Lunenburg Council Makes Portion of Blockhouse Hill Surplus In Surprise Vote



(Lunenburg Town Hall in April 2023. Photo: Jesse Ward)

Back on January 23, when Town of Lunenburg Council had an item on their agenda to vote on whether to make a portion of town-owned land on Blockhouse Hill surplus, all 40+ seats in the gallery were full.

Even more people in attendance sat on the floor or leaned against walls to watch the proceedings, with six residents speaking to Council about various concerns about making the land surplus.

Reporters from the CBC and CKBW Radio stood by, ready to capture reactions to the vote.

Council decided not to vote on making the land surplus that day, instead deciding to order Town staff to pursue more information associated with tax implications for proposed design options on the site.

Then, this Tuesday, in a surprise vote on a motion not on the agenda, during a meeting with just seven residents and a Barnacle editor in the gallery, Council voted to make a portion of Blockhouse Hill surplus.

Councillors Melissa Duggan, Ed Halverson, Peter Mosher and Susan Sanford voted to declare the land surplus.

Councillor Jenni Birtles, Deputy Mayor Stephen Ernst and Mayor Jamie Myra voted against the motion.

Mayor Myra said he voted against making the land surplus because he said he would first need to see design options include off-street parking for some additional number of units, which might require more land than the land in question for the motion.

This was after he already voted in favour of pursuing development rules for a design that only had a limited number of units off-street parking – a design that would need to be completely changed to accommodate off-street parking for most or all units.

Asked by The Barnacle in an interview following the vote how he felt about how the vote went down, Myra said he thinks the councillors who voted to make the land surplus “rushed” and did so because “they want to see this as their legacy.”

The land now officially deemed surplus and “no longer required for Town purposes” is the portion associated with the “Development Option Two – Out Of Sight” design designed by Mackay-Lyons Sweetapple Architects, presented to council in January in the firm’s final report on development options for Blockhouse Hill.

Council is now pursuing development rules to be drafted for this option. This option would have 256 housing units developed, with estimated development costs exceeding $128.37 million to be borne by a developer.

As per the town’s Land Divestiture Policy, while the land is now surplus, the land could not be sold until Council holds a public hearing.

The story of how Council arrived at this point is complicated.

This is a long story. You can read the entire thing or jump to the part you are most interested in reading:

(An outline of the land deemed surplus. Source: Town of Lunenburg)

A summary of what happened

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The summarized version of what happened, which this writer is aware still takes a lot of attention to follow but promises is as condensed as we can describe it fairly, is:

  • At the January 23 meeting of Council, MacKay-Lyons Sweetapple presented all design options they prepared for Blockhouse Hill. Council voted to pursue development rules for Blockhouse Hill associated “Design Option 1: Town Square”, but modifying the design as proposed to include a possible connection to Creighton Street and Sawpit Road. This “Town Square” option was the most dense option with 386 housing units.

  • The January 23 meeting also had a motion to declare the land associated with the design option of council’s choice surplus. Council did not proceed with this motion, agreeing they needed more information first. They moved a motion to direct staff to return with all tax implications associated with all development options presented by the MacKay-Lyons Sweetapple team.

  • Tuesday’s agenda had a staff information report presenting new estimates on costs associated with developing the modified version of Design Option 1 that Council selected in January 23, calling it “Design Option 1.2 – Town Square, Hybrid”.

  • When council talked about this report on Tuesday, Councillors Jenni Birtles and Ed Halverson and Mayor Jamie Myra said they actually preferred “Design Option 2 – Out Of Sight” – despite having committed to pursuing a modified Design Option 1 in January. Halverson, Myra and Councillor Susan Sanford said they were not aware they had committed to already pursuing development rules for Design Option 1.2.

  • After an hour-long conversation where multiple councillors and Mayor Myra said they were confused about what was happening, Council passed a motion to revert their decision from January and pursue development options for Design Option 2.

  • Following that motion, Councillor Melissa Duggan moved a motion to declare the land associated with Design Option 2 surplus. The motion passed 4-3.

  • Now that the land is deemed surplus, Council could sell it following a public consultation session.

How the vote went down

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You can watch the entire proceedings from Tuesday on YouTube.

Council’s decision on Tuesday to declare the land associated with Option Two surplus followed a circuitous hour-long roundtable of confusion where multiple councillors declared they were unaware at their January 23 meeting they had committed to pursuing development rules for “Development Option One”, a separate design.

This is despite the actual minutes for Tuesday’s meeting, which council unanimously approved, including a reference to that commitment to pursue development rules they made in January – which actually had to be amended to be included in the January minutes, at the last meeting on March 26.

The minutes for Tuesday’s meeting include the agenda from their last meeting on March 26, which note an omission made on the January 23 minutes: 

“Moved by Councillor Mosher, seconded by Councillor Halverson, that Council amend the approved January 23, 2024 minutes to include the following motion, which was accidentally omitted from the minutes: Moved by Councillor Mosher, seconded by Councillor Halverson, that

Council direct staff to work with MacKay-Lyons Sweetapple Architects Ltd. on drafting development rules based on Design Option 1: Town Square with possible road connection of Creighton Street and Sawpit Road. Motion approved unanimously.”

When a staff report on costs and tax implications associated with the “hybrid” Option 1.2 was presented to Council, following a long conversation about what option they actually want to commit to, Council decided to alter the motion they passed in January to instead ask for development rules for Option 2.

(The staff report on estimated costs and tax implications for all design options. Source: Town of Lunenburg)

Over the course of the discussion, some councillors and Mayor Myra said one reason they leaned towards Option Two is that it was revealed as the preference of most people who attended public workshops on the design options.

Hilary Grant, Director of Community Development, addressed this, saying: “If you go back to the ‘What We Heard Report, it did seem to find that public opinion was somewhat polarized between full-scale outbuild and no development. Hence, one of the reasons staff is recommending Option Two, is because it’s a balanced compromise that provides both economic benefit and many of the public resources that the public required.”

“I simply just don’t want you to go ahead with a vote feeling that option two was the preferred option, when in fact there was no preferred option.”

(The group Friends of Blockhouse Hill has organized a petition since early last year asking Council to “stop the process to sell and develop the lands on Blockhouse Hill until the Town establishes that a majority of Town of Lunenburg residents support the sale and development of the land.” In, January, organiser Paula Rennie said 708 people living in Town – more than 34 per cent of the Town’s voting population of 2021 recorded in July 2023 – have signed the group’s petition. This was not addressed by Council on Tuesday.)

Council passed a motion to pursue development rules for Option 2, with only Peter Mosher voting against. Mosher stated he believed 1.2 was still the best option because it would allow a future Council to have the most flexibility to pursue development.

At this point, there was no motion to declare any land surplus on the agenda. 

However, councillors can raise new motions on the floor if the majority of council agrees in a vote to waive the notice of motion that is otherwise required to schedule a motion for an upcoming meeting.

Councillor Melissa Duggan put forward a motion to waive notice for a motion to declare land on the hill surplus, then put forward a motion to declare the land associated with Option Two surplus.

When Duggan announced the motion to declare land surplus, there were audible gasps from a few of the eight locals in the council gallery.

“I would ask that there not be comments from the gallery and that if people do not adhere to that, they be asked to step out,” said Duggan at that point.

Council discussed the motion.

Mayor Jamie Myra said: “I guess I have one comment to make on declaring it surplus at this time. Before we get the actual development rules back for Option 2, i.e. parking requirements and other things of that nature, do we actually know – because based on the report in January, there were very few parking requirements attached to Option 2.”

“And I could be mistaken, but I know I, myself, will not support any development on that hill without any kind of significant parking requirements attached to it. So if you all of a sudden have to have on-site parking for most of that development, would that not increase the amount of land a developer would need to go with Option 2?” 

“Because obviously, you’re going to need to make the lots bigger to be able to put cars on those properties, right? So that’s why, at this time, until I know exactly how much land we’re talking, I wouldn’t be prepared to vote in favour of putting it up for surplus land, because we don’t really know.”

“Because based on the initial report that I saw in January, there weren’t any parking requirements in any of those proposals. And I think we’ve learned from earlier developments in the last couple years that zero parking requirements just does not work in a rural urbanized centre. So that’s my two cents worth.”

Hilary Grant, Director of Community Development, answered Myra to say that each design option presented in January did include some on-street parking. 

“None of the options as they are currently presented and prepared by the MacKay-Lyons architects team include, for example, off-site parking. So, for example, there are no large-scale parking lots. That hasn’t been included in any of the designs,” said Grant. 

“If this is something that council wants to see, that would require some revisions to the designs. While I would of course defer to the CAO and Clerk on all things procedure, to not muddy waters any further, if there is some sort of parking provisions you would want to see in the development rules, if you have something in mind, you could direct staff to work with MacKay-Lyons on those.”

“Otherwise, we could bring forward the development rules and then subsequently amend those as council sees fit. But you are correct, if we move forward with the map as presented on January 23rd, it will be solely the land that is developed in the current MacKay-Lyons design.”

Myra responded, “So, I will not support this motion based on that, because I will not support any development back there that does not have off-street parking.”

Grant replied to say that each of the design options does include some off-street parking.

Myra replied, “But there is some on-street parking.”

Grant replied, “A mix.”

Following more discussion, Councillors Melissa Duggan, Ed Halverson, Peter Mosher and Susan Sanford voted to declare the land surplus.

Councillor Jenni Birtles, Deputy Mayor Stephen Ernst and Mayor Jamie Myra voted against the motion.

Interview with Mayor Myra on the vote, and what happens next

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Following the vote, during a recess in the meeting before an in camera session, The Barnacle interviewed Mayor Myra in his office.

Barnacle: How do you feel about the outcome of the vote to make the land on Blockhouse Hill associated with Option Two surplus?

Myra: I voted for Option Two, originally. I just didn’t vote for the surplus motion at this point because I felt that until we find out what the parking requirements are going to be, we might need more land to make the lots bigger, make the area bigger, to put cars off the road. I won’t support any development that has on-street parking for, say, the majority of it. 

Because we’ve learned our lesson from other developments in town recently that in urbanised rural Nova Scotia, everybody has a car. So you need a place to put that car, especially in the winter when you have snowstorms and stuff. So, I didn’t want to basically walk ourselves to say ‘eight acres of land’ if we maybe need ten acres. But right now, we’ve locked ourselves, so the only way to provide enough parking on properties is probably going to eliminate some of the housing options.

So that’s what my argument was, but for some reason we seemed to be in a hurry to put it up for surplus tonight, so we voted, and it was a 4-3 vote, and I’ll support that decision. That’s how the system works.

Barnacle: When the agenda back in January had making some of this land surplus, potentially, on the agenda, a lot of people came out and filled the council hall to talk about how they felt about that. Then, tonight, this vote came by surprise. Do you have any concerns other than parking about how things went on this vote, procedurally?

Myra: I think that tonight we did what we are allowed to do under the MGA (Municipal Governance Act) and under our own policies and procedures, so we didn’t do anything we aren’t allowed to do.

I wish we had slowed down a bit, but for whatever reason, everybody seems to be in a rush, and I get it – this group has been working on this for a long time, a lot longer than I have. 

I think they see their terms coming to an end very quickly, because a lot of them aren’t reoffering, and they want to see this as their legacy, which I understand, so that’s why I think they wanted to see it go through tonight, because the longer we put it off – you know as well as I know that once we get into August, early September, the election is announced, there’s probably not going to be a lot going on at that point. 

So I totally understand where they’re coming from, I just wish we had slowed it down a little bit. But based on what I heard tonight, it was either going to be Two or One, so I supported Two because I can live with Two, but again, I can only live with Two once I see what the development requirements are going to be as well. 

We’ve sent it out now to come back with all the development rules, and that’s when we set the parking requirements, everything else. So there’s still a long process to go. So trust me, nothing’s going to happen anytime soon, but this gets us to the next step. 

And I guess, by putting it up to surplus, if council decides they want to, they can actually start having public hearings now. Which might be a good thing as well.

Barnacle: Will these be the public hearings you’ve referred to where the public will be invited to have a week or so of meetings?

Myra: That will be the next phase, once we put it up for surplus, which we declared tonight. And I don’t know when that will be. But with the transition happening with staff and that, it probably won’t be any time soon, but at least we can start planning for that.

And I guess, what I was told, we had to do the surplus thing before we have those public hearings, in order to do it in that proper process, so this is just one more step in the process.

Barnacle: Can we expect a plebiscite on Blockhouse Hill on the ballot in the October election?

Myra: I certainly hope so, but that will be up to my colleagues as well.

Barnacle: Is that something you’re going to put on the table?

Myra: I will be pushing that once we get to the public hearings and public input sessions and hearing what people have to say. And we’ll be going from there. But I’ve said all along, until we hear what the community actually wants, we won’t really know.


Comments

2 responses to “Lunenburg Council Makes Portion of Blockhouse Hill Surplus In Surprise Vote”

  1. Paula Rennie

    Excellent summary, Jesse, thanks for another solid and well-researched article.

  2. Barb Mason

    Excellent reporting. It’s wonderful to see that responsible journalism is alive and well in our little corner of the world. Accountability brings hope.

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