Lunenburg makes development decisions days before Mayoral election

This story reports on the Town of Lunenburg council meeting of August 8. You can see the full agenda for this meeting in the PDF at this link. A full recording of the meeting is made available by the Town on YouTube at this link.

The Town of Lunenburg Council met on Wednesday and approved $76,000 in new spending for an RFP for designs to revamp the Town’s Civic Square – maybe with underground parking and a new building – four days before a new Mayor is elected.

The regular meeting of Council saw all-unanimous votes on topics ranging from a public engagement schedule for Blockhouse Hill development designs, to an application for $3.2 million from the federal government to fund housing – and more – over an hour-long meeting attended by about 30 residents.

The meeting also saw a Councillor suggest there should be a new line item in the Town’s property tax bills that specifically reports on how much is going towards the Lunenburg Academy.

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

Mayoral candidate suggests deferring votes on Blockhouse Hill public engagement and Town Square RFP until new Mayor next month – no discussion by Council

Town votes to draft report on possible sale of lands for Harbour View Haven

Date confirmed for reveal of potential Blockhouse Hill development designs

RFP awarded for designs of a new Civic Square that may include a new public building, underground parking

Councillor Halverson says property taxes should include a line item stating amount going towards Lunenburg Academy, asks for accounting of Academy costs

Town applies for $3.21 million in funding for housing from federal fund, evaluation in September

In good news for eels, slippery communication from DFO means spillway upgrades postponed

Alterations approved for Old New Town School

Lunenburg County Seniors’ Safety Partnership Society presents highlights 

Mayoral candidate suggests deferring votes on Blockhouse Hill public engagement and Town Square RFP until new Mayor next month – no discussion by Council

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Since the Council meeting on July 11, there is a new item at the start of the new business portion of each Council Meeting agenda – “Public Input and Questions.”

This is an opportunity, implemented by a request of Councillor Susan Sanford, for any member of the public to share an opinion or ask a question to Council about an item in the meeting’s agenda package. (More information is available on the Town’s Connect With Council page.)

Two people spoke to Council. Their comments were not mentioned in the Town’s Council Highlights post summarizing the Council meeting.

Jamie Myra, currently one of two candidates along with Gale Fullerton in the August 12 special election for Mayor, spoke to council first.

Myra announced he was speaking to two items on the agenda – council voting on a motion to approve a timeline for public engagement sessions for designs of a potential residential development on Blockhouse Hill, and council voting on a motion to select an RFP for a Civic Square Compatibility and Accessibility Project.

On the topic of Blockhouse Hill, Myra suggested Council delay approving a proposed timeline that would see the first of four public engagement sessions on the potential development occur on September 14, two days after the Mayor who is elected on August 12 will officially be inaugurated at the September 12 council meeting.

Myra also suggested Council defer the agenda’s decision to award an RFP for a Civic Square redesign at a cost of $76,000.

“I think that’s quite a large project, it’s going to be quite the expense moving forward,” said Myra.

“And to me, $76,000 plus tax is quite the expense. And not that a new Mayor can make a difference in the decision, because I certainly know how the system works, but I’d like to see that item deferred until after Saturday.”

“I think at least some input from whoever wins on Saturday, or some discussion for whoever wins, would be greatly appreciated by either candidate,” he said.

Council did not respond to Myra’s comments.

Next to present was Robert Young, a former town councillor like Myra. 

Young suggested that Sylvia – a Black woman enslaved by Lunenburg founding father Colonel John Creighton and who heroically defended the Town during the American privateer raid of July 1, 1782 – should be nominated to the Order of Nova Scotia and the Order of Canada. 

Young said he would like to see Council begin the process for these nominations. Sylvia was first formally recognized by the Town of Lunenburg earlier this year with the renaming of Blockhouse Hill Park to Sylvia Park.

Council did not respond to Young’s comments.

Town votes to draft report on possible sale of lands for Harbour View Haven

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The meeting ended with an in camera, closed-door session on the “Acquisition, sale, lease and security of municipal property (two items)”.

One of these two items was revealed in the Town’s “Council Highlights” page on August 9 and is summarized:

“Harbour View Haven (HVH) wants to purchase Upper Hall Street (PID 60726403) to undertake a new 144-room long-term care facility. They have applied to rezone the lands from Industrial (M) to Institutional (INS).

Following an in-camera discussion, Council directed staff to return to the September 12, 2023 Regular Council meeting with a report on the possible divestiture of Upper Hall Street to accommodate the possible relocation of HVH.”

Date confirmed for reveal of potential Blockhouse Hill development designs

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Background on potential Blockhouse Hill development

More than 700 residents of the Town of Lunenburg have signed a petition organised by local group Friends of Blockhouse Hill requesting the Town pause the process to pursue potential divestment and development of Blockhouse Hill. 

Concerns advanced by the group include the way public consultation has been conducted around the potential development and the unknown risk any development on the site may have on Old Town Lunenburg’s UNESCO World Heritage Site status.

The potential divestment of Blockhouse Hill has been a controversial issue in Lunenburg since the town first launched an RFP in early February for potential residential development designs. 

The lands highlighted in green are outlined for possible divestiture in the RFP. Sylvia Park, highlighted in yellow in the bottom left, is a Town-owned park and not included in the RFP. (Image: Town of Lunenburg)

The Town’s stance that opportunities to develop the land must be explored has been rigid since an FAQ published in February started off by posing a hypothetical question, “Why are we doing this? Why can’t we just leave it for the animals and have a nice piece of nature?”, and answered it with a statement saying that the Town should sell the land to generate revenue:

“The Town has three tools to generate revenue to help offset capital costs; raise taxes, cut services or generate a revenue stream, such as selling land. As we’ve all seen in our own lives, expenses are on the rise and the Town is working to find solutions that won’t put more pressure on residents.
Our best available land to sell is Blockhouse Hill. By readying these lands for development using a Request for Proposals (RFP) we have a say into what is eventually constructed on that site.”

That release answered the question “why develop Blockhouse Hill,” with, “to profit from the sale of the land,” and explicitly states the point of an RFP for residential development designs is so the Town can have a say in what will be developed there as a result of the land sale.

Since the resignation of former Mayor Matt Risser in April, no one on Town Council or Town Staff has reiterated in a Council Meeting or public release that the point of pursuing an RFP is for the revenue that would result from an eventual land sale.

There has been very limited discussion at Council meetings about why, specifically, the Town is pursuing an RFP to explore development opportunities on Blockhouse Hill. 

Agenda items in council meetings regarding the Blockhouse Hill RFP have highlighted Strategic Plan Relevance items connecting the RFP to the town’s Comprehensive Community Plan including “Community Structure” and “Housing”, but for several months no one has addressed any specific potential value in this potential development – like an increase in the tax base – by exploring this development, beyond getting to see if such a development could be compatible with maintaining Old Town Lunenburg’s UNESCO World Heritage Site designation.

(Proactive reporting on long-term strategic objectives and projects by the Town, overall, has decreased over the last year.

The Comprehensive Community Plan (CCP), approved by Town Council in November 2020 and established as the Strategic Plan of the Town of Lunenburg for 40 years, previously had Status Updates published every quarter. The CCP page on the Town’s website lists the last quarterly report as being produced on March 2022.

Additionally, on this page, the town published an “Annual Work Plan” for 2021/22 and 2022/23 but not for this fiscal year.)

At the meeting where Council passed the 23/24 Town operating budget in May, multiple presenters including former Mayor Rachel Bailey and Board of Trade President Jamie Myra asked Council to postpone approving the budget because of concerns in the community about $175,000 budgeted for the Blockhouse Hill RFP, before Council unanimously passed the budget with little discussion.

When Council received the Friends of Blockhouse Hill petition in June, they did not talk about the petition at all, except for Councillor Jenni Birtles saying “maybe further investigation” should happen for the Friends of Blockhouse Hill because their campaign “spilled over to our local school and our home for specialised care.”

On June 13, Council voted to award the RFP to MacKay-Lyons Sweetapple Architects at a cost of $151,000, but the vote was not unanimous. Councillor Melissa Duggan said she would like to see the decision delayed until after the upcoming by-election to allow for all council seats to be filled.

Acting Mayor Peter Mosher addressed Duggan then, saying, “I think the full discussion is when we do have a plan in front of us, so I mean, I think the council will be full by that time. And it will take them – obviously there’s some work here to be done. I would say the real proposal, the real concept will come for us probably later this fall.”

Council then voted 5-1 against Duggan to award the RFP.

Public engagement dates set for design plans

It was in this context that on Tuesday, Arthur MacDonald, Director of Community Development, spoke to a motion on the agenda regarding a timeline for public engagement sessions for designs of a potential residential development on Blockhouse Hill.

MacDonald revealed that Town staff met with MacKay-Lyons Sweetapple Architects for a kickoff meeting on July 28. These dates were decided for public consultation sessions:

  • Workshop 1, Visioning – September 14 from 6:00-8:00 pm at the Fire Hall
  • Workshop 2, Urban Design – October 19 from 6:00-9:00 pm at the Fire Hall
  • Workshop 3, Options – November 9 from 6:00-8:00 pm at the Fire Hall
  • Council Meeting Presentation – December 12 at 6:00 pm at Town Hall

Workshop three held on November 9, “Options”, will have the MacKay-Lyons Sweetapple team present the public with possible designs. 

MacDonald said the design team will then revise the designs based on community feedback into four possible development options and bring them to the Town Council at the regular Council meeting on December 12.

After MacDonald spoke to his report, Councillor Susan Sanford asked Municipal Clerk Kayla Byrne to confirm when the newly-elected Mayor will be sworn in. 

Byrne confirmed this will happen at the first Council meeting after the August 12 election, which will be September 12.

Councillor Ed Halverson asked for a summary to be released after each public workshop so the public could be informed on what is happening in the process. MacDonald said there will be a Visioning Report and a What We Heard Report developed throughout the process, and there will be an online questionnaire and survey that will factor into the reports.

Acting Mayor Peter Mosher followed MacDonald’s report, saying, “I will note Mr. Myra’s comments earlier, and I appreciate that. But again, this is well in advance, and I think either party should be able to take the clear calendar for something of this importance.”

“And I do think the Mayor’s office always has a little better line in on what’s coming up anyway, so they’ll be well-informed on what’s happening and what’s coming forward for the meetings, so I don’t think that would pose a problem.”

Council approved the public engagement schedule in a unanimous vote.

RFP awarded for designs of a new Civic Square that may include a new public building, underground parking

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Arthur MacDonald, Director of Community Development, spoke to a report on a Civic Square Compatibility and Accessibility Project.

The Town announced a project in early June to redesign Lunenburg’s Civic Square, at an unknown cost estimate, with the goal to “identify the ways and means of making Lunenburg more accessible in keeping with the provincial direction to make Nova Scotia fully accessible by 2030.” 

MacDonald suggested awarding an RFP tender at $76,070 to construction agency Vigilant Atlantic for three designs for the Civic Square. The Town’s 2023 Capital Budget allocated $80,000 for this contract.

While the described intention of the Civic Square redesign is for accessibility, the options listed in the RFP could result in a drastic overhaul of Lunenburg’s landscape – options suggested by the Town for the site include underground parking and a new 4,500 square foot public building.

The RFP says “at least one of the three development schemes must include one of these options” and lists:

  • Siting for a new public building, approximately four hundred and twenty (420) square metres (4500 square feet). Note that a new building design is not included in this RFP;
  • An amphitheatre with a focus towards the Bandstand;
  • A play structure – a playground;
  • A pride crosswalk (within the Site Plan Area or alternatively outside the Site Plan
  • Area) ; and
  • Parking, ideally underground parking.

The RFP does not list any suggested utility for a new public building that would come as part of a design plan. 

While this RFP suggests a new public building would be a desirable aspect of a plan for a new Civic Square, the Town simultaneously has its eyes on exploring ways to cut down on maintenance costs and reduce the Town’s property management responsibilities by divesting of properties. 

At a Special Meeting of Council in May, CAO Jamie Doyle presented an inventory of Town-owned properties and said internal staff reports estimate tens of millions of dollars in deferred maintenance costs. 

Acting Mayor Peter Mosher asked Doyle at that meeting to come back to council at a later time with some numbers on assets the town could potentially divest that would show Town residents how much they are paying for assets in a given year, versus how much of a revenue could be generated by the asset for the Town after it is sold. This reporting has not come back yet in a public council meeting.

Following MacDonald’s report, Councillor Ed Halverson noted the Civic Square project regards the provincial government’s requirements for public spaces to be accessible by 2030, and asked if anyone has been in contact with the province to indicate whether funding is coming to support this.

CAO Doyle said that at the top of his head, no one had been in touch with the provincial government about funding, but that grant applications need to have background information to understand cost implications.

Halverson then said a resident asked him about the Civic Square plan earlier that day.

Halverson asked: “The assumption was that this was just about the bandstand. But someone correct me if I’m wrong, it’s about the bandstand, making the paths, the entrances to this building, and the entrances to the park accessible to all residents by 2030. Am I correct in that assumption?”

Doyle said that is correct.

MacDonald followed up to say, “Yes, that is basically correct,” and elaborated that they would seek to explore whether the front entrance of Town Hall could be made accessible. 

“So it includes all the monuments, especially for Remembrance Day, as well as going up the hill, and trying to make everything compatible in its design and use of materials,” said MacDonald.

Councillor Susan Sanford followed up to say she was aware the emphasis is on accessibility and asked, “To what extent will folks who are awarded the contract consult with folks with disabilities to be able to get their input so that they are informed as to what the potential needs are, specific to the Town of Lunenburg and what we’re trying to to accomplish here?”

Sanford said she would like a better understanding of the population as a whole in the Town of Lunenburg. 

“I think, because we have an aging population here, I suspect our needs are higher in context, maybe, to the provincial needs,” said Sanford, who said she would look forward to learning what accessibility needs this project reveals.

MacDonald said the Town will be working very closely with Ellen Johnson, Accessibility Coordinator on the Lunenburg County Accessibility Advisory Committee, on this project.

Acting Mayor Peter Mosher asked, “Is this something that, knowing that it’s going to come down the pipe within the next five to six years, that we would start to accrue money to put towards this?”

Lisa Dagley, Finance Director for the Town of Lunenburg, replied, “That certainly could be something that Council considers, once we have those numbers to work from.” 

The town’s release from early June outlining the Civic Square project says, “Funding for the actual development will, upon Council’s approval, will come from the 2024-25 Capital Budget.”

As of the moment of this article being published, the timeline for the funding and the reveal of design options for this project is unclear.

Councillor Halverson says property taxes should include a line item stating amount going towards Lunenburg Academy, asks for accounting of Academy costs

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In the “Notice Of Motion” segment of the meeting where Councillors can raise items to be drafted into reports for future motions, Councillor Ed Halverson addressed the Lunenburg Academy Foundation’s (LAF) recently-published feasibility study, and said residents’ property tax bills should have a line item listing how much goes to the Academy.

(The Lunenburg Academy. Photo: Jesse Ward)

The feasibility study on whether the LAF could take on full ownership of the Lunenburg Academy concludes there is “a high degree of risk for the LAF if it were to assume full ownership of the Lunenburg Academy” under the terms offered by the Town of Lunenburg.

The Town of Lunenburg, who owns the Academy, surprised the LAF with an offer letter in April 2022 that included an offer of a grant sum for a limited three-year period. In response, the LAF pursued a feasibility study on whether they could sustainably take on full ownership.

The 175-page study, prepared by Group ATN Consulting and released in July, outlines research exploring the financial and logistical obligations of managing the Castle On The Hill. 

The report concludes, “a partnered approach between the LAF as operators and the Town as owners would provide the greatest financial and reputational protection for all parties while working together to reduce administrative burden and advance the sustainability of the Academy as well as those of the community as a whole.”

(The Barnacle is preparing a story to be published in August on the future of the Academy in the wake of this report and Lunenburg’s Mayoral election.)

Halverson spoke to the study, saying, “I thought it was a good report, very thorough. It got me to thinking, though, about the accounting of this.”

“I really do feel like, regardless to, if it ends up that the Town retains ownership, if the Academy Foundation ends up running it – those costs should be transparent to each and every resident. So, I’m looking for a couple things here.”

“We should look at an area rate so that it’s broken out, from our property taxes – so it’s a line item. So when we get our property tax bill, we all understand every year, how much is going to support the Academy. Especially if it’s being run by an entity that has […]” 

(Audio at this point in the meeting recording is incomprehensible.)

“So, what I’m looking for is, I guess I look to staff to this – a reasonable timeframe that we could get a full accounting of costs for the Academy. I think if we’re looking at the long term, we’re going to have to look at not just the operational cost but, you know – do we need to put reserves away for capital expenses, just so we’re not left unaware? So I look to staff to find out what would be a timeline and an appropriate scope for that project.”

CAO Jamie Doyle replied, “I agree with you, I think it’s certainly something we can do. Before I suggest a date when we can bring that back, I want to run it by Lisa [ed. note: Lisa Dagley, Finance Director] before she shoots me in the hallway.”

Currently, the only items listed on property tax bills in the Town of Lunenburg are “Residential Property” and “Sewer Residential”.

A property tax bill line item specifically listing the estimated contribution of a taxpayer to funding operational costs and/or capital reserves for the Academy would be a significant change.

Town applies for $3.21 million in funding for housing from federal fund, evaluation in September

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Council voted unanimously to apply to the Housing Accelerator Fund, a federal initiative through the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation for incentive funding towards housing in Canadian Communities. This fund was approved in the 2022 Federal Budget and has a funding allocation of $4 billion until 2026-27.

The Town has prepared an application for $3.21 million in funding of which approximately $2,572,873 could be spent on infrastructure and affordable housing.

A report prepared by Hilary Grant, Senior Planner & Heritage Officer, notes that applicants to the Housing Accelerator Fund must “commit to undertaking a minimum of five housing initiatives.”

Grant’s report outlines these initiatives the Town is listing in their application:

• Additional Accessible Unit Incentives: Refund municipal service hookup and subdivision fees when developers include accessible dwellings in their project above the number required under the Nova Scotia Building Code enabled by a new Additional Accessible Unit Policy.

• Affordable Housing Grant Program: Allocate funds to support the development of affordable housing units through a new Lunenburg Affordable Housing Grant Program.

• New Housing in a Heritage Context: Pass a new Old Town Lunenburg Heritage Conservation Plan and By-law with a policy to promote infill development, eliminate lengthy public hearings and provide clear guidelines on the types and sizes of new developments permitted within Old Town Lunenburg Heritage Conservation District.

• Advancing Sustainable Housing Growth through Comprehensive Infrastructure Planning: Integrate the housing targets from our Comprehensive Community Plan into our Asset Management Plan and create a Sustainable Infrastructure Grant Program.

• Accelerating Housing Growth through Tax Forgiveness: Grant a three-year municipal tax break towards increasing affordable and accessible housing.

• Town-Owned Land Divestiture and Agreements for Housing: Create Comprehensive Development Districts that outline the terms and conditions for developers to comply with affordable housing and other design requirements when developing formerly Town-owned residential lands.

Grant said applications for the fund will be evaluated in September and funds would start to be dispersed as early as October.

The Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation’s page on the Housing Accelerator Fund says “approved applicants will get four advances with one advance planned for each year of the program. […] Subsequent payments will be made annually for 3 years, subject to program conditions being met. This includes satisfactory progress reviews.”

In good news for eels, slippery communication from DFO means spillway upgrades postponed

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Tyson Joyce, Town Engineer, spoke to a new obstacle encountered as Lunenburg approaches a project to replace the Town’s spillway.

Joyce said the spillway – a structure controlling the release of water downstream from a dam – at Lunenburg’s water supply in Dares Lake has deteriorated over a number of years.

Lunenburg’s 2023/24 Water Utility Capital Budget earmarked $200,000 for a project to upgrade the spillway, which was set to begin this year.

Joyce’s report to council details how changes in requirements from the Department of Fisheries and Oceans led to the need to change course on the current plans:

“Throughout the design phase of the Project, there was engagement with both Nova Scotia Environment and Climate Change (NSECC) and Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO). In June 2021, DFO stated in correspondence that no fish passage would be required for the new structure,” says his report.

“With the Town ready to proceed with the Project this year, during the review of the Town’s Watercourse Alteration Permit application DFO has now flagged that an American Eel passage is required to be incorporated within structure either now or in the short term future (as per correspondence received July 13) based on a new interpretation of information from the 2019 Fisheries Act. DFO have made it clear they will not entertain any “grandfather clause” based on their previously stated position from back in 2021 and their new position supersedes this.”

Councillor Ed Halverson asked Joyce about the best time to put out a tender for a new spillway design. Joyce suggested putting out a tender next year to have the best chance at having multiple responses.

Chief Administrative Officer Jamie Doyle commented on the circumstances, saying, “Both Tyson and I were quite shocked with the eleventh hour interpretation that (the DFO) wouldn’t move on, so I think it’s in our best interest to reevaluate.”

Joyce’s report says that prior to the DFO’s eel passage requirement, town staff considered the spillway upgrade “necessary for the ongoing performance and protection of the Town’s Water System.”

“If the spillway or dam were to fail, it would be very likely to impact the pumphouse which feeds the raw water from Dares Lake to the Water Treatment Plant and could compromise the Town’s water supply process.” 

The report says a Consultant on the project now says there remains a low risk of the existing dam not maintaining its performance until this time next year.

Council voted unanimously to defer a decision on upgrading the spillway to next year when it will come at an estimated cost of $451,000 with an eel passage included.

Alterations Approved for Old New Town School

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Council voted unanimously to approve alterations to the Old New Town School on 17 Tannery Road. 

The Old New Town School, constructed in 1883, is a Municipal Heritage Property as a reminder of the era of one-room schoolhouses in Nova Scotia.

The building was sold by the Town for $450,000 in January. The application to alter the property approved by the Town will allow the former schoolhouse to become a four-unit dwelling with new skylights and parking spaces.

Hilary Grant, Senior Planner & Heritage Officer, submitted a comprehensive report to Council detailing the application that defines the proposed alterations as a rehabilitation that is compatible with the Town’s heritage goals.

Lunenburg County Seniors’ Safety Partnership Society presents highlights 

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David Murdoch and Lisa Bennett of the Lunenburg County Seniors’ Safety Partnership Society presented to council sharing highlights of their services, programs and awareness-raising activities.

The society has a variety of professionals and committee members overseeing the Lunenburg County Seniors’ Safety Program which is funded by the five municipalities of Lunenburg County, the United Way, the Department of Seniors and Long-term Care and various grants. 

Lunenburg’s 23/24 budget has $2,200 designated for the Society in the Protective Services Expenditure Budget.

Bennett, Coordinator of the Seniors’ Safety Program, spoke to work she has overseen since beginning her role in October. 

Bennett emphasised the Program aims to empower seniors in the County with choice. The program helps seniors navigate available support resources and get access to useful information on topics like fraud and elder abuse through home visits, workshops and presentations.

“We look at adapting to the changing needs of the community,” said Bennett. “The fires, the flooding – it’s made for some unique requests we haven’t seen in the past, so connecting them with different resources for government funding, different housing pieces, different resources that can help them through these harder times.”

The program has done 15 presentations across Lunenburg County so far this year.

Peter Mosher, Acting Mayor, thanked Murdoch and Bennett for their work and their presentation. Council otherwise had no questions or comments.