Last updated at 2:43 PM on 19/02/08
EDITED BY STAFF, TRANSCONTINENTAL MEDIA
The Nova Scotia Business Journal
|Tim Olive is the executive director of the Downtown Dartmouth Business Commission. Always active in development discussions, he is concerned here with development approval wait times.|
“The most talked about issue facing the economic future of this urban region of HRM is the unnecessary and costly delays in moving development applications forward within the cavernous tunnels of the municipal bureaucracy. There may, however, be a solution in the wind that will propel up to 30% of the waiting time away and place HRM in a more respectable range as compared to other cities across the country.
“During the past year, Halifax Regional Council directed staff to investigate opportunities to further reduce processing timelines for planning applications. The review included the roles and timeliness of Committee’s and Council’s evaluation of development applications. The cities that were used for comparison are St. John’s, Quebec City, London, Regina and Victoria. The report states that the review of these cities represents a reasonable guide for comparison with current HRM standards.
“If the recommendations are accepted, the changes would reduce the average number of months required for a plan amendment to about nine months and the time required for a rezoning to about six months, for a development agreement to eight months, for a site specific MPS amendment and development agreement to about 10 months and rezoning to about seven months. HRM staff indicates that the proposed changes can be achieved through revisions to regulations adding greater clarity, imposing information requirements on applicants more strictly and ongoing staff development.
As we have all seen, the Committee and Council review process takes a minimum of three to five months, which is in addition to staff’s review process, which varies depending on the complexity of the application. It has been suggested in the report that council should consider adding special meetings of council to deal with applications also that council should reconsider the number of nature and number of applications forwarded to standing committees. While not in the report, it could also be suggested that council spend less time on the mundane issues of late that paw their way into time best used for more economically productive issues such as development and growth of this municipality.
“Of interest in the approval process is that while most cities have some form of public consultation, in no case did staff find that another city conducted more broad based public consultation than HRM, which has a public information meeting for all planning applications. Public meetings are called in HRM even when the current MPS has been written to specifically encourage economic growth in the downtown core—such as the upcoming request to extend to five stories the height restrictions at Dartmouth Crossing—against staff recommendations to the contrary.
“HRM uses the development agreement process more than most cities across Canada, which requires more consultation and negotiation time than other processes. In Ontario and Western Canada, development agreements are utilized very little or not at all. In one eastern city, development agreements are prepared after Council approves the use and this additional negotiation period is not included within their processing times.
“The issues surrounding the frequency or infrequency of meetings in HRM to review development processes is also at odds with practices in other cities in Canada. In some cities, the number of meetings of Council or Committees are less than HRM; however, in others the number of required meetings is similar or higher but the frequency of scheduled meetings is greater, allowing for a more timely review. We know we have a problem in HRM when Community Council meets only once per month to review development applications and the majority of Committees also only meet once per month.
“It is clear to most observers that the current model in HRM is not working, and we are paying an incredible price for this lack of attention to such an important issue that reflects on our economic survival. One only has to look at the long process of approvals for the 300 million dollar Kings Wharf Project in Dartmouth Cove to recognize the frustrations experienced by the developer and the surrounding community.
“HRM have some very talented and professional development staff both at the management level and on the front lines. Unfortunately, current legislation restricts their ability to move forward with sound recommendations to Council due to a restrictive Municipal Government Act. In other provinces, public consultation is not required for all planning applications. In one Canadian city, plan amendment applications are first discussed only between staff and the applicant. When staff is able to support the application, it proceeds to Council for public hearing without any previous public input. In our governance structure that is held hostage by the MGA, the local politicians and special interest groups, it is unfortunate that we are unable to demonstrate more faith in our senior staff. They have the professional integrity to effectively make the suggestions needed to expedite the majority of applications placed before them.
“It is inconceivable that in HRM it should take 15 months to process a plan amendment and with the recommendations put forward in the staff report of February 12th, 2008 staff believe that time can be reduced to 10 months, with further reductions in subsequent years.”
“There is light at the end of the tunnel, however, and HRM has taken a number of steps to reduce the backlog of applications and speed up the process. They now require more complete information with the application, or the client will be advised that the application cannot be processed, thus not putting it into the stream of delayed projects. This action has received the approval of the local development industry, who believe that HRM should require strict compliance with information requirements. There have been five new planners added to the staff that will significantly reduce the backlog and speed processing applications for new development.
“By the summer of 2008, staff are expected to have new rules for development in the Halifax Central Business District and have a revised regulatory framework in place. This will provide the necessary documentation for a region wide positive adjustment to the planning and development processes. With the current Community Visioning and Master Plan discussions now underway, the information gathered should result in fewer projects requiring Council approval prior to proceeding. This in and of itself will prove to be very effective in moving these major development issues forward, virtually free from special interest groups and political gamesmanship that seem to emerge every time a new development surfaces in the capital district.
“One of the many issues that will face the Councilor’s as they attempt to improve the delivery of the planning and development process will be demonstrating the political will to find ways to reduce the myriad of steps involved in approving development agreements, thus reducing timelines. The report states: “….without changes to the political and committee processes, HRM target timelines will be generally longer than those in the benchmarked cities.” This revision process will take a level of political will that has not been seen recently; and yet the public has expectations that those that serve them will make the sometime unpopular decisions for the good of the whole community. We look forward to a positive review and response from our elected officials to this excellent staff report.
“In closing, it is important to note that the provincial government has role to play in that the MGA needs to be updated in many areas, one of which are amendments to the site plan approval process in support of an improved and streamlined planning process in HRM. In addition, with the appeals process utilizing the Utility Review Board, HRM needs to continue, through the HRM by Design process, to provide greater clarity by removing ambiguous policy for development and introducing a revised regulatory framework—work which they are now actively involved in. In addition, HRM need to stick by those regulations that have been introduced in support of the Regional Plan and not be bullied by politicians or developers into making changes that will further deteriorate our downtown’s.
“We have reached the point of no return in the development dilemma in our capital region. If we are serious about moving forward, then our political masters at all levels must coordinate their efforts in support of recommendations being put forward by our well trained, experienced and professional staff. To fail to act over the next few months, to spend more time on frivolous debate rather than substantive economic issues will mean financial disaster for this region as others pick up our slack and continue to move progressively forward.”
“This is called leadership, and the business community anxiously awaits the results of this particular venture into improved development and planning in HRM.”
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