Matt Risser, outgoing Mayor of the Town of Lunenburg: The Barnacle Interview

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

Matt Risser, Mayor of the Town of Lunenburg, recently invited Lunenburg Barnacle Editor-in-chief Jesse Ward for an interview in the Mayor’s Office in Lunenburg Town Hall.

On the morning of April 24, two weeks before the conclusion of his mayoralty – ending prematurely following his April 10 resignation for a new career opportunity – Risser spoke at length, candidly, on a wide range of local issues.

Risser remarked on difficult financial decisions faced by the Town to be reviewed in an upcoming Special Meeting of Council, circumstances of the town pursuing a sale of the Lunenburg Academy, resistance to development on Blockhouse Hill, balancing new housing development with heritage designations, and the Town’s communications with residents.

The interview was held days after a syndicated Canadian Press story made national headlines, in outlets including the Globe and Mail and Toronto Star, that the Town of Lunenburg was pursuing the sale of the Lunenburg Academy, first reported by The Barnacle on April 6.

This interview has been edited for style and clarity.

Barnacle: The potential divestment of the Academy was in the national news over the last week, and there are some questions still outstanding there. 

One thing that Rachel Bailey, the president of the Lunenburg Academy Foundation, had mentioned about the offer of sale that was made to the foundation was that it came to them as a total surprise. 

She said the foundation had been working with the town well in recent years for the overall management of the building, but that the offer came as a total surprise and they felt they were in a tough position with an initial 90 day deadline. 

Why was an offer of sale made to them without talking to them first about whether they would be interested in such an offer?

Risser: We’ve had ongoing conversations with the Academy Foundation since I’ve taken office, and since before then. 

Right when Rachel was herself the mayor, it was always at least my preference, and I know other councillors had expressed that as well, that the Academy Foundation eventually take over a more significant role in the building.

As you know, a lot of the building portfolio – and it’s not just the academy, it’s also the Old Fire Hall or the train station or others – these things don’t fall within the scope of municipal jurisdiction in terms of being a landlord for historic buildings. 

Municipal jurisdiction is more responsibly focussed on core infrastructure, water, wastewater, streets, sidewalks, sewers, trees, those kinds of things. 

So we made – and I think Rachel described it this way herself – a very favourable offer to the Foundation to assume ownership of the building and the lot. And that remains our position and we’re looking forward to seeing what they can come back with. 

But, you know, the problem with Lunenburg is that these sites are internationally recognised, but we’re being asked to manage them principally with municipal funds. We get specific project-based funding, but we don’t get, for example, an annual contribution from Canadian Heritage or Parks Canada or the province or any tourism organisation or anything for the role that we play. 

So there are a lot of things that are not properly within the scope of municipal jurisdiction that wind up getting put on the town. Interpretive services, wayfinding, historic building management. You know, there are any number of things we’d love to be able to do if they were being financed by a sufficiently large tax base, which we just don’t have. 

So if anybody feels like we’re being heartless or anything like that, we’re certainly not. I’ve said to other media outlets, and I’ll say to you – I spent six years of my school life there, I can go anecdote-to-anecdote with anybody on that building. 

My first-ever public speaking engagement was the hundredth anniversary of that building where I was the junior emcee with one of our former mayors, Sherman Zwicker. 

My history with that building and my love of that building goes back as deep as anyone’s. But you have to be able to look at the balance sheet. And in the absence of federal funding, a charitable purchase seemed to us to be the best route forward.

: Was there a point where the Town considered speaking to the Foundation first? When you’re considering options about what to do, given the position that you would like to find a way to divest the property or otherwise offload the maintenance and capital costs, and this is one option – was there a reason that the offer was made without asking them whether they’d like the offer first?

R: Yeah. When you’re speaking corporation-to-corporation, and we are both incorporated entities, making a formal offer is the way you speak. So that offer was us speaking to the Foundation, laying out our intention. And the Foundation could have come back and said, “Nope, not interested.” And then the Town would have had to have found another path forward. 

They came back and said, “We’d like to consider this. Can you give us some more time?” And that was a year ago, so I think we’ve been fairly generous with the time schedule. 

It’s definitely our preference that it go to the Foundation if the financing is not there for the Town to be able to to keep it up. If it doesn’t, then that’s a different conversation.

And I can weigh in on that with my own particular views, but as we all know, I won’t be around to discuss and debate it, so it’s probably best that I leave that one alone.

So there’s informal conversations that happen, but, you know, in order to have clarity, it’s best when you’re speaking corporation-to-corporation that you do that in writing, and not as, you know – Matt Risser speaking and not knowing where council might be at or Rachel Bailey speaking and not knowing where her board might be at, but board-to-board, officially and in writing.

: One thing Ms. Bailey also mentioned is that when the Foundation learned that the Town had submitted the intent to Parks Canada, that you wish to divest the property for possible private development, that there could be an opportunity in sight for the town to pursue other forms of private divestment – either a private sale of the Academy or entering into a development agreement that would see it privately managed. Is that something that the town is considering at all?

R: Not at this stage. At this stage, we’re only considering the offer to the Foundation. And, we’re hopeful that the Foundation will be able to accept our offer. If we were considering that, you know, it would have been probably far more lucrative to go to that option first. So I think the fact that we’re going to the Foundation and offering it to the Foundation is indicative of council’s hope and intent. 

Really, the building is just a financial and operational burden on the residents and the taxpayers. You can see the numbers and some of the letters and things that have been released and publicized – it’s been almost $2 million since we took the building over, which works out to well over $100 per household per year. That is a significant burden for a town to bear, particularly when it’s leased – solid capital and operational funding being diverted away from things like sewers and streets and sidewalks, infrastructure renewal.

You wind up with risk in your infrastructure portfolio because of that, because you’re trying to manage this incredible load. And as you’re probably aware, and I’d encourage you and anyone else to pay attention to, the Town will be providing a financial outlook on all of those things at a special meeting on May 16. So there’s all of that to consider. That’s a lot for us to wrestle with.

: So there’s no Plan B for the Academy right now? 

R: I would say that if it were me – and I won’t be around to decide it, but if it were me, the next step I would have would be an RFP to go out for another possible charitable sale.

And I don’t think it would be appropriate to offer it up on the open private market without going to the public first, perhaps, or a plebiscite and saying – “Okay, either we raise taxes or have a special levy of some sort to finance this building in addition to our municipal responsibilities, because this building is is creating that operational and financial distraction from our core responsibilities.”

And that would have to bear the all-inclusive costs in terms of staffing and capital and operating costs and all that stuff. And if the public wants to pay that, then we can keep the building. If not, then we have to, you know, make some difficult decisions at that stage. But I would say that the financial outlook meeting is going to reveal that we’ve got a lot of difficult decisions to make in terms of decades worth of deferred and accumulated maintenance costs that now have to be have to be wrestled with.

And towns are struggling with those kinds of things all over the place, right? So unless the funding formula for towns changes or, you know, there’s an annual contribution provided to the Town of Lunenburg by higher orders of government in order to manage these heritage costs, we’re we’re going to have to have to grapple with those things.

: Can you speak to efforts the Town has made to seek annual funding from other levels of government to sustain the maintenance and capital costs of our heritage sites?

R: Yeah, as long as I’ve been on council, we’ve been raising it. And my understanding of the history is that it’s been raised basically since 1995 when we got the [UNESCO World Heritage Site] designation.

So why that hasn’t materialised or what other UNESCO jurisdictions get – you’d have to talk to the higher orders of government, you’d have to talk to Communities, Culture and Heritage or Canadian Heritage or Parks Canada, the responsible agencies to manage that, federally.

I will note that we do get, and are very appreciative of, special project funding, which we got in the case of the Academy and some other projects. The only issue there is that those typically come with matching dollars, which wind up, then, still a cost on us. 

And that’s even before you consider the hidden cost of the operations. So the costs, you can confirm this with the Finance Department – but as far as I’m aware, the costs that are related to the Academy don’t include staff time. So those are just the pure cash costs.

So when you look at, you know – something happens up there, there’s a boiler failure or rental agreements or any of that stuff, that occupies staff’s time and energy and diverts them away from core municipal capital projects and priorities. This is something that has to be wrestled with and it’s been a struggle.

And we’re just at the end of the road where – there’s the electric utility and the $15 million cost over the next ten years that we’re looking at there.

There’s other buildings, you know – this town hall has an assessment for external repairs – that’s $4 million.

So you basically wind up with five choices here, right? 

You slough off the liabilities and try to densify and generate as much tax base as you can, which is what this council is principally been focussed on. 

You raise taxes through the roof. 

You don’t do either of those things and you wait for an infrastructure failure that’s going to raise taxes anyway, right? 

You hope that the federal and provincial governments will essentially bail you out, which – if it were for a specific purpose, like Lunenburg being special and getting UNESCO’s funding and all that kind of stuff, that’s fine – but otherwise, that wouldn’t be responsible of them for their constituents and taxpayers. 

Or, you dissolve. 

And we’re seeing towns grapple with that all over the province. And I’ve been on the public record saying that for all towns, not just Lunenburg, the next 20 years is densification or dissolution, because you’ve got all these infrastructure costs and you’re not going to be able to manage them unless you have really good, solid, compact, dense housing and commercial development and mixed-use kind of stuff that that enables you to sustain that into the future. 

So yeah, it’s going to be a struggle.

: The need for maintenance of our heritage buildings, the need for drastic improvements to infrastructure – that’s clearly outlined in the Comprehensive Community Plan that was released in 2020, developed under a previous council, one that you were a part of, but the CCP didn’t mention any potential need for divestment of the Academy Building. 

That’s one thing that has taken people by surprise – this wasn’t announced publicly. 

What is the reason this was not communicated to the people of the town? A lot of the decisions made as a result of the CCP – the town announces them publicly, saying they are based on the CCP, where there was a lot of public consultation – but it didn’t mention the Academy. 

R: That’s a fair question. What I would say is, the CCP was the biggest public consultation exercise we’ve had in the history of the town, as far as I’m aware. So there was lots of opportunity for that.

We had a really great team work on that document from UPLAND and their subcontractors. The one thing I probably think we should have had, and wish we’d had, was a finance expert.

We had engineers, we had planners, we had heritage experts. We had all these different kinds of disciplines. But in looking at it, and thinking about it in terms of a strategic plan, I think a finance expert would have been helpful there. 

And I think that a lot of it is, some of these costs that weren’t known in the full picture as well, now we’re realising and seeing in the full picture. 

So I think that, had the comprehensive plan known what the financial outlook meeting will lay out, some things might have been tackled differently. 

I think what the comprehensive plan did lay out in broad terms, rather than building-specific kind of stuff, was that the building portfolio was unsustainable. You’ve got a lot of surplus assets that we didn’t need. 

So, you know, it’s funny with some of these things that are controversial – when we were going through the comprehensive plan exercise, the thing that many people were most apt to ask is, “Oh, we’re going to do this whole thing. And then it’s a plan that’s going to sit on a shelf, right?” 

And now some, a small minority, I think, are mad that it wasn’t a plan that sat on a shelf, because we’re actioning the plan and that necessitates some deep kind of change.

And when you do a lot of that in a short period of time, it necessarily generates some concern and opposition. That’s unavoidable. But I would say that I would chalk it up to not having as clear a picture then as we do now.

: Considering that, is there any plan to look at other aspects of the CCP that people are relying on now as a Strategic Plan for the next 40 years, if it already warrants some reconsideration for more divestment?

R: The plan itself talks about renewing the plan and it talks about five year periods of review and revising things. So I think that would be the appropriate juncture to sort of look at those kinds of things. 

I think broadly, we have stuck to the plan, in fact, on some levels to the fact that we generated criticism for sticking to the plan too much. 

But the plan was never envisioned to be as set in stone as some people are imagining it. 

You know, I’m a big fan of General Eisenhower’s quote: “The plans are nothing, but planning is everything.” 

And I think what the CCP really did was give Lunenburg a culture of planning, and thinking ahead and being more forward-looking and thinking about – you know, 20, 40 years down the road, what is this? What do we want all this to look like?

So the plan was always intended to be a living document. But that being said, the structural realities, no matter who’s the mayor, no matter who’s the staff, no matter who’s the council member who lives in town, the structural realities, financial or otherwise, are the structural realities. And they’re going to have to be wrestled with. 

So, yes, there are baked-in opportunities for renewal of the plan, for thinking about things, for circumstances changing. I mean, you have to do that. But the things that we’re grappling with now are not going away because of a document or not. 

So I think the real thing is how we deal with those things. And I laid out previously, the five options – the first four, you know, you could do some combination thereof. Right. But those alternatives have consequences attached to them that you have to consider. 

So it’s not set in stone but it’s also not, you know, some flimsy guideline that just gives you some broad motherhood and brotherhood kind of direction. 

It’s a real concrete plan to allow Lunenburg to continue to be a successful place and to honour it, which – I’m actually worried we’re sort of losing that. 

Lunenburg is a town with a legacy of innovation and being forward-looking, and looking outward and meeting the world. 

And I worry that we’re sort of losing that. 

And then, some of these designations. We’ve got to appreciate the character of what we are, which is fabulous. But I worry they’re making us too navel-gazing and cautious and skittish about change.

: That’s a good thing to bring up. One comment a lot of people have made recently about the divestment the town is pursuing – recent news about the Old Fire Hall, the Blockhouse Hill RFP, potential divestment of the Academy – is that the World Heritage Site status could be threatened by the amount of divestment being simultaneously pursued.

People are saying that they are not confident the assessments the town is doing may be enough to guarantee that if we pursue a residential development on the buffer zone on Blockhouse Hill, if the Town divests some buildings like the Old Fire Hall, and there are plans that could see some demolished like the Fire Hall and have something else built – that it could threaten the UNESCO heritage status. And please correct me if I’m wrong, but you annually submit a state of conservation report to UNESCO through Parks Canada –

R: That’s my understanding, you would have to speak with the Heritage Office about that. I’m pretty sure we do. I don’t know whether we do it every year, whether it’s a mandatory or voluntary requirement or whatever.

: Yes, from what I understand, it’s an annual outreach that Parks Canada does to UNESCO sites to say – “Are there any plans that you have that may warrant being submitted,” in the state of conservation report they have to submit to UNESCO. Could you speak to what communications the Town has been having with UNESCO, either directly through or indirectly through Parks Canada, about the plans the town has right now?

R: I know we always take great pains to not run afoul of any regulations that we shouldn’t be running afoul of, like what specific communications we have or haven’t had.

We’re generally coordinated through the Community Development Department. So if you wanted the specific background information, they would be the ones to go to and ask that and they would be able to give you a detailed list of the things we do.

But we generally keep them updated on things that we’re looking to do, or things that we’re hoping to do, and whether or not those fit within the scope of what would be mandated as far as our designation.

I wouldn’t want there to be, though, this false dichotomy between maintaining the designation and changing and progressing as Lunenburg. I don’t think those two things are actually in conflict.

And in fact, I think I’ve said many times that in Lunenburg, it’s not heritage or modernisation, it’s both or neither, because just keeping  heritage going in town is an expensive proposition. 

And so that necessitates an economic business model for a community that works and generates revenue. 

So I would say the biggest threat to us being able to sustain that is not generating tax base, not having money to put into these things that we need. 

I have to refer now to the OUV (Statement of Outstanding Universal Value) for which we got the designation. 

[Risser opens a copy of the Statement of Outstanding Value at his desktop computer.]

There would be two overall aspects of the outstanding universal value – the rectangular street grid. 

The grid pattern is a large part of it, maintaining the grid pattern. But also, it says, [the houses and buildings] “constitute an excellent example of sustained vernacular architectural tradition.” 

So those are really the two big components. But what people sometimes don’t realise is that architectural tradition has to be continued, in terms of vernacular architecture.

And Lunenburg, the architectural profile of town is very eclectic. It’s not Williamsburg or Louisbourg, where it’s very uniform and homogeneous. It’s layers. It’s this layered evolution where you can date parts of town by being contemporary for the time period that they are there. 

And the Built Heritage and Streetscapes paper for Project Lunenburg lays this out in map form, right, to see the neighbourhoods that are added.

So I think people sometimes see this idea of adding neighbourhoods and doing contemporary architecture or neo-vernacular architecture in those neighbourhoods, as against our tradition. 

But, in fact, it is our tradition, right? 

And in fact, if you look as far as authenticity – the authenticity criterion for the World Heritage District, it says – “While a continuing vernacular architecture tradition is integral to the property’s outstanding universal value, there has been very limited infill in the modern era. Many of the properties’ historic and functional uses and functions survived.” 

It’s actually noted in our outstanding universal value that we haven’t infilled enough in the district. 

So I think that really understanding that heritage and understanding what it means – it’s not just a bunch of pretty buildings, it’s the grid pattern, it’s the continuing vernacular. That also means adding neo-vernacular contributions within the district.

And I think when you look at all the other neighbourhoods that have helped build the town in those layers, whether it’s New Town or the craftsman architecture of the 20s and 30s or – New Town, principally Lower New Town is the Second Empire Victorian kind of stuff, or adding the gingerbread, the dormers, the Lunenburg bump and all that stuff to the original sort of Cape Cods and Georgians that were here in Old Town – you see that it’s funny because it’s eclectic but harmonious, right?

So I think people naturally see that as something very special. And it is. And that’s why new additions, particularly those in and around the Old Town, have to not violate the integrity of that. 

The federal Standards and Guidelines for the conservation of historic places talks about how you have to be compatible with “subordinate to, but different from” – and that’s how you balance your integrity and your authenticity in terms of these things. 

So, I think there’s a difference between appreciating Lunenburg’s heritage and appreciating why we’re special and designated and all that, and just thinking – “There’s pretty old buildings and we have to keep building pretty old buildings, right?” 

In fact, if you mimic things too much, you’re Disneyfying the town, and you’re violating the authenticity of the town. And I would say that you can run afoul of those regulations just as much through that as you can through lacking integrity. 

But I am at best an enhanced layperson on these things. And thankfully, we have very solid heritage experts upstairs who advise myself and council on this. And they’re very aware and mindful of what is appropriate and what isn’t, but what is appropriate and what isn’t tends to be sometimes different than what is expected to be appropriate or what is right.

: There has been a lot of vocal resistance to certain development plans in town, especially the Blockhouse Hill RFP for designs for development. 

There is a group, Friends of Blockhouse Hill, that is pursuing signatures right now for a petition to have the town stop the entire RFP for designs process unless the town holds a plebiscite that says the majority of people in town want it.

Is there any kind of threshold for signatures for verified town residents for a plebiscite like that to actually happen? 

R: I mean, by the time that comes in, I’ll be gone. So I wouldn’t comment on what threshold would or wouldn’t apply. For me, there’d be no threshold, but I won’t be there to argue the point.

And the reason there’d be no threshold is just if we don’t do these kinds of things, Lunenburg is not going to be Lunenburg. It’s going to become a very exclusionary place. 

The external demand for housing here, because it’s a very desirable place to live, has certainly driven up prices here more than even other places. 

And, you know, that’s great. We want everybody to be able to come here who wants to be in this area. It’s great when new people come. We want that. That’s fabulous. But we also need to make sure that Lunenburg remains a place that’s accessible and attainable, you know, in proportion to everyone who wants to be here. 

So we’re trying to balance those two things, and it necessitates adding additional housing inventory. And particularly, anecdotally, we’ve seen, through the census data, this is apparent – our multi-unit housing stock is insufficient. 

And you see this, I hear stories all the time. You know, seniors who want to downsize into units or people who aren’t quite ready to buy a home but would rent an apartment – and then they create that bottleneck in the market. 

Those folk not being able to downsize means that their homes aren’t coming on the market. 

Then there’s young families who would move into town who aren’t able to afford homes. 

That stuff all has to be to be grappled with. So, we need more housing. There’s no two ways about it. 

And I would say that in the long run, over the next 20, 25 years, we need to probably double the stock. We’re at 1400 units now at 2400 residents. And in order to remain both financially viable and affordable and accessible to people, we need to double both those numbers. 

Now, that can happen as a slower evolution. But the demand for Lunenburg is just going to be, I think, so high, that we need to do something drastically different than we have been doing.

Now, having said that, I’ll see what the need is, because the province is doing a housing needs assessment for all of the different municipal units. And they’re doing it unit-by-unit, specifically. And that’s supposed to be out, I think in early May. 

You can call the Department of Municipal Affairs and Housing to see when that will be out, but I’d be surprised if it didn’t demonstrate a significant need for housing, in particular multi-unit housing, in Lunenburg.

: If the goal is to be more inclusive in housing – the RFP for a Blockhouse Hill development design, as the most visible example right now of an opportunity the town is pursuing to add new housing stock – it only has about 10 per cent affordable units, which are designated at a $65,000 annual income. So some criticism that’s come out is – that’s not actually affordable housing. Do you have any comments on that?

R: I would say, you know, the $65,000 thing, that’s a federal formula. You can’t change that. It’s based on census data. It’s a standard formula and it’s based on the census area that it applies to. So there’s nothing to be done there. 

What I would say, though, is a couple of things. One, towns aren’t responsible for housing, right? Housing is a provincial responsibility in terms of public housing.

What municipalities are responsible for, principally with respect to housing, is zoning.

And so the biggest lever that the town can pull and has pulled to make housing more affordable is by having zoning that is not exclusionary. 

And zoning and regulatory things can really affect housing costs in a significant way and in ways that you don’t think about, or at least I didn’t think about before I learned this stuff, like minimum parking requirements. 

So you’re charging people for a parking space that they don’t use and that exacerbates the housing costs for seniors and new immigrants and people who don’t own a car. 

Minimum lot sizes, if minimum lot sizes are high, then that drives up the average cost of housing in a place. 

Road rights of way, because then the developers who come in and put the public infrastructure in – if they have to build wide roads, that takes away – A, the number of units they’re able to build, but B, also enhances their costs. So then that drives up the costs of units. 

Whether you’re mixed-use or what your density level is, all of these things affect housing costs in a very serious way. 

So the biggest way that the town can, and any town can, and I would say – I would put us against anywhere in the province in terms of having a progressive and permissive set of land use bylaws.

That is the way that municipal government can principally alleviate housing affordability. Having said that, it’s not up to us whether it gets built or not, right? 

And certainly most municipalities in the province and particularly ours, don’t have the ability or the capital to get into that business, even if we wanted to. 

And it’s not appropriate for us to do that. So then after that regulatory level, which we’ve done through the land use bylaw and the MPS [Municipal Planning Strategy] and the CCP, the next level that you’ve got is disposing of appropriate surplus land. 

[Risser gestures towards a map on the wall showing a planning map of Lunenburg neighbourhoods.

And so if you look here at the Comprehensive Community Plan, the two nodes, the yellow nodes of growth, you know, the vast majority of growth potential in town is actually on Green Street and the other side of Tannery Road. 

In fact, I’ve joked that that’s going to be “Newest Town” when it all gets knit together. 

But those lines are all privately held. You know, we zone and we allow, permit, whatever is within the land use bylaws to be done there. But we don’t control that, right? That’s up to the private sector to determine what is viable over there and what isn’t.

So what’s within the town’s purview as a next step is, divesting of surplus lands. And the two main pieces of surplus land we have are King Street and Blockhouse Hill. And Blockhouse Hill is certainly the most significant. 

We also have other lands, you know – I know the Hall Street lands have been mentioned, but they’re not appropriate for residential development because the two worst conflicting land uses you can have are residential and industrial.

And If we were starting from scratch, and zoning the whole town and STELIA wasn’t there, then maybe that would be looked at for residential potential. 

So that’s an incompatible use at this stage. It’s also kind of funny, it’s close to services and all those kinds of things – you know, it’s a boutique industrial opportunity, I’ve called it, because it’s not in a business park – you know, out off the highway or somewhere. 

But it’s not suitable for residential development. 

Also, one of the things I tell people very frequently is that the efficient secret that keeps Lunenburg going is our industry. We have a really strong industrial cluster and, you know, we have Highliner right outside of town. We have STELIA. Hopefully the shipyard gets revitalised. We have HB Studios, we have ABCO, you know, lots of them expanding and looking to do different things. 

We have different people looking to come in and do different things. So on top of having a strong industrial cluster overall, we’re not a company town, which improves our resiliency, and that has to be cultivated. 

And I’ve said, if you don’t have a sufficient industrial base, you wind up a wealthy population and a service sector. It hollows out the middle class of your town. We don’t want to go that route.

So, the two biggest parcels we have to help alleviate, as the Town, the housing affordability issue in Town – are King Street and Blockhouse Hill, and that’s why they were both zoned for higher density uses. 

So to get back to your original question in terms of affordability on the Hill, the way you can make that – there’s two things to think about. One is, the main way you make both of those parcels more affordable is the density and compactness of the units. 

So instead of having say, just – you know, this isn’t the right number, but just to make the math easy – instead of having your million dollar home in an R1 single-family residential zone, you have five townhouses. 

And if that home’s $1,000,000, then you get five townhouses for $200,000 apiece. I’m not saying that’s what it would be in the final analysis.

But just to use that as a comparison, the density, you know, the compactness and the density in the lower lot sizes and the road rights of way in those kinds of things, those are how you make those kinds of units more affordable. 

The other thing that the town has within its scope is – we own it, right? The other properties, you know, if you meet the land use bylaw, you get a permit. That’s how it works. In our properties, we can control conditions of sale on the divestment of those properties and show potential buyers what the maximum and best use of the property would be, through undertaking our own design processes in conjunction with the public and getting publicly-approved designs for those areas, so that’s what we’re doing.

And I’ve said – wait until there’s a design. Then you can say what you like or you don’t like. But until there’s a design, we’re not going to be talking with the same reference points, and that’s not really going to be too much of a useful conversation. 

The other point I want to make is, then, we have to factor in what those two sites, were they developed, what kind of impact they could have on the overall housing market in town. 

And so there is this concept in a housing market analysis called filtering. Now, that can happen in this case one of two ways, either generationally – so, it filters through different generations, or economically. 

So principally, I would say the opportunity here is for generational filtering. So if somebody goes in their townhouse on Blockhouse Hill, because they’ve sold their house on Centennial or Maple Avenue and all those houses come on the market at the same time, that then opens up existing housing stock. 

If you’re not building housing stock, everybody winds up going down a rung on the ladder, because those different options aren’t available for people who’d want them. 

So, Blockhouse Hill isn’t just about Blockhouse Hill. It’s about the overall tax base that we have in town. It just happens that we own Blockhouse Hill. If we owned the Hirtle Road area, we’d be divesting of that. That’s a luck-of-the-draw kind of thing. But that project is important to the future of the entire community on that basis. So, the housing units are likely going to be sold at market value, but the market value of a townhouse versus a mansion is two different things. 

: In that context, something some people are saying is – these homes may just go on AirBNB anyway, we should ban AirBNB in town. What are your thoughts there?

R: We’ve regulated AirBNBs. You can only have one per lot and they are prohibited in secondary accessory suites. And what’s great about that for our land use bylaws is our lowest maximum in our low-density zone is three units a lot. 

So, you know, even if you provide one AirBNB, you’re still better off providing long-term rentals, and you can only do one per lot. 

And then you can’t build a secondary suite just to AirBNB, you have to make that available for a long term rental. 

I think what the AirBNB question and the absentee ownership question plays into is, that we’re in enough of a crisis with housing that people are looking for silver bullets. 

And if you look at the proportion of AirBNB stock, both here in Lunenburg and in the province, it’s just not enough stock to fix the problem. The same thing with absentee ownership.

Does it put pressure on the housing stock? Yeah, a little, for sure. But I went and looked at AirDNA [a website collecting data on AirBNB and VRBO rentals] during the pandemic and, you know – correct me on this because I’m not going to make this statement blasé – but you can go look at AirDNA.

As far as I’m aware, the number of housing AirBNBs cut in half during the pandemic, I think from about 120 to about 60 and, you know, didn’t have an appreciable effect on the housing need in town. So it’s really just a supply and demand issue. 

[Ed. note: AirDNA shows 81 active AirBNB and VRBO rentals in the Town of Lunenburg in Q1 2020, a two-year peak of 98 active rentals in Q3 2020, and 61 active rentals in Q1 2023.] 

So AirBNBs, absentee ownerships, they do put a constraint on the supply, but it’s not sufficient to meet the supply increase that’s needed to meet the overall demand here or anywhere else. 

This is based on decades of the country not building enough housing. 

The other thing about AirBNB is that a lot of residents use AirBNB to help offset the costs of maintaining expensive heritage properties. 

So some of them are owner-occupied and some of them are being used to, because the heritage regulations create a financial burden on the owner – and necessarily so, I’m not criticising that – but some people are using AirBNB to help mitigate and manage those costs. 

So there’s always a tricky dance one has to do between making sure that those kinds of things are sufficiently regulated. 

I’d love to be able to charge them a commercial tax rate, but that’s up to the Property Assessment Act, right? We can’t do that. 

Thankfully, the province brought in the need to register and you have to meet municipal bylaws in order to register. So we’ve looked at that, but we’ve been one of, as far as I know, outside of Halifax, I think we’ve been one of the more aggressive jurisdictions on regulating AirBNBs. 

But you have to make sure that you don’t have unintended consequences to your policy there. And certainly what I would say the main thing to take away on AirBNB is, it is no silver bullet. We could eliminate every AirBNB in town tomorrow and Lunenburg would still be too expensive to live. We still wouldn’t have enough multi-unit housing options. We would still need to build more stock to meet demand. 

: Yes. One unavoidable topic right now is communication in town. Something that came up at the last town council meeting is that people in town feel like they’re not hearing enough from town council, that they’re not getting information that they need or trust.

At the meeting, there were several members of the business community who were concerned they weren’t approached about proposed changes to vending bylaws that would have seen new food trucks in town, some of them potentially outside of their own restaurants. The Board of Trade said that they had not been consulted. 

What is your perspective on the status of communication between the Town and its residents? And what can be done to help people feel like they have more of a direct line with their councillors? There’s this feeling that people keep referring to that they’re losing touch with Town Hall.

R: So, I would say a couple of things. One, the town’s communication over the last couple of years has been more significant than it’s ever been since I’ve been in office. And I think other councillors, long-serving councillors would, would agree with that.

Lunenburg, thankfully, has a very engaged population and so that population wants to broadly know what’s going on. I think that sometimes in order to know what’s going on, though, you have to put the onus on yourself a bit.

The town does put out information. All this stuff is public unless it’s in camera and if it’s in-camera, it’s because it needs to be for purposes that benefit the public. 

You know, if we had a public discussion about selling a building for $250,000 and that was our floor, and we had that discussion in public, what would all the bids come in at? And then the public loses value. 

So there are reasons for being in camera. But other than that, we take great pains through multiple outlets to communicate information. I think, and I’ve said in other places, sometimes when individuals don’t like an outcome, you know, they use transparency or communication as a modality to say – you know, they really just don’t like the outcome.

And they should say, “I don’t like the outcome.” But then, you know, it’s easier to say, “Oh, the process, the town didn’t keep us informed, right?” So, there’s that. 

Communication can always be better. Every organisation all over the world, you know, can always do better. We’re a small town, you know, it’s not always easy to communicate.

I will eat a lot of it. If there’s probably one criticism of me as the mayor that I think is partially valid, it’s that I haven’t been the best communicator and there are other councillors who do it better than I do. 

I think that any time, though, anybody has genuine questions, I’ve done my level best to answer them and I think councillors are very approachable. 

You know, a lot of times, people do communicate with council and council will communicate back, or if you see them on the street, talk to them, that kind of thing.

A lot of this has been that the town has, and the town needs to, make a lot of changes in a very short period of time. And there’s a lot to communicate because there’s a lot going on. Right? You know, could we be doing better? Yes, of course. You can always do better. 

But it’s, you know, from where we started with the CCP to what was outlined there in black and white, which we all ran on, you know, to now, we’re doing it –  I would say that, it’s not like anything was being hidden, you know.

: Well, the Academy sale not being communicated publicly, or included in the CCP, is one thing that was hidden – things like that can give people a feeling that more things are hidden. 

R: Yeah, I can understand that. The Academy things were done in private because they amounted to, basically, a contract negotiation. 

: The food truck issue, the vending bylaw, for instance – the last meeting of council was one example where people felt that more work had gone into a situation, by town staff, than it had to, because of a lack of consultation. People were saying – “Why were these plans sought out for where food trucks could go, where it would be permissible to have them, etc. – before any business owners were approached.” There’s this sense that some work is being done before the right people are being asked.

R: Yeah. So, there are very prescriptive legislative processes for municipal governments. 

And, broadly with the vending bylaw, you saw those processes in action. We have to have a public hearing, you know, before changing our land use bylaw or things like that. 

The thing to consider, though, too, is – who do you consult? Who gets that privileged position? Who’s entitled to that for a bylaw? That’s a public bylaw. 

Is it people whose interests would be affected? You know, they’re going to have a particular view – or people who feel their interests are going to be affected. 

I would caution the town in future, because I won’t be around, in terms of getting into consulting interested parties too much on things that are ultimately going to be public legislation. 

Because if we’re legislating for interested parties rather than for the public, then we’re not doing our jobs right. 

Now, having said that, everybody has an opportunity to weigh in where there’s an opportunity for a public hearing. 

And most bylaws don’t have public hearing requirements. Planning items do because people’s interests might be affected. And the province has legislated that that’s a requirement on that basis. 

But it’s, you know, it’s one thing to consult and you want to do that as much as you can. 

But, you know, what are you consulting for? What is your purpose for consulting? If your purpose is to satisfy particular interests rather than to create better public legislation, then that’s a slippery slope to get down. 

So you have to try and balance those two against one another. Do we always get it right in every particular instance and every particular moment? No, nobody does. 

And a lot of public life is learning by doing right, so you don’t know what’s going to be a problem until it manifests itself as a problem a lot of the time. 

You have to go through that process to figure out where things are at. And sometimes you just have to dig in your heels and do what’s in the public interest no matter who’s screaming at you. That’s part of being a politician.

: Yes. Back to UNESCO – do you think the UNESCO World Heritage Site status for Lunenburg is an obstacle towards the kind of development that you want to see? I know that your term as mayor is ending in two weeks, but I’d like to hear your perspective on that.

R: No, not at all. I don’t think it is at all. I think that we can meet the housing needs that we have and we can build a dense, compact – you know what’s funny, is, Old Town actually is the most dense, compact, productive part of town from a tax-base, infrastructure perspective. 

So a lot of what we’ve zoned for and are looking to do now is to make parts of the rest of town look more like Old Town and feel more like Old Town, because we’ve designed for a lot of good missing-middle housing. 

You know, the minimum road right of way is an Old Town roadway – I’ve actually used the expression that we’re going to build modern buildings on heritage grids right now, where it’s surrounding Old Town or in a transition or buffer area, that kind of thing. 

It would have to be more compatible than it otherwise would if it was just over in the west of town. 

So, no, I don’t think that UNESCO is an obstacle. And, you know, that it’s insurmountable at all. In fact, I think it’s an obstacle much less than people think it is. 

I think it tends to get weaponized when somebody doesn’t want development. 

And so NIMBYism and Lunenburg has the great advantage of, you know, Chicken Little-ing, that it’s going to ruin UNESCO. 

But I don’t think that’s an obstacle really at all. I think it necessitates making certain things more compatible. But I think that’s something that we’d want to do anyway, right? You have to protect the overall integrity and authenticity of the site. It’s just often what’s what’s actually doing that and what’s imagined to be doing that are two different things.

: Yes. I ask that because there is skepticism right now, some people saying the Town is being too laissez-faire, they may not actually care about the status.

R: No, I care deeply.

We are what is called an evolving cultural heritage landscape. And I think what we struggle with is that, in terms of a cultural heritage landscape, the evolution is – it’s not just one building, or this or that or the other thing. It’s the whole landscape you have to factor in. 

And when you’re evolving because you’re still alive, you have to make additions. So, you know, otherwise, you’re not an evolving cultural heritage landscape, you’re a dead cultural heritage landscape. 

And Lunenburg is a very special and important place. But it’s a living, breathing town. With the needs of a living, breathing place. So I think the only thing that really I worry about being a threat is, you know, the idea that 2400 people are going to be able in the long run, to be able to bear the costs of an internationally-recognised site. 

And, you know, anybody who has an old house can tell you what kind of expenses they generate. So what the town is grappling with, it’s just exponentially higher, with respect to the number of buildings. 

So if the economic model doesn’t work, and that’s why I say it’s both or neither, right, with heritage and modernisation. Because if one doesn’t work, then the town is going to deteriorate, in my view. And then that will put the heritage under threat in the town.

: You’re coming to the end of your term as Mayor. What’s your biggest learning, your biggest takeaway, from your experience as the Mayor of the Town of Lunenburg?

R: I would say, in terms of learning – I’d held elected office right from my student days. Otherwise, you know, I’d been very politically engaged. And so I think to a significant extent, I knew what I was getting into. 

I think that I’m very proud of some of the work that we’ve done. 

Certainly, when I came into office, I think the three things I talked about were: engaging and communicating more, which we’ve done, which hasn’t been perfect, but we’ve improved; implementing the Project Lunenburg plan; and modernising town hall to implement the plan. 

And I feel all of those things are either complete or well on their way. 

You know, we redid the MPS and the LUB [Land Use Bylaw], we’re about to redo the Heritage Bylaw. I was hoping that would get over the finish line when I was still around, but sadly, it won’t. 

We got the $7.3 million to allow us to do the $10 million project to finally address the wastewater system, so that’s great. And we’ve had a significant renewal and reorganisation at town hall. 

I’m really excited to see what the Department of Community Development does. You know, we’re increasing, really strengthening our planning function here, our urban planning function, which is good, because a town as important as Lunenburg that’s world renowned for urban planning should really have a solid, good urban planning department. And we do, the staff up there are great. And the staff everywhere in town are great. So I’m proud of a lot of that.

: Is there anything else you’d like to say to our readers? 

R: My advice to the community would be this – my deputy mayor, Peter Mosher, who’s been a great, great consiglieri throughout my time in office; a great advisor and mentor and a really good friend – he’s often good with a quip, so I wound up quoting him a lot – but one of his things that he says is that, ‘Everyone else can be one-dimensional. Council has to be five-dimensional.’ 

We have to look at the whole picture and see that. And I think that a lot of misimpressions about things that the town is doing, or the things that happen in town, or things that don’t seem to make sense – I think are a result of, you know – I want people to struggle with the whole picture the same way that we are. 

Some of that is, we haven’t gotten the whole picture out. Some of that is, people need to plug into the whole picture. 

But I think that a lot of these things, I think a good direction, strategic direction, can be supported that will take the town into the future with success if everybody agrees on the whole picture and how to grapple with it.

And so I think that’s a missing piece right now. And it’s led to a lot of consternation. And part of that is my fault. So I hope that in the future, we’re all grappling with the same whole picture. 

You know, there was a politician – I forget who it was – they said, “I vote the way my constituents would vote if they knew what I knew.” And I think that that’s part of where there seems to be a bit of a divide. 

And bridging that divide means everybody seeing the whole big picture of this town and the changes that are required to keep it successful in the future.

: Do you anticipate that the upcoming special meeting of council is going to lay the land for this big picture you’re talking about?

R: I think if people plug in, and I really hope they do – I won’t be there because, you know, it’s a week after my resignation takes effect – yes. Deputy Mayor Mosher will be chairing as the acting mayor, but I would strongly, strongly, strongly encourage people to plug into that meeting to see the numbers.


8 responses to “Matt Risser, outgoing Mayor of the Town of Lunenburg: The Barnacle Interview”

  1. Paula Rennie

    I find it unfortunate that the Lunenburg Barnacle decided to give so much air-time to someone who agreed to serve as Mayor for four-years but found a better opportunity and is leaving, mid-term, after stirring up so much chaos and division in the community. His contention that he and council members are effective communicators is laughable in the extreme, particularly considering the food truck debacle and his recent damning comments in national media about Lunenburg being on the edge of going broke. Based on my time spent going door to door in the last while (something councillors would be well-advised to do), I think the majority of Lunenburgers wishes he would Just. Stop. Talking.

  2. Tricia Fish

    Thank you for the article. I am shocked to read that the outgoing mayor has such an insulting perspective on Lunenburg townspeople who oppose using the buffer zone for housing. To clarify — is a protest group of 1000 plus members a “minority” in a town of 2300? We absolutely want more housing — but we advise against exploiting the common parklands of the UNESCO buffer zones; these green spaces are a huge part of what makes Lunenburg peaceful and accessible, an asset for for future generations — not to mention beautiful, and the site of Folk Harbour, the campground, the Academy with its preschool, library, music school…. The idea that Mr. Risser considers opposition to divesting the common lands to be simply “poorly informed” — and that he is the only one who comprehends all the pertinent information — is very troubling, not to mention rude. He hints that citizens will be dragged kicking and screaming like children towards a “better” future? The definition of “better” is what we want to debate. This interview, under a guise of humility and wisdom, is full of faulty logic and patronizing comments about the residents and caring members of the community. The Friends of Blockhouse Hill is now a 1000+member group. In a town of 2300, that surely is not a “minority”, as Mister Risser tries to dismiss it. When it comes to divesting these assets, the town must consult with its townspeople, because — simply — the majority of the town does not want it to happen. We do not want the buffer zone, as protected by UNESCO, used for development and houses. We want housing in other areas, and we need it, but using the assets of the town as we say, “throws the baby out with the bathwater”. Let’s work towards great new housing creatively, together, and admit that this is a very wide issue — not just a Lunenburg problem. Money is not the only defining element in creating and maintaining a special town like Lunenburg. If finances are such a dire issue (despite the huge bump in taxes over the last two years, which I am happy to pay), let’s start with, for example, reviewing the 14 highly paid new staff positions added by the Mayor. Residents and tax-payers simply want to have a voice in deciding Lunenburg’s future, not to be led by a secretive and biased council who ignores and quashes all discussion and opposition. Let’s move forward with more openness and co-operation together to solve whatever economic and housing issues we’re grappling with — and not sell the soul of Lunenburg.

  3. Wesley George

    Patronizing to say the least ,out of touch with what Lunenburgers Vision of the Town is as opposed to his . The Academy future is another story , he has a point there re upkeep and costs .
    Public engagement ? neither he nor the Council have had conversations with or done any consulting with Citizens . Developers are the only ones to Gain anything with Housing on Blockhouse Hill ,Affordable Housing based on $65K ? not many Seniors or Young Couples are making that salary . Laughable

  4. John McGee

    I was on council for 12 years ending in 2020. Every year we would get a financial report card from the province. It always had a few things we could improve on such as reserves but the basic report showed a very solid financial position. We were in better shape than most municipalities in the province.
    Our debt as a percentage was well below any warning sign. Our revenues were strong. We were solid.

    The towns expenses have gone up over 20% in the last two years and I expect it will continue in this years budget. It is Matt and this council that has created several high priced positions and got the town into this perceived financial crisis. The Academy may have cost us millions in the past but that was when we had not renters and the library as a tenant. The savings here were the costs associated with having the library on Pelham St. It’s still a burden at the Academy but a good one

    I find all of this upsetting. The 3 councils I had the privilege to sit on where fiscally responsible with negligible tax increases and modest increases in spending In a very short time that’s all changed. Hopefully a new administration will review the actions taken and correct any excesses.

  5. Rob Smith

    This guy is a gaslighter extraordinaire.

  6. Bob Ardern

    First of all, in the interests of balanced reporting, the Lunenburg Barnacle now needs to interview the opposition to the soon-to-be-ex Mayor of Lunenburg and address all the points that he is claiming to be fact. There are many holes in his arguments and you could drive a bus through many of them. Several former members of Council have rebutted particular points that Mr Risser claims to be true. I’m sure that others could go through Mr. Risser’s interview and debunk much more of it.

    Second, by resigning, Mr. Risser has become a lame duck mayor who should cease trying to influence decisions that affect the Town of Lunenburg and those of us who are left behind trying to clean up the mess and resolve the divisiveness that his specious proposals have generated.

    Third, the Town of Lunenburg Council needs to stop holding in-camera meetings to discuss potentially controversial or unpopular decisions then using the in-camera status to refuse to answer questions or provide information about those decisions. In a transparent and open environment, it shouldn’t take well over a year for news such as the sale of the Academy to reach the taxpayers of the town who are responsible (at the moment at least) for the cost of maintaining it.

  7. James Hallett

    While the Mayor accuses members of the community of “Chicken Little-ing” the risks to the UNESCO designation from development, he demonstrates worrisome naivety about how the relationship with the UNESCO World Heritage Committee should be managed, despite his ability to call on staff and hire consultants.

    In principal, UNESCO expects the local government to uphold and enhance the integrity of a World Heritage Site and its buffer zone which were set with the full accord and support of the town until recently. Minor changes to the boundaries of a World Heritage Site OR its buffer zone require impact assessments and the possible intervention of an international review process, the results of which are then considered by the World Heritage Committee.

    The changes to the buffer zone that will result from the development of medium and high density housing at Blockhouse Hill and the King St. Extn. will require a much more significant evaluation process with the UNESCO World Heritage Committee, including a resubmission of the application for WHS designation and a scrutiny of all the material previously prepared by the advisory and review bodies serving the World Heritage Committee. This is in accordance with the UNESCO WHS Operating Guidelines. This type of process can have unintended consequences, so the potential threat to Old Town Lunenburg’s UNESCO Inscription needs to be taken seriously and competently managed.

    It was also disconcerting that the Mayor could completely flip the context of “infill” in the site’s statement of Outstanding Universal Value – I think its clear from the Lunenburg inscription that the vernacular architectural tradition has seen “…very limited infill in the modern era” was intended to be a positive attribute, but somehow the Mayor reads it as “we haven’t infilled enough in the district”.

    I know the Mayor and Council have hired new staff and engaged many consultants, some of which should have good insights about UNESCO, but what I read in this interview and what seems to have been carried into the CCP process is a singular pursuit of a personal vision without listening to others. There has been a significant expenditure by the town on planning and development yet the basic issue of how to manage and benefit from the UNESCO designation has still not been addressed. UNESCO helped transition the town from the fishery to tourism – its needs more care and attention.

  8. Alison F Strachan

    Have the 300 votes for re-naming Cornwallis Street been counted yet?

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