion to harmonize all of HRM’s different planning bylaws to create one consistent approach for senior’s housing. HRM has 22 different planning bylaws, each with its own definition and rules concerning senior’s housing. While the Regional Plan commits HRM to ensuring senior’s housing is available, the patchwork of different rules makes it hard to do in practice. Seniors buildings that provide care are particularly hard to site because they’re usually classified as institutional. As institutional uses, they are subject to significant restrictions on where and how they operate. With a growing senior’s population and a recognition that we need to provide housing in our communities, there is a strong need to harmonize and simplify HRM’s regulations of seniors housing. I should note that HRM’s initiative only concerns care facilities as there is no way in law to restrict conventional housing to one group based on age.
- Approved roadwork on Almon and Glendale Drive
- Okayed the Dartmouth General Hospital putting cables and pipes under Pleasant Street as part of the hospital expansion
- Deferred a decision on the combining the District Capital ($94,000) and the District Activity ($4,300) funds and asked for a supplementary report on combing District Activty with District Advertising instead.
- Opted not to pursue regulations for indoor fireplaces. There is still a report coming on regulations for outdoor burning
- Provided $10,000 to fund a new gun amesty program. Past program offering bus tickets for guns resulted in HRM collecting ___
- Approved grants for rural transit to MusGo Riders and BayRides and to several Search and Rescue teams
- Ratified grants to Arts Organization from HRM’s interim Arts program
- Asked for a staff report into retiring a roof light for cab driver Robert “Bobby” Richards. Richards drove cabs for 50 years and served on several Taxi bodies
- Asked for a staff report into allowing ATV on a new trail in Head of Chezzetcook/Musquodoboit Valley
- Updated the HRM Emergency Plan