By Richard Bell
Faced with disputes over the potential development of more than 1,000 properties within HRM larger than 25 acres (10 hectares), HRM Council produced a severely restricted solution at its January 10, 2017 meeting that will only apply to 83 of the disputed lots, granting the owners of those lots the right to apply for house building permits.
Kim Young, one of the organizers of the citizens’ group Save Rural HRM, expressed the group’s ambivalence about the Council’s vote. “We’re happy that we now have approval of those 83 lots,” Young said, “but we’re disappointed that all of the lots were not included.”
Young pointed out that several Councillors expressed concerns about the city’s plans for the more than 900 remaining lots. “There was quite a lot of discussion among the councillors about how do we go about fixing this to get all of the other lots included,” Young said. “But Bob Bjerke [chief planner] never had an answer. With regard to the vast majority of the lots, it sounds like we’re going to have to start the process all over again.”
And to the city officials and Councillors who were praising the Council’s making a bylaw change in only 4 months, versus the normal 18 months, Young pointed out, “If we hadn’t put the pressure on when we did, none of this would have happened.”
Councillor David Hendsbee, who led the effort to change the city’s policy, dismissed the 83-lot proposal as nothing more than “a band-aid solution.”
"You heard tonight the passion and the frustration about this ordeal,” Hendsbee said. “I want to apologize to Scott Rowlings; he’s the gentleman that first brought this whole issue to my attention. For him not to have the opportunity to have his East Petpeswick Hills site considered as part of this solution tonight is a travesty.”
This fight began in the spring of 2016, when HRM suddenly stopped issuing development permits for plots of 25 acres or more that did not have at least 100 feet of frontage on a public road. A bylaw requiring such frontage had been on the city’s books since 1996. But city regulators had completely ignored this law, and had in fact been issuing building permits for such lots in several rural areas of HRM.
In announcing a ban on such permits in the spring of 2016, HRM planners said that they had issued a number of “inappropriate” building permits. Property owners and local builders who were planning to build in subdivisions where such permits had been issued previously were taken by surprise, and quickly organized a new group, Save Rural HRM, to fight for the right to develop these lots.
Young said that Chief Planner Bob Bjerke’s testimony did not inspire confidence that he intended to make dealing with the other 900 lots a top priority. Bjerke repeatedly pointed to the finally fully staffed Rural Planning team as the new go-to place for rural policy questions. The 6-person team, Bjerke said, was “developing a work plan.”
But Bjerke consistently avoided a direct answer to several questions about how fast he intended to act on the 900 lots.“Some of the remaining lots will probably get a quick fix,” Young said, “but that still leaves a large group of people out in the cold.” Save Rural HRM’s steering committee will be meeting soon to plan their next steps, including asking for a meeting with Minister of Natural Resources Zack Churchill. “We want the city to know that we’re here, ready and waiting,” Young said. “We want to be sitting at the table.”