Saint John ponders whether big development projects should have deadlines

Some members of Saint John city council are wondering if it's time to put deadlines on approvals for major projects. (CBC - image credit)
Some members of Saint John city council are wondering if it's time to put deadlines on approvals for major projects. (CBC - image credit)

Some members of Saint John city council are wondering if it's time to put deadlines on approvals for big projects in the city.

The topic came up at a Sept. 6 meeting during a public hearing to rezone property on the city's west side for a large apartment complex.

Several councillors expressed concern about approved projects that seemingly had stalled.

"I'm the one that gets the questions, not staff," Coun. Gerry Lowe, who also sits on the planning advisory committee, said in an interview.

Landmark Developments Ltd./City of Saint John
Landmark Developments Ltd./City of Saint John

"And I have to answer the 'Where's this building at, it was proposed two years ago? Why is there no hole in the ground, why is there no shovel here?'

"And when you can't answer it, you look either stupid or you're not paying attention to what's going on."

Coun. Gary Sullivan understands that issue. He said many councillors get questions about proposed projects that have already gone through the planning advisory committee and council and been approved.

Sullivan said there's a financial cost to the city for that process.

"There is Saint John money invested in assisting developers to go through the processes that they need to go through with zoning or bylaw changes and all those things," Sullivan said.

"And … in the normal course of events, that's good, because the city will get paid back when these developments get built and the tax rates change because they're no longer an empty lot.

"But if we are investing a lot of money as a city, and staff time, and council time, and PAC time, and developments aren't happening, part of my concern is getting the payback for the time that we are putting into these growth projects."

Submitted by the City of Saint John
Submitted by the City of Saint John

Sullivan thinks the conversation around so-called sunset clauses on project approvals is more aimed at out-of-town developers.

"When folks are coming in from outside of the city we wonder what connection they have here, what commitment they have to the city," he said.

The concern, especially as interest in Saint John properties escalated during the pandemic, is developers may seek rezoning to make the property more attractive.

"We were wondering, is it speculation? Are folks …doing some legwork getting land rezoned and then using that as leverage … just to flip it and make some money," Sullivan said.

The development that prompted the conversation involves a company called Parsi Development Ltd., based in Victoria, B.C.

The company wants to build two 50-unit residential buildings on Wilson Street at the current site of a billiard hall.

The planning advisory committee recommended a five-year sunset clause, meaning the company would have had to complete the project in that time or come back to council for an extension.

City staff recommended against a clause, saying this project was not a concern.

But staff have suggested a deadline for another recent project.

Ethos Ridge, a seniors' complex proposed in the city's north end, has a five-year sunset clause.

Sullivan said staff recommended it because the zoning is so specific, it would make sense for it to expire if the project does not go ahead.

He said he would prefer to look at projects on a case-by-case basis, but Lowe thinks every proposed development should have a sunset clause.

Put deadlines on, says Lowe

"I don't think you can pick and choose. I don't think that's fair," he said.

"I'm more interested in putting deadlines on."

But Lowe isn't sure city staff want council to take that approach.

"As a rule, you've seen what staff said the other night, staff wants nothing to do with it," he said.

"But the city manager, I believe, said he would take it back and come back with a reasonable sunset clause, or a reasonable time, and we'll wait and see what he brings back."