The city’s Environment and Sustainability Standing Committee met last Thursday and got a presentation from Our HRM Alliance. The alliance is a group focused on preventing climate change, and it’s noticed that Halifax Regional Municipality’s big planning documents are announced with much fanfare but then poorly implemented, if at all.
“The problem that we were talking about today is that there just really isn't a legal framework for protecting our natural assets in the HRM,” alliance Co-ordinator Kortney Dunsby tells The Coast in a phone interview. “Development rights win out over protecting the environment—that's seemingly the ongoing problem.”
In the presentation, former HRM solicitor Mary Ellen Donovan, who’s currently an HRM Alliance member, pointed out a few of the cracks in the framework. Section 234 of the HRM’s charter says that anytime council adopts a planning strategy that regulates land use, it needs to pass a bylaw enshrining the strategy at the same time. Climate plans should have and need to have associated bylaws to be effectively implemented. They frequently do not. Development plans always do.
Practically speaking, that means the city prioritizes development, despite what councillors say the city’s priorities are.
The city’s environment policies frequently instruct staff to consider the relevant climate policy in their reports to council. But there is no legal requirement to do so. Staff reports have paragraphs detailing how a development is allowed by the various development and land use bylaws. And at the bottom, there’s usually only one line on the environment, which usually reads, “No environmental implications are identified.” There’s no indication of what was considered, if anything, because there isn’t a rule saying other environmental rules need to be checked (if those other rules even exist).
Donovan also pointed out that there are city policies like regional municipal planning strategies that actively, legally, put developing land above protecting the environment. Or they identify single pieces of land, like Little Sheldrake and Maple Lakes, as both potentially a park and as the potential location for a road. The HRM charter also does things like favour road building over park building: The charter gives council one year to decide on and find the money for a park, but roads get a five-year window.
Dunsby believes that city staff and council care about the environment wholeheartedly. But, as HRM Alliance’s presentation pointed out, councillors also don’t (or can’t) give themselves and their staff the legal authority to make their priorities into tangible results. Without giving themselves that authority, Dunsby doesn’t think councillors will be able to make their stated climate goals a reality.
Councillors Kathryn Morse and Cathy Deagle-Gammon said they’d come back to the next environmental committee meeting with motions to try and fix this. The committee is scheduled to meet again July 7.