After almost five years of consultation and studies, the final draft of the municipality’s new Regional Plan is online and ready for one last blast of public scrutiny. A public hearing on the plan—the very last stage before city councillors decide whether to approve it, amend it or reject it—will open Tuesday afternoon at city hall. Following a presentation from regional planning staff, citizens may take up to five minutes apiece on the microphone to let council know what they think of the document that will set the course for growth in the municipality for the next 25 years.
Stephanie Sodero of the Ecology Action Centre will be one of those citizens. Sodero and the EAC have been enthusiastic participants in the Regional Plan’s public consultations to date. Now, with a final draft on the table, Sodero will be coming forward to support it—mostly.
“The fact that HRM has identified key areas for future growth,” says Sodero, “we see that as a positive. It’s a focused, rather than haphazard, approach to development.” Sodero also likes the introduction of the open space model for subdivision design, which clusters homes together in new subdivisions, leaving a larger portion of land untouched by excavators and backhoes. And two new regional parks don’t hurt either. “Another positive is that they have a transportation budget of $150 million for the life of this plan and of that, half, or $75 million, is allocated for transit,” she says.
But it’s not perfect. The plan establishes a 20-metre development-free buffer zone around waterways, considerably smaller than the 100-metre buffer recommended by the EAC. And, says Sodero, the plan’s goal of an overall five percent increase in commuter transit use is “quite modest. So modest it could probably be achieved just given the status quo.”
All things considered, however, the EAC supports the final draft. Sodero won’t be so much pushing for last-minute changes as hoping there aren’t too many. “We are concerned about pressure for amendments to add more serviced development,” says Sodero, referring to the potential increase in the amount of land slated to receive municipal services like sewer, water, public roads and transit. “Essentially, that could undermine the whole integrity of the plan, both from an ecological perspective and an economic perspective. It will result in urban sprawl.”
Councillor Brad Johns thinks that the pressure to add serviced development has already been brought to bear. Back in December of last year, city staff and council agreed to a request from the Urban Development Institute, a group of land developers, to tack on an extra six-week public input period on the plan. This extra review period ended January 31, and the Regional Planning Committee has spent the last several months going through roughly 80 submissions and making last-minute changes to plans and policies. One of these, according to Johns, will result in a dramatic increase in the number of potential homes for Middle Sackville, homes that Johns says his district just doesn’t have the infrastructure for.
“This came up at the eleventh hour, which is my concern,” he says. “All along, the process has been consulting not only residents, but also councillors for the area. We would know where concerns exist and where they don’t exist. What has happened now is that for one reason or another, we are no longer looking at what councillors or the community has had for input.”
Johns will be asking for amendments to the plan that would put Middle Sackville into a type of holding zone for development, similar to its neighbouring communities, Beaverbank and Hammonds Plains.
“I’m certainly probably the farthest away from anti-development of anybody ,” he says, “but I’m concerned that development is not occurring responsibly. It’s occurring at the cost of the current taxpayer, and it’s benefiting developers, not residents.”
“I supported so that we as a municipality could get some control over development and stop being abused by developers. And that’s not what happened. What’s happening here is that developers are able to walk all over us.”
The public hearing on the proposed Regional Plan will begin at 1pm on Tuesday, May 16 at city hall. Arrive at 12:30 to be added to the speaker’s list.