By Richard Bell
At its November 22 meeting, Regional Council failed once again to straighten out the mess over the Planning Department’s decision last spring to suddenly start banning development on large lots without 100 feet of frontage on public roads. In a meeting that was marked by sharp exchanges among councillors and a juvenile level of confusion over missing documents, Council punted the issue into 2017.
In a posting on its Facebook page on November 23, Save Rural HRM said, “We are extremely disappointed in the debate that occurred in Council on November 22nd regarding the recommendations for amending the 100’ Public Road Frontage requirement By-law. Several Councillors made motions for common sense amendments only to be voted down 10-5. Not only did the urban Councillors not support us; some of them actively spoke against us!”
Last spring, the Planning Department created an uproar when it suddenly began enforcing the 100-foot frontage bylaw, after having ignored the bylaw since 1996 and issued a number of building permits which it now declared were “mistakes.” For the owners of similar lots, the surprise rejection of their building permits seemed grossly unfair, at best, much less the multi-hundred-thousand dollar losses they were facing with their now almost valueless properties.
Council finally gave in, and ordered Planning to prepare a report on a quick fix that Council would consider at its November 22 meeting, leading to a public hearing on December 13.
Planning identified a total of 77 lots in 6 locations around HRM where it had issued “mistaken” building permits. In its report to Council, Planning proposed to make the narrowest possible exemptions: all of the existing homes would be recognized as legal, and the owners of similar undeveloped lots in these 6 locations would be allowed to apply for building permits.
Councillor David Hendsbee then attempted to offer four additional amendments to correct problems from the more than 250 comments Planning received during the public comment period. Mayor Savage was puzzled: where were these amendments? Councillors had not received them in their packets of info for this session.
In an effort to keep the process from slipping, Hendsbee proposed including his amendments with the other materials for the public hearing on December 13th, a suggestion which the city attorney shot down. Instead, the Council directed staff to prepare a supplementary report on Hendsbee’s amendments; the public hearing for this supplementary hearing could not take place until January. Council voted 14-1 to proceed with the December 13 hearing.
However, Chief Planner Bob Bjerke has since decided to cancel the December 13 public hearing; instead, Bjerke will schedule a public hearing in early January on the Planning Department’s original proposal, plus the supplementary report on Hendsbee’s amendments.
George Hornmoen, one of the organizers of Save Rural HRM and an owner of one of the contested lots on West Jeddore, sent Hendsbee a blistering email attacking the additional delay. Hornmoen asked why the Mayor, knowing that the rule was going to be changed, could not sign a simple order allowing at least one of the other impacted landowners to start construction:
“We all know that they will eventually get a permit because who in their right mind within HRM wants us to continue to make HRM look heartless and cruel? It is a question of how much longer HRM wants to torture these poor folks. Why continue to be so callous and mean spirited? Who would fault the Mayor for showing some compassion? Just give them their permit now. It's one house and if they had started last fall they would be in it already.”
There are no indications that the Mayor is considering such a move. As things stand now, there will be a public hearing in January. Assuming Council votes to approve all the amendments, then there is an additional delay while the province approves the changes. So the earliest that anyone may get a permit is likely to be February 2017.