Mayors wary of repeating past mistakes as province moves to restart Northeast Avalon Regional Plan

The Northeast Avalon Regional Plan would help guide land use between the 15 communities in the area — the largest being St. John's. (Submitted by Alick Tsui - image credit)
The Northeast Avalon Regional Plan would help guide land use between the 15 communities in the area — the largest being St. John's. (Submitted by Alick Tsui - image credit)

For at least the fifth time in 15 years, the provincial government is talking about restarting a long-stalled regional plan for municipalities on the northeast Avalon.

The Northeast Avalon Regional Plan, or NEAR for short, would be a shared land-use strategy that would be used to guide future projects that affect the 15 towns and cities encompassing the area.

The project was first promised by the provincial government in 2007, but talks broke down several times throughout the intervening years as ministers changed portfolios and whole councils turned over in elections.

An access to information request by a reporter with The Telegram shows the minister of municipal affairs intends to start talks on the plan again, but mayors in the region are proceeding with caution.

"It would seem to me that before we spend time and money working towards a new plan at this point, given where we are now and the time it's taken to get here, there [should] be a lessons-learned exercise to determine what went wrong with the process and what can be improved to try to avoid making the same mistakes," Conception Bay South Mayor Darrin Bent told the St. John's Morning Show on Thursday.

Alyson Samson/CBC
Alyson Samson/CBC

The NEAR plan would replace the St. John's Urban Region Regional Plan, which was created in 1976. The plan was used to guide major transportation projects between communities, such as the Team Gushue Highway.

While that plan is more than 45 years old, Bent said the towns have been working together on plenty of mutually beneficial projects in recent years without needing an updated land-use plan.

The plan would cover municipalities as large as St. John's, and as small as Bauline. Bent said getting everyone onside can be difficult, and plans have to consider the differences in tax bases and needs.

Submitted by Javad Abedini
Submitted by Javad Abedini

"We don't all have the same capacities financially or with personnel resources to deal with issues in the same ways," he said. "It would be an important hurdle to get over to move forward. That's why any sort of cookie-cutter approach to land management, I don't think would lead to a significant result."

Reservations aside, if the process could lead to benefits for his town, Bent said he would happily take part.

"Cooperation and consultation among communities is something C.B.S embraces," he said. "So we're very interested to see where this plan can lead."

Why now?

The NEAR project was launched in 2007 and expected to be finished by 2009. The province talked about finishing the plan in 2011, 2013, 2017, 2019 and now again in 2022.

It's just talk for now — St. John's Mayor Danny Breen said he's been contacted about taking part in meetings, but no dates have been set.

"I haven't been given a reason why, and I'm looking forward to a meeting where the province can explain why now is the time," Breen said.

Eddy Kennedy/CBC
Eddy Kennedy/CBC

"We know there was a problem around unserviced versus serviced lots, that was one of the points that stalled the previous resolution to the plan. So I think what we need to do first is talk to the province and say this is where it went off the rails last time, what are we going to do to ensure we don't go through the same process again, spend a lot of money, spend a lot of time and effort and end up with nothing at the end of the day."

Breen said it's important to note the NEAR plan isn't a regional economic development plan — that's already in the works, and will be imperative for growth, he said.

He did say, however, that important items like a regional public transit plan could emerge from NEAR meetings.

"We need to look at our road network and how we're moving people, whether it's through public transit or in vehicles. These are all big issues and we need this planning in the beginning to do that."

Whatever happens, Breen said he's balancing any optimism with the history of the plan.

"I'm keeping an open mind until we sit down and talk," Breen said. "But we don't want to be sitting around recreating something and ending up in the same place."

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