By Richard Bell
(September 20) The grassroots group Save Rural HRM won an unexpected short-term victory at their protest rally at Halifax City Hall Tuesday afternoon. More than 100 people from at least 5 different Council districts showed up to express their anger at how the Mayor and Council were abusing the rural residents of HRM. MLA Kevin Murphy supplied a bus that brought more than 30 people from the Musquodoboit Harbour area.
Flying over the proceedings was the flag of Halifax County, a reminder of the growing discussions about de-amalgamation. Organizers had provided noisemakers, and there were dozens of home-made signs, like “You Can’t Fix Stupid But You Can Vote It Out!” or the more self-effacing, “Sorry For the Inconvenience: We Are Trying to Save Rural HRM!”
The master-of-ceremonies at the protest was former MLA (and former Halifax County and Halifax Councillor) Bill Dooks, who delivered a rousing opening speech focused on the high moral ground of the right of citizens to be heard by their elected officials. He mocked the Council, pointing out that while the Mayor and Council had refused requests for an emergency meeting of Council, these same officials had found plenty of time to deal with allowing bee-keeping in urban HRM, or dealing with complaints about train whistles.
Dooks orchestrated more than an hour of short talks from two groups of people: those who had suffered as a result of HRM’s actions, and candidates for Council from Districts 1, 2, 13, and 14, all of whom promised to make HRM much more responsive to rural concerns. Lil McPherson, who is running against Mayor Savage, also spoke briefly in support of the group's demands.
The primary driver of the protest was HRM’s sudden and still unexplained decision this spring to begin enforcing a by-law that had been almost completely ignored over the 20 years since amalgamation. The by-law requires building lots to have at least 100 feet of frontage on a public road. By starting to enforce this by-law, HRM suddenly turned properties that were being taxed at residential rates into almost worthless land, good only for clear-cutting.
Rural residents were also angry about the Council’s decision to require rural homebuilders to pay up to $6,000 for a lot-grading permit. The Council had received a staff report recommending lot-grading permits only for lots that received city services, like water and sewer. But for reasons that, again, remain unknown at this time, Council decided to override the staff recommendations, and require lot-grading permits for all new homes, urban or rural, regardless of whether HRM provided services.
Mayor Savage Weighs In
In a surprise move, Mayor Savage invited a group of 5 members of the steering committee of Save Rural HRM to leave the protest and come and meet with him in his office. Councillor Bill Karsten also participated in these discussions.
Savage and the group emerged about a half hour later, and Savage took to the podium to announce progress on several fronts. On the 100-foot frontage by-law, he said:
“We have a commitment that we going to have a report that’s going to come back to Council and it’s my belief that Council will support the idea of allowing people to build on the 25-acre rural lots….We’re going to change the law that has recently been enforced that hasn’t been enforced before.”
He then said that he would look for a temporary solution for people who had been denied permits since the spring:
“The question is, in the meantime can we do something as well. Councillor Bill Karsten and Councillor Hendsbee and I have taken away a commitment to see if we can bring something back that would allow people to build in the short term while we wait for this law to come back….We’re going to try to bring something back by October 6 to see if we can find a solution for this.”
The Save Rural HRM negotiators asked for the creation of a “Rural Development Liaison Group” to guarantee that all stakeholders would have input on any and all changes in planning regulations. Savage appeared to welcome this idea:
“One of the ideas the folks and I chatted about was having this liaison group that could work with the Planning office and I think that makes an awful lot of sense.”
And finally, Savage pointed out that Councillor Hendsbee had a request pending later in the day before Council for a report on abolishing or amending the lot-grading by-law so that it would no longer apply in areas that did not receive city services. (Council has now passed Hendsbee’s motion.)
Savage's announcements were greeted with much applause. But Kim Young, one of the organizers who participated in the meeting with Savage, said that she felt “optimistically skeptical. I hope what we’ve asked for, and what the Mayor has pledged, does not become mired down in policy debates.”