Halifax council would not have opted for joint panel on housing, says mayor

·2 min read
Halifax Mayor Mike Savage is seen in this 2018 file photo with the Halifax skyline behind him. Savage says he's had multiple conversations with Municipal Affairs Minister John Lohr about the upcoming executive panel on housing.  (CBC - image credit)
Halifax Mayor Mike Savage is seen in this 2018 file photo with the Halifax skyline behind him. Savage says he's had multiple conversations with Municipal Affairs Minister John Lohr about the upcoming executive panel on housing. (CBC - image credit)

Concerns are being raised about a bill tabled Thursday in the legislature that will see a joint panel created to address the housing crisis in Nova Scotia's capital city, with Halifax's mayor saying it's not the option council would have chosen.

The proposed legislation makes it clear the provincial government will be able to override some municipal planning bylaws, although Municipal Affairs Minister John Lohr has insisted that won't happen.

Halifax Mayor Mike Savage is taking a wait and see approach.

"I take the minister at his word. I've talked to him a number of times about this," said Savage. "This is not the route we would have preferred — we think there are other ways to do this — but at the end of the day, they have the ultimate authority."

Councillor worried about transparency

Coun. Sam Austin is more doubtful, pointing to the makeup of the five-person executive panel. The new body will have a chair appointed by Lohr and two representatives each put forward by the province and municipality.

"It's clearly set up so if they want to overrule us, they can," said Austin.

Austin also raised concerns about the transparency of the panel.

"We're taking a public process and replacing it with a behind closed doors one," he said. "That makes it even worse."

Savage said the public needs to have input.

"We're building a city in 2021, not 1961," he said. "We have to make sure the public has an opportunity to be part of this."

MLA says she has 'major concern'

At the recommendation of the panel or request of the municipality, the bill tabled Thursday gives Lohr the power to create "special planning areas."

But Lorelei Nicoll, who served on regional council for 12 years before being elected as an MLA, said she is worried about that part of the bill.

"It's a major concern," said Nicoll, the Liberal MLA for Cole Harbour-Dartmouth. "Are they in areas where water, sewer and transit are already provided, or are they going to start creating more sprawl?"

Lohr has said that section of the act and the bill itself is not about the province being heavy-handed, but will help identify places where housing supply can be immediately increased and addressing delays in development approvals.

Nicoll called the panel "an affront" in many ways.

She pointed out that other areas of the province, such as the Cape Breton Regional Municipality, are looking for help with affordable housing, and there are 11 municipal units in Nova Scotia that do not have a municipal planning strategy.

Lohr said this week he hopes to have the panel in place by December, with recommendations to follow soon after.

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