Council downzones historic Black community to stop ‘Wild Wild West of development’

Limits have been placed on development in a historically Black community outside of Halifax after a vote at Halifax regional council this week.

Community members from Upper Hammonds Plains packed council chambers for a public hearing Tuesday night, where many spoke after an HRM staffer's presentation outlining the proposed changes.

Council initiated a review of land use policies and regulations in Upper Hammonds Plains and the surrounding communities of Beaver Bank and Upper Sackville in August 2021. From there, the city engaged in an “extensive public review process” with community members in Upper Hammonds Plains from September 2021 to October 2022.

Gina Jones-Wilson, president of the Upper Hammonds Plains Community Development Association, spoke at the hearing and said her organization was one that initiated the response “around the increased development in the community.”

Jones-Wilson said she would often receive complaints about things like businesses running 24 hours a day inches away from residential homes, and noises and spotlights from tow trucks disturbing families in the wee hours of the morning. She said her community then became “the Wild Wild West of development.”

The community is not necessarily against development, Jones-Wilson said, but wants a greater say in the changes that happen in Upper Hammonds Plains going forward.

“Our community is just looking … to have an opportunity to know, first of all, who the developer is, second of all, what that development is going to look like, and third, who to contact,” she said. “Because right now, only time we know a development is happening is when you’ll hear dump trucks go up the road, or you’ll hear [hearsay] from residents.”

The community of Upper Hammonds Plains was established in 1815 predominately by formerly enslaved Black American Refugees following the War of 1812.

In her presentation to council at the hearing Tuesday, HRM planner Maureen Ryan said that Black land ownership in the community has since dwindled to 38%.

Following the first notice of the public hearing, Ryan said 14 applications were submitted and approved “to secure existing development rights” ahead of the proposed amendments being voted on and potentially implemented.

“The total number of units among these 14 applications comprised 746 units, which is substantial given that the number of dwellings within this community [is] 2,400 units in all,” Ryan said.

Through the public review process, Ryan said Upper Hammonds Plains community members expressed concerns about issues such as land loss, pressure on inheritance landowners, a need for affordable housing, land use conflicts, illegal dumping in the community, traffic congestion and speeding, limited connection to surrounding communities, and a need for sidewalks.

The community expressed a preference for single and two-unit dwellings, an outright ban on mobile home parks, and a consideration for multi-unit dwellings and townhouses but not without community input.

With respect to the types of business the community feels should be allowed to operate in Upper Hammonds Plains, six types were listed which included: home businesses from a house or accessory building; auto repair, trucking, landscaping, and construction storage; limited agriculture; small scale forestry; small scale industry; and large scale industry with community consultation.

The municipality will reduce the permitted size of industrial and forestry developments from 10,000 square feet to 5,000 square feet.

Commercial businesses over 2,000 square feet, multi-unit dwellings, townhouses, outdoor display courts such as car lots, new salvage yards (not including those currently operating), and intensive agricultural businesses are all now prohibited.

New changes also include allowing up to 1,000 square feet for home businesses, 2,000 square feet for commercial businesses, and a reduction of the number of animals allowed on a property for agricultural use.

“It’s not perfect but it’s a step in the right direction,” Pastor Lennett Anderson of Emmanuel Baptist Church in Upper Hammonds Plains told council.

Melissa Marsman said the changes don’t go far enough.

“They do not halt the several development permits that have already been approved, notwithstanding their incompatibility with the rich history of this African Nova Scotian community,” Marsman said.

“Nor do these recommendations repair the damage that has accumulated over the years by the unchecked permissive nature of the existing GU-1 Zone which cannot now be undone.”

Anderson told council his great-grandfather and his brother were the first to purchase land in Africville.

“And we know how that story ended,” he reminded the council.

Anderson’s wife Késa Munroe-Anderson served as Halifax’s first full-time permanent African Nova Scotian Affairs Advisor.

At the hearing, Monroe-Anderson said it was “incumbent” on her to speak from her experience in her former position, and said the ongoing gentrification of Upper Hammonds Plains has an “eerie reminiscence of the Africville story, but in a neo-colonialist way.”

“Bulldozers have been replaced by the mighty dollar, the power, and the privilege of developers, clearcutting one plot of land at a time,” she said.

“And while HRM may not have ordered this pending razing, it is apparent to me that the municipality has sat too long passively allowing it to happen, and some might say enabling it to happen.”

Council also heard from people who opposed the changes to the zoning. Jeff Smith said he owns a small development company that owns land in the Pockwock area of Upper Hammonds Plains.

“One of our developments in the Pockwock area has tenants that would have otherwise had to move to a different area even though they grew up in the local community, said Smith. “Because of the proper existing zoning, they were able to stay, work, and raise their young families.”

Others who opposed the changes argued that a new development approval process as recommended in the proposal would be too costly for small-scale developers who would now be limited in the number of units they can build in order to spread out the additional cost.

The changes will lower property values, others argued, and could have a negative impact on retirement plans for Black residents of Hammonds Plains who aren’t opposed to selling or developing multi-unit housing developments on their land.

The new by-law changes come less than two months after the province passed Bill 225. That legislation gives the Minister of Municipal Affairs and Housing the power “to nullify a by-law of the Halifax Regional Municipality within six months of its passing.”

The majority PC government amended the original bill after Black community members and NDP and Liberal MLAs Suzy Hansen and Angela Simmonds raised concerns that the bill could negatively impact Black communities in HRM like the Prestons, Beechville, and Upper Hammonds Plains.

Despite the amendment to Bill 225, the Nova Scotia Decade for People of African Descent Coalition, a founding member of the Upper Hammonds Plains Community Land Trust, and other community advocates have since stated publicly that the amendment wasn’t specific enough to alleviate concerns around gentrification and land loss in Black communities throughout HRM.

“It’s a very vulnerable community, at the end of a road, without infrastructure,” Ryan said about Upper Hammonds Plains during her presentation at this week’s hearing. “And the community is trying to be fair as well saying, ‘We’re not closed for business, we want to allow development, we want to consider this but we need a mechanism that works for the community.’”

After Tuesday’s hearing, Coun. Pam Lovelace said she spoke recently with Premier Tim Houston and Municipal Affairs and Housing Minister John Lohr “about the importance of this vote” and about “ensuring that Bill 225 does not send this vote [into] being a complete waste of time.”

The amendments passed unanimously.

Matthew Byard, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Halifax Examiner