The future of our city is at risk. Back in 2006, city council adopted the regional plan, a blueprint for how the city is supposed to develop over the next 25 years. It's not a bad document, which is to say it set out reasonable---albeit not great---targets for less suburban sprawl, for densification of the peninsula and central Dartmouth and for improving mass transit, among other generally positive ideals around parks and open space and so forth.
The regional plan is, in bureaucratic lingo, a "living document," which means that every five years we're all supposed to get a sense of how things are going, discuss what's gone well and what's not working out and generally figure out how we can tweak the document to make things go better into the future. The five-year reviews are heavy on process---with lots of public engagement and several government committees batting it around for a while, before it gets kicked up to city council, which will adopt a final updated plan.
Council adopted a plan for how to proceed with the review back in September of 2011, and set a goal of finishing by September of 2012. Problem is, here we are three months in, and just about nothing has been done. "We are already a quarter of the way into a review," says the Ecology Action Centre's Jen Powley, "and the who, what, when and where of the consultations are still not known. That's not just worrisome---it's startling."
My sources in city hall lay blame for the delay directly at the feet of the city's new chief administrator, Richard Butts, and wonder aloud if there is political interference. "A couple of items that could come out of the review could be political hot potatoes," says one city staffer, citing the potential for increased charges to developers to pay for the roads, water mains, sewers and buses that new subdivisions will need.
Delaying the review until after the October election might put some politicians dependent on developer campaign contributions in a more tenable electoral position, but delay will only make the regional plan's failures grow worse.
For example, Powley points at the 2006 targets for new development: 25 percent of new housing would be built in the urban centres of the peninsula or central Dartmouth, 25 percent would be built in rural areas and 50 percent would be built in suburban areas. Like I said, those targets aren't great, but they're a vast improvement over what's happened in recent decades. They're also better than what's actually happened: since 2006, only 16 percent of new housing was built in the urban areas, while 28 percent was built in rural areas and 56 percent in the suburbs.
Concerned that the five-year review will falter or not be taken seriously, 33 groups from urban, suburban and rural HRM, representing environmentalists, health professionals, business associations and others, have come together to form Our HRM Alliance, to directly advocate for a better revision of the plan.
The Alliance has agreed upon seven specific issues that will make the regional plan, and ultimately the city, better. They are: 1) Build a green belt around the city. 2) Increase spending over the next five years on downtown to $50 million and to suburban core areas to $20 million, focusing on pedestrian uses. 3) Increase spending on transit from the existing 50 percent of the transportation budget to 60 percent, and spend 15 percent more on active transportation. 4) Change the growth targets to 40 percent urban, 40 percent suburban and 20 percent rural, and most importantly, actually adhere to the targets. 5) Increase fees to developers so they are paying for all the costs of new services. 6) A series of detailed recommendations for protecting watersheds. 7) Change the way targets are measured so they are meaningful and have teeth.
The Alliance's plan is a good one, and one that most people across HRM would agree with. But it's in danger of being side-tracked by narrow political calculation. Council should fast-track the regional plan review, make sure it's completed before the election and order staff to stop the delaying tactics.