Council Update: Macdonald Bridge Connector, Bloomfield, Stormwater ROW, and Cannabis

Macdonald Bridge Bikeway Connector Project: The most significant item on the August 15 agenda was the Macdonald Bridge Connector Project. The Connector Project will bring cycling improvements to both sides of the harbour with its signature piece being a new flyover ramp that will save cyclists who are heading across the Peninsula or to the North End from having to duck down to the foot of North Street before pedaling back up the hill. Fixing the North Street approach was the second highest ranked project in the public consultation that went into the Active Transportation Plan (a minimum grid of protected lanes was the highest ranked) and has been under consideration since the early 2000s. It’s not a new project. Over the years, options such as flipping the pedestrian and cycling lanes or allowing pedestrians and cyclists to mix were considered and ruled out. HRM also looked at simply cutting a hole in the fence and installing a light for cyclists looking to head up North Street, but this would slow traffic coming off the bridge (including the many buses that cross the bridge each day) and increase the risk of accidents between cyclists and motorists. The flyover is the best option for everyone – motorists, transit riders and cyclists – who uses the Macdonald Bridge.

While the flyover is the most expensive part of the Connector Project, there are actually some pretty significant improvements planned on the Dartmouth side. The main problem on the Dartmouth side is getting to the bridge lane through traffic. The plan is to install a trail and protected lanes along Wyse Road, install a cross-ride at Faulkner Street, a new ramp to allow cyclists to exit the bridge onto the quiet end of Lyle and Dickson Streets, and new local street bike lanes to take cyclists to Shore Road where they can easily connect to the Harbour Trail at Alderney. The Dartmouth side of the project is extensive in geography, but it’s much cheaper to build at just $800,000.

I have heard from a few people who have criticized the $6.5 million dollar cost of the flyover ramp. For me, the flyover isn’t about the 500 cyclists who use the bridge each day (500 is the average, count is much higher in warm months and much lower in the winter). What this is about is building the infrastructure that will grow that number. No matter what cycling infrastructure we build, the Macdonald Bridge will always be at the centre of it all because it’s the link between the two sides of the harbour. The upcoming Integrated Mobility Plan will likely include a minimum grid of connected bike lanes and the Macdonald Bridge will be the key link. We aren’t building a ramp on the bridge to nowhere for 500 cyclists, it’s the start of a network and the start of taking the Regional Plan’s commitment to shift some people onto more sustainable forms of transportation. If we’re going to spend money on a signature project, this is the spot to do it. This is building for the future, not for what we have right now. I’m pleased that Council gave a strong 15-1 vote in support of the Connector Project.

Bloomfield property. Green school site, yellow road connection, blue cultural space.

Bloomfield Property: The other item that attracted attention was what to do with the Bloomfield site. The Bloomfield site is a sizable 3.28 acre surplus property centrally located in North End Halifax between Robie and Agricola Streets. HRM declared the property surplus in 2012 after years of planning. In 2015 HRM struck an agreement with the Province that would have seen the Province purchase the property and redevelop it with affordable housing. The Province, unfortunately, never followed through and the deal fell apart leaving HRM to try and figure out a Plan B.

Since 2015, both the Halifax Regional School Board and the Acadian School Board have been looking at land on the Peninsula for a new school and the Bloomfield site has been identified as one potential location. The Acadian community has been particularly mobilized around this issue. Council voted to offer the property to the Province for a new school site, but, having already been left at the alter once, HRM Council set a 120 day deadline to work out a sales agreement. If an agreement can’t be reached, HRM will sell Bloomfield on the open-market under the condition that the buyer include culture space and affordable housing. More to come on this one.

Photo: Metro

Low Income Transit Pass Program: Council put the final stamp of approval on an amendment to the Low Income Transit Pass Program that I initiated a few months ago. The Low Income Transit Pass Program allows 1,000 qualified residents to purchase transit passes at half the regular cost ($39 as opposed to $78). During the pilot it was found that about 15% of participants who signed up never actually followed through on buying a pass. It makes sense. People move and life circumstances change. There are many reasons why someone might sign up for the program, but then not follow through on buying passes. My amendment allows transit to remove people from the program who haven’t purchased a pass for six months. If the numbers match the pilot, about 150 people will be able to benefit from having access to the program for at least half the year. I’m pleased that I was able to make a constructive contribution. The Low Income Transit Pass Program is already full for this year, but HRM is keeping a waiting list for the next potential intake in six months time. Knowing how many people are interested in the program, but aren’t able to sign on, will be useful knowledge to have as well for future planning.

Stormwater Charges: The complicated and divisive issue of how to collect the $3.9 million that the Utility and Review Board has mandated that HRM pay to Halifax Water for the runoff from streets and sidewalks was back before Council. Before us was the proposed bylaw to recover this cost by adding an extra flat fee of $39 to the Halifax Water bill. This has been the approach favoured by a majority of Council, but it’s something I have fought because it doesn’t make any sense and isn’t equitable. The stormwater right-of-way charge isn’t specific to property like the stormwater cost that is already charged to on the Halifax Water bill, it’s for the cost of roads and sidewalks, which are a common service that everyone uses. This has nothing to do with how much frontage you have or which way the water flows on your property. It’s in the same category as police, fire, transit, parks, etc: A common good and up till now we’ve opted to pay for most common goods through taxation based on wealth.

I have made the principled argument three times at Council without success and I didn’t see mounting it a fourth time as likely to change the outcome so I took a different approach on Tuesday. I still pointed out the principle, but focussed much more on the practical reality of charging a flat fee on the water bill versus recovering the cost through taxation. That reality is that everyone who lives in a house worth less than around $320,000 pays more while everyone who owns property worth more than $320,000 pays less. Condo owners and trailer park residents also pay less because they are only charged once collectively rather than by the assessment of individual units when it’s on the water bill, which I don’t really mind. But providing wealthier homeowners and commercial properties with a big reduction wasn’t something that I think is fair or supportable when it comes to services that are for the common good that are meant to be paid for through progressive taxation.

This time around, the argument finally seemed to catch some traction. A few of my colleagues around the table who had voted in favour of the water bill earlier signaled that they were having second thoughts, enough even to scuttle the proposal. Municipal government is really beautiful in that deliberations and debate is real at City Hall. It’s not just theater and posturing. The problem for Council though was that the $3.9 million wasn’t planned for back when we finalized the budget in April. HRM isn’t allowed to run deficits and it’s too late to change the approved tax rate for 2017/2018, meaning that if we turned down the water bill approach, then HRM would have to take the $3.9 million out of reserves or make cuts elsewhere in the budget. This wasn’t something that most of us were willing to do. So a compromise was struck. Council approved the bylaw to put the cost on the water bill as a $39 flat fee, but with an amendment courtesy of Councillor Nicol to have staff return in the 2018/2019 budget cycle with options for putting the stormwater charge on the tax bill. I voted in favour of the compromise. So this issue will return to Council at least once more. It’s been kicking around since 2012, but perhaps 2018 will be the year where we finally get it right. Budget deliberations just wouldn’t be the same without it.

Bud’s Hemp Shop on Windmill Road since closed. Photo: Graham Carter

HRMs Role in Regulating Cannabis: Also on our agenda was what to do about regulating marijuana. With legalization on the way and dispensaries popping up all over the place, HRM is starting to look at the planning implications. HRM doesn’t control whether or not marijuana is legalized (federal) or who will be allowed to sell it (provincial). HRM’s role is in the where it can be sold and, depending on how the Province opts to proceed, HRM will have either a lot to do or very little. If the Province opts to sell marijuana through a NSLC type setup, than HRM will likely have minimal involvement. If, however, the Province opts to collect the tax revenue and allow private business to sell marijuana, then HRM will have some extensive work to do in setting the parameters around where dispensaries can locate. A lot of unknowns still on the retail side. There is also the question about appropriate zoning for where commercial production facilities can locate. Are they industrial? Agriculture? The production end is something that HRM can structure planning rules around right now. A secure building in a place like Burnside feels right to me.

As I detailed earlier around the Bud’s Hemp Shop/Darkside Cafe issue, none of the existing dispensaries in HRM are legal right now. It’s legal to sell paraphernalia such as bongs or hydroponics, but selling marijuana is still against the law and, as a result, HRM doesn’t issue occupancy permits. The only legal way to buy pot right now is through one of the large commercial producers via the mail and only if you have a medical marijuana license. So if none of the many dispensaries around town are legal, why are their so many? Police and planning deal with issues when complaints are made and, on the planning side, it’s a slow and cumbersome process to enforce bylaws. HRM will follow through though as the Aunties case on Barrington shows. Until the federal government changes the criminal code, the law is still the law. Expect to hear more about this issue in the future.

Other Business

  • Granted noise exemptions for King’s and Dalhousie Frosh Week activities
  • Sold the Riverline Community Centre to the non-profit group that has been running it for decades for $1 plus closing costs
  • Approved amendments to the Subdivision Bylaw to allow for a local improvement charge for water infrastructure in Fall River
  • Allowed a shed to be installed in the street right of way at the very end of a dead-end lane
  • Set the date for a public hearing to close an unused stub of Metropolitan Avenue in Lower Sackville
  • Approved the change to council renumeration that we voted on back in the spring. Councillors salaries will now be calculated based on the average wage in Nova Scotia (Nova Scotia Average Industrial Weekly earnings)
  • Approved density bonusing agreement for 1363 Hollis Street
  • Initiated planning processes for lands at 90 Club Road in Harrietsfield, the old Beaver Lumber site on Highway 7 in Westphal, Scots Lake in Musquodoboit Harbour and first reading for proposals for 1831 St. Margaret’s Bay Road, 15 Shoreham Lane in Halifax and to allow gas stations in industrial zones in Bedford.
  • Changed the reporting structure so that the Accessibility Advisory Committee reports to the Executive Committee rather than the Transportation Committee
  • Bylaw amendments to allow parking machines rather than meters. The actual process of replacing meters with pay stations is still a ways off, but the bylaw will now allow it
  • Asked the mayor to write a letter to the Minister of Transportation to enact a ‘dooring’ offence in the Motor Vehicle Act like other provinces have done
  • Approved alterations to the Cornwallis Street Baptist Church. They’ve done a beautiful job of incorporating old and new.
  • Staff report request on adding an additional float to HRM’s inventory so that the municipality can have more of a presence in community parades like Sambro Days
  • Staff report request on removing the need for Council to approve all encroachments and on the possibility of establishing a Science Advisory position in HRM.

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  1. E-Newsletter August 2017 – Sam Austin

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