Upper Hammonds Plains residents say zoning changes allow growth 'on our terms'

Upper Hammonds Plains residents say zoning changes allow growth 'on our terms'

Residents in Upper Hammonds Plains say recent zoning changes will help stop the "gentrification" of their historic African Nova Scotian community as they plan for the future.

Last month, Halifax regional council approved changes to tighten the area's zoning laws — which had not been altered since the 1980s — following years of community pressure.

Dozens of people packed the gallery at city hall during a January public hearing on the changes. Many said that while originally the relaxed zoning had been helpful to allow local businesses to thrive, it had led to a "wild west of development."

"We're not looking to stop development, we're looking to have a little say," Gina Jones-Wilson, president of the Upper Hammonds Plains Community Development Association, said at the hearing.

Halifax Regional Municipality/YouTube
Halifax Regional Municipality/YouTube

The Halifax Regional Municipality's old rules allowed apartment buildings and industrial businesses like auto salvage yards to go in directly beside private homes through the as-of-right process, meaning a property owner could build at any time with very little restrictions and no public input.

Tyler Simms was one of many at the hearing who said they're worried about their children's safety along the main Pockwock Road.

"They can tell you the stories of large equipment, dump trucks and trades workers speeding towards these developments while they walk to and from the bus stop, almost forcing them into the ditch," said Simms.

Jones-Wilson said it was only recently that developers turned their attention to Upper Hammonds Plains, but when they did it "just went crazy."

The new zoning changes mean that large-scale industrial businesses and multi-unit dwellings are only allowed through development agreement, and even then, the residential buildings can only be up to three storeys.

These agreements require developers to file plans with the city and complete environmental assessments and traffic studies. New landfill and hazardous waste disposal sites are now completely banned.

As notices went out about the proposed changes, Jones-Wilson said she saw a social media post from someone saying "the honeypot is getting ready to be shut down, get your permits in now."

Municipal planner Maureen Ryan told council that since HRM posted about the changes, hundreds of applications for development and building permits had come in. The city had not put any interim measures in place, Ryan said, so all of them will go through — leading to 746 new units.

Ryan said that's "substantial" growth given there are currently only 2,400 dwellings in the area.


Resident Kesa Munroe-Anderson said she was "heartbroken" to see such a scale of development slip in under the wire.

"I am sorely disappointed that HRM has not yet found a way to protect and to safeguard African N.S. communities," said Munroe-Anderson

"I cannot help but connect the dots of what is happening … to the past as the inequities at hand have 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."

Black residents own 38% of land

As of January, municipal staff said only 38 per cent of lands in Upper Hammonds Plains were owned by African Nova Scotians.

That number once stood much higher as the community was established in 1815 by Black Refugees from the United States. They came to the area after the War of 1812 as freed slaves and were granted lands in the area, according to a staff report.

"Essentially it's gentrification that's happening, although it's happening far from the urban centre… It's displacing folks, right, and driving up a lot of the prices," said community advocate Curtis Whiley, whose family is descended from those first Black settlers.


Some developers spoke against the changes at the public hearing, saying density was needed to allow people to keep living in the area where they grew up.

A retired Dalhousie University architecture and planning professor, Tom Emodi, warned that such strict zoning would devalue the land. He said this would create "unintended consequences" that would work against the community's plans for a vibrant future with more services like sidewalks and new schools.

Whiley said such comments were "tone deaf," as residents are very aware of the impacts of these changes — which are temporary anyway.

"Our community is already vibrant and always has been … the community needs to be put first and put forward their vision first, our vision first. And then developers can figure out how they can play a part in that — not developers leading the way," Whiley said.

"Development will happen on our terms."


Whiley said residents are looking forward to working with HRM on a community action plan to figure out how the area will grow in years to come.

He is hopeful one project he's involved with, the Upper Hammonds Plains Community Land Trust, can play a large part. The trust is looking to eventually gain parcels of land for community-owned affordable housing.

"I just feel like for our African Nova Scotian community, sometimes it feels like ... we can't make a difference, like we can't make those big changes that we need to," Whiley said.

"It took over two years for us to navigate [this] process. But through it, it really galvanized us, and it really brought us together."

Regional council is considering funds to carry out the action plan, and hire three new staff to do similar planning with all of Halifax's African Nova Scotian communities, in this year's budget. Those items will be decided at the end of March.

For more stories about the experiences of Black Canadians — from anti-Black racism to success stories within the Black community — check out Being Black in Canada, a CBC project Black Canadians can be proud of. You can read more stories here.