Category: Housing

City Wetlands protection debate at 3pm – some background

We’ve seen quite an upsurge of interest on social media (here for example) about proposed changes in the way undeveloped wetlands around the city will be protected in future (or not). The council is going to vote on whether to approve their new rules in the council meeting Tuesday 11th at 3pm.  This link will show the video of the debate when it starts and meanwhile provides links to relevant council documents, including staff summary of public reaction so far.

To briefly (and hopefully correctly!) summarize – there is quite a bit of un-developed wetland within the City of St Johns’ boundaries, and the city is trying to devise a (relatively) low-cost method to allow it to decide which parts of it should be protected from future development. Current regulations state no development is permitted on “in a waterway, wetland, pond, lake or the Buffer adjacent to a body of water or in a Floodplain”.

Staff took a tool academics developed – the WESP-AC (Manual for Wetland Ecosystem Services Protocol for Atlantic Canada (WESP-AC)) – and used it to evaluate several wetland sites around the city. The WESP-AC does not specify what their score should allow or not allow – it is just a relative score. City staff recommended a score of 5 as the threshold to trigger protection of these and future wetlands. It found 13 of the 68 sites they studied would be protected from development with a target score of 5 – but of those that would “fail”, all but eight are part of stream systems which would therefore mean they would be (partially?) protected by rules protecting flood plains. Crucially for what followed, none of the areas studied that fell between 5 and 6. In future, areas that were not studied would have to be studied using the WESP-AC and scored before it could go forward, and there would also be public consultation. No wetlands-related consultation on areas that have just been mapped and scored would be needed, however.

Update: The Environment & Sustainability Experts Panel was not consulted before staff were asked to decide what amount of development would be acceptable. One of the first responses to the most recent public engagement was a letter from a provincial wildlife biologist who helped write the formula that was used, saying it was not appropriate to use his measure to justify development in that way and could set a dangerous precedent.

Here is an overview of how things have gone in council:

This proposed change was first discussed in November in the Committee of the Whole – you can view the debate and accompanying documents here starting at 13:50. Sheilagh O’Leary, Cllrs Ellsworth and Burton were not present.

Cllr Hickman introduced the idea that the staff-recommended threshold of 5 should be changed to 6 (or 5.5). Korab agreed with him. Cllr Ravencroft suggested 5.5 on the grounds that we need to be able to build more housing – “I question whether 6 is pushing it”. Cllr Bruce “5.5 I would be willing to entertain but not 6”. Korab moved the amendment to 6 and Cllr Hanlon (who had not spoken) seconded it. Cllr Froude said staff recommendation was a good balance and that moving it to 6 seemed arbitrary. Cllr Ridgeley did not speak but voted in favour of raising the number to 6.

Cllrs Froude, Bruce and Ravencroft voted against the change in the number, but nobody critiqued how the numbers were arrived at.

It came back to council at the end of November – the debate started at this link from 30:31 in the clip.

Deputy Mayor Sheilagh O’Leary said that she was “very satisfied to support the conservative measure of five originally set out by staff [or even 5.5] but not six. “I really feel that we need to be more conservative in our approach.”
Cllr Burton said, “there is a huge range of possible outcomes between the numbers of five and six. … So to me, this wetland study is more a how to develop in the wetland, versus to how to keep a wetland from being developed. … I saw five as an extremely arbitrary number… I wouldn’t encourage council to accept the staff recommendation, the original staff recommendation of five as it is already an arbitrary number and doesn’t reflect the the the extraordinary need to protect wetlands within the city as I see it.”
Cllr Ravencroft said, “I think 5.5 was kind of a nice midpoint. If we set it high, now, we’re not gonna be able to take it back later.”
Cllr Korab, “it’s tough when we say we need more affordable housing, we’re in a housing crisis, which isn’t going to be corrected anytime in the short term to turn around and limit the land that can be developed. Now we can’t go crazy. But I feel six is a better number it leads to possibly more development as outlined.”
Cllr Hickman: “I’m quite comfortable with six, because it doesn’t impact any lands that could be seen as of concern. We need neighborhoods, complete neighborhoods, we’ve talked about many times, and we need stores, churches, schools, etc, to support that. We cannot expect that if we don’t make land available.”
Cllr Ridgeley: “With the crisis that we have now with housing, every lot that we take out of development increases the cost of the developer. And those costs will be reflected back to the people that are purchasing the land and the home. So for that reason, I’m I am comfortable, quite comfortable with six”.

Cllr Bruce spoke briefly in favor of 5.5 not 6, Cllr Hanlon in favor of six.

The councillors voted as follows:

For (5) Mayor Breen, Councillor Hickman, Councillor Hanlon, Councillor Korab, and Councillor Ridgeley
Against (4) Deputy Mayor O’Leary, Councillor Burton, Councillor Ravencroft, and Councillor Bruce
Abstain (1) Councillor Ellsworth (because of potential conflict of interest)

The formal public engagement process ended at the end of the month but of course you can still contact councillors directly.

Cllr Burton said (and subsequent councillors on both sides appeared to agree) the number provided in this formula is “arbitrary”. The academics who drafted the formula in the first place and the Environment & Sustainability Experts Panel also agree.

Happy City’s draft report on the City of St John’s changes to its planning regulations

Below is an executive summary of our report on the city’s proposed changes to housing planning regulations, co-authored with Streets Are For People. The full text of that report is available here and anyone reading it who wishes to can comment on it and make suggestions. We hope that this will be the start of a more thorough and broad discussion about the future of housing policy here in St John’s, and our research into this area in collaboration with Streets are For People has not ended. While the formal public engagement on this set of regulatory changes has now ended, there will still be plenty of opportunity for further discussion and analysis in the coming months and we expect to produce a more detailed version of our report.

The planning changes proposed by the city appear to have been proposed mainly in order to comply with conditions set by the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation’s Housing Accelerator Fund (HAF). They will enable the city to receive $10.4m over three years, but only the broad outlines of what that money will be spent on are currently available. It’s important to note that none of that money will be spent directly on building particular homes – the money and planning changes are meant to encourage mainly private developers and homeowners to build affordable housing. Tellingly, in the documents we have seen, no additional housing units are projected to be built solely as a result of the regulatory changes proposed here.

While the rule changes outlined here remove some barriers to making more of the affordable housing studies indicate are required, we found:

    • Many technical and economic barriers remain unaddressed. Unless supporting changes to engineering and other requirements are also examined, several in the development community have suggested to us it seems unlikely that most of the additional housing now legally allowed will be feasible.
    • While the city is now starting broader discussions with developers it appears the development community had little voice in the initial drafting of the city’s proposals. Since these changes are meant to encourage developers to build more and differently, why were they not brought in to the discussions earlier to learn from them directly what changes to development and design regulations they say would be most effective in encouraging and enabling them to meet housing needs? The same could likely be said of other communities of experts outside the city’s staff.
    • Looking at other jurisdictions where similar changes were proposed to enable homeowners to renovate their homes to enable more housing units to be built on their properties, takeup has been very modest. Even where such changes would be technically feasible and cost effective, homeowners may simply not be interested in taking up these opportunities.

Given the large existing shortage of affordable and appropriately sized housing, and the demographic shifts that are expected to make the gap worse, these regulatory measures alone will do very little to address the problem. Not enough is publicly available about what the city plans to do to accompany these changes with other actions, but it seems clear from the city’s own estimates that these changes will at best result in hundreds of additional affordable homes in the next few years when all researchers suggest thousands are required. When the city made a bid for $18.5 million in October, it claimed that that funding would result in 475 additional units being built, 175 of them affordable – over the following three years. The city’s own housing needs assessment found that in 2021 there was already a need for 7,200 more affordable units, and that the number was only set to increase.

Other Canadian cities have been much more ambitious in their planned regulatory changes in response to both their ongoing housing needs and specifically in order to release more Federal funding. For example, Edmonton now allows up to 8 units on a lot citywide and has eliminated minimum parking requirements for residential uses. And in the suburbs of Halifax, the city plans to reduce parking requirements for multi-unit dwellings from 1.5 spaces per unit to one for every 3 units. Halifax has received twice the funding per capita that St John’s is getting.

While it is beyond the scope of this report to suggest what further regulatory and other changes should be considered and would be appropriate for the city, it is clear the changes proposed go nowhere near far enough to address a crisis that blights the lives of many residents today and stands in the way of a prosperous and happy future for the city and province. At the first public engagement session, a senior staffer explained to those gathered these proposals were not more sweeping because, “we want to walk before we can run”. Is this really reflective of the council’s views on the crisis that confronts the city? We don’t know what kind of solutions are needed but surely strolling along is no longer a tenable position.

Housing in the news

Housing has been very much in the news this week, and Happy City and our partners Streets are For People (SAFP) have been in the thick of it as we prepare a formal response to the City of St Johns’ proposed housing regulation changes.

  • We attended the two public information/engagement sessions that took place this week, but if like us you still have views to share, you can follow the link above, see the related documents and email with your own response at any time up to 9:45am on May 28th.
  • These submissions will be summarized to council and in June or July council will again meet to debate the housing regulation changes – possibly further changed by staff due to public feedback.
  • Both David Brake, Happy City’s Vice Chair and Myles Russell of SAFP have been on the media touting the early findings of our joint report
    • David Brake was on Open Line on Tuesday and…
    • Myles Russell was on Open Line on Wednesday
    • CBC’s The Signal on Wednesday did an hour-long show on housing across NL featuring the head of the Homebuilder’s Association of NL, and Happy City was invited to comment specifically about the housing regulation changes.
  • On Thursday, the latest edition of Vital Signs from the Community Foundation of NL and Memorial University’s Harris Centre was released. The well-regarded annual collection of statistics on the well-being of the province featured several pages this year on housing issues.

You’ll find a link to our first submission to the city on this site on the 28th, but we hope this will only be the start of a wider discussion about housing policy in the coming months and we hope as well to produce a more detailed report later which will contain more of the research and analysis that we have been conducting – plus, we hope, an opportunity to respond to the city’s revised proposals and your own reactions. Stay tuned!

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