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Save the city 

Tired of politicians who speak out of both sides of their mouths, a coalition of citizen groups is fighting back.

click to enlarge GRAHAM PILSWORTH

For many people, the last six years have been an exercise in municipal frustration. In 2006, Halifax city council adopted the regional plan, a planning document that outlined how the city was supposed to grow over the next 25 years. It envisioned a city with sensible neighbourhoods, good transportation links and protected environments.

The 2006 regional plan wasn't perfect, but it contained a lot of good stuff. Like, for instance, specific growth targets. As envisioned by the plan, 25 percent of residential growth would occur in the urban areas of HRM, 25 percent would happen in the rural areas and 50 percent would be in the suburbs.

Problem is, five years later, in 2011, the actual numbers showed we were on the wrong path. Just 16 percent of growth happened in the urban areas, with 28 percent in rural areas and 56 in the suburbs. If this trend continued, all the lofty goals envisioned in the plan would be shattered, and we'd live in an unruly, sprawling city with no central identity and little protection for the environment.

Part of the problem is that the 2006 plan had some built-in contradictions that necessarily lead to suburban sprawl. For example, it included provisions for the widening of Chebucto Road and the associated billion-dollar Bayers Road-Highway 102 project, which if built will skew the growth patterns in an even worse pattern.

The bigger problem, however, is that despite swearing allegiance to the principles laid out in the plan, councillors repeatedly voted to violate them.

Although the final actions haven't been taken, councillors have set the stage for putting "urban reserve" land in Dartmouth and Purcells Cove that wasn't supposed to be developed for 25 years on the fast track for development.

Earlier this year, many of the same councillors who say they support the regional plan voted to, in effect, give a favoured developer an unsecured $2 million, 25-year loan for the Sandy Lake sewer extension that will only be repaid if the regional plan's growth policies and zoning limits are broken.

Just two weeks after that vote, I watched one of those councillors, Peter Lund, show up at a public meeting and swear allegiance to the cause, saying that the Bowater land in his district, in the hills up above Tantallon, needs to be protected. He's right about that, but I asked why his respect for the Bowater land didn't extend to the Sandy Lake land and I'm still waiting for an answer.

The plain fact of the matter is that councillors' sworn "support" for enlightened planning has mostly been the worst kind of cynical vote mongering, doublespeak, duplicity, developer bootlicking and straight-up lying that are employed on a regular basis to justify breaking the goals laid out in the regional plan.

Frustrated with that duplicity, a few dozen citizen groups have come together to fight back. Our HRM Alliance consists of business groups, environmental groups, builders, environmental and recreation groups that want to put some real teeth into the regional plan, and are trying to get politicians to commit, on paper, to specific proposals that support the plan.

The Our HRM Alliance proposal is straight-forward. By shorthand, it's called a "greenbelt," but really it's a series of five-overlapping planning districts that serve to, yes, protect natural areas, but also to protect farmland, forestry operations and mining. It also protects rural and oceanside communities by directing growth to some areas and limiting it in others.

One goal for Our HRM Alliance is to get back on track to meet urban/suburban/rural growth targets in the regional plan. To do that, they've sent out a questionnaire to candidates in the upcoming city election, asking candidates to commit to specific policies and specific dollar amounts for various projects that support that goal. You can view the candidates' responses at

The group will also be hosting a series of candidate debates. See the same website for details.

click to enlarge GRAHAM PILSWORTH

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