Auditor general says HRM's planning department too slow, inefficient

Report confirms what developers—and city hall officials—have been complaining about for the past couple of years.


Halifax's Planning and Development lacks clear policy guidelines and consistently fails to meet Charter-mandated timelines for processing new building applications.

That’s the conclusion from a new report by HRM’s Office of the Auditor General that was presented Wednesday to council’s audit and finance committee.

Among other issues, the OAG says Halifax's planning staff have no policy manual on how to process applications and a burdensome review process that contributes to “lengthy timelines” for developers.

“The 11 development agreements or amendments we tested took between nine months and seven years,” reads the audit. “Four of the six rezoning application files tested took more than 14 months to complete.

Downtown site-plan approvals, for instance, are required under HRM's Charter to be completed within 60 days. But that target is rarely met.

Instead, P&D splits the approval process into two parts—pre-application and full application review.

In theory, the pre-application portion is supposed to speed up the process. The 60-day timeframe isn’t started by managers until the pre-application process is finished.

Meanwhile, staff reports from the planning department are needlessly reviewed several times—from the principal planner, all the way up to the director, HRM finance, legal and the CAO—causing further delays.

“Both the HRM planning staff and external developers we interviewed told us staff reports undergo too many levels of review which they believe are not necessary,” states auditor general Evangeline Colman-Sadd.

Delays in approvals have long been cited by developers as one of the biggest annoyances in working with city hall.

According to Wednesday's audit, senior HRM management blame vacancies in the business unit for the spate of unusually long applications processes over the past two years.

The municipality recently promoted Kelly Denty as its new permanent director of planning and development to replace former planning chief Bob Bjerke, who was unceremoniously fired last summer.

Other problems highlighted by the OAG's audit include an ad-hoc system for submitting applications for review to external stakeholders such as Halifax Fire and the provincial department of environment. There’s also poor communication with applicants, who are often left in the dark with no updates on deadlines or where their proposal stands.

The OAG offered 10 recommendations on improving P&D, including the creation of a comprehensive procedure manual and the establishment of reasonable timeframes for application and review.

All of the ideas were accepted by HRM management, but there's a lot of work to be done before any improvements will be seen.

The implementation of the department’s current five-year strategic plan is currently a year behind schedule, causing further delays in everything from ongoing bylaw simplification to the completion of the long-gestating Centre Plan.

A new bible for development in the urban core, the Centre Plan was originally expected to be completed and approved by 2017.

It's now expected HRM will only be able to adopt a portion of the new guidelines by the end of 2018.

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