Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Paradise Lost: The Evisceration of Blue Mountain - Birch Cove Lakes Regional Park

Blue Mountain - Birch Cove Lakes is a a paradise: a piece of wilderness the size of the Halifax peninsula, just 10 km from the downtown core. A mere bus ride away, it contains a series of lakes that form a complete canoe loop, and local non-profits are working to develop a trail system in the area. You can literally step into the forest behind the Kent in Bayers Lake, and lose yourself in wilderness. It's like a small piece of Kejimkujik in our backyard, and one of the many things that make Halifax a great place to live.

Most cities would give their right arm for a jewel like this: a near-urban wilderness tract that offers amazing outdoor recreational opportunities. As Tim Bousquet said in his 2009 article about the area, "It's hard to believe this place exists."

Unfortunately, this place may not exist as is much longer. Private landowners/developers are pushing to open up a significant portion of the Birch Cove Lakes to development, and the HRM is currently consulting on a facilitator's report that would allow them to do just that.

Blue Mountain and a portion of the Birch Cove Lakes are already protected as a provincial wilderness area, designated in 2009 and expanded in 2015. However, much of the remaining land is in private hands, some of it in prime lakefront or wilderness areas.

In the 2006 Regional Plan (updated in 2014), the HRM made clear its desire to create a Regional Park in Blue Mountain - Birch Cove Lakes, identified park boundaries, with the intention that private land would be acquired for inclusion in the park. Private lands within the proposed park boundaries were designated "urban reserve", meaning they were not to be developed until at least 2031.

The facilitator's report is the result of a multi-year negotiation process between the HRM and developers in an attempt to determine the boundaries of the proposed regional park, and in particular, how much private land will be purchased and added to the park. Unfortunately and unusually, the facilitator seems to have come down pretty much entirely on the side of the developers. Her conclusions would use the park boundaries as proposed by the developers, which would open up most of the remaining lakes to development, defeating one of the main purposes in creating the park in the first place. It also seems to contemplate major infrastructure to make the park more "accessible" to the public, which seems inconsistent with much of the park's status as a wilderness area. Most alarmingly, it seems to propose opening up those private lands for immediate development, which is contrary to the Regional Plan.

While the report talks a great deal about "cost" and "economic feasibility" of the park, it makes little or no reference to ecological integrity, or to water quality, biodiversity or wilderness protection, which are the primary reasons for establishing the park in the first place. It ignores the huge public benefit that a park like this provides. It also glosses over the cost to the HRM of opening up these lands for development, and the benefit to the developer of the creation of a regional park on their doorstep. It ignores the fact that HRM already has enough land available for development to meet demand for the next 28 to 35 years. There is no need to open these particular lands up for development.

Blue Mountain Birch Cove Lakes is already under development pressure, and HRM already lost recreational opportunities when a popular mountain biking and hiking area was cleared to allow for further expansion of Bayers Lake.

However, the long fight to protect Blue Mountain - Birch Cove Lakes is not over. There is a public presentation on the facilitator's report on Monday, June 20, 2016, at 7:00 p.m. at the Future Inns Aspin/Birch Room, 30 Fairfax Drive, Halifax, Nova Scotia. And we have until  3:00 p.m. on Monday, July 4, 2016 to submit your comments to the Municipal Clerk's office by fax, 902-490-4208; or by e-mail, clerks@halifax.ca.

I also urge people to contact the Mayor, and their regional councillor, to let them know that both the process and the proposal are deeply flawed, and that they need to stand up for Blue Mountain - Birch Cove Lakes, and a regional park that protects the entire area for now and for future generations. This is a once in a lifetime opportunity to protect a jewel that most cities only dream of. Let's not let it slip through our grasp.


Monday, February 1, 2016

"Halifax is on a roll, and doesn't even know it"

There's been a lot of talk lately about reasons for leaving Halifax. Allison Sparling, who recently left the city for Toronto, penned a widely discussed blog post about the reasons she, like other young people, was leaving her hometown (she wrote an equally poignant piece about things she loves about Halifax, which didn't get enough attention). Lezlie Lowe published a piece in the Herald entitled "Halifax, please let me know: Should I stay or should I go?" capturing the tug of war that many young people feel between love of this town, and the perception of a lack of economic opportunity.

Those of you that know me know that while I am a fan of Halifax, I am not a cheerleader. If anything, at times I am quite critical of some of the city's failings. But sometimes, when being critical, one loses sight of the notion that criticism should really be aimed at making things better. Sometimes it's easy to lose sight of all the good things going on around us. And sometimes it takes someone from the outside looking in to give us a dose of perspective.

A few weeks ago, I had a twitter exchange with a law school classmate, who grew up in Halifax, but now lives in Toronto. He comes back to visit a couple of times a year, and had this to say: "I don't think [Halifax] realizes it, but it's kind of on a roll right now."

He went on to talk about how the new Library fills him with hope and pride. I don't think he's alone. The Library really is a remarkable public space, and an award-winning architectural jewel that has transformed the look and feel of Spring Garden Road.

But it's not the only great public space we've added in the past few years. When I first moved to Halifax, I remember people complaining about the lack of winter recreation opportunities in the Downtown. The Oval, built as a temporary facility for the Canada Games in 2011, was so unexpectedly popular with the public, it became a permanent fixture that filled that winter gap. The Commons, which used to get pretty desolate in the winter time, has been transformed into a year round playground.

The Waterfront has also seen some significant improvements, with more to come. In summertime, the boardwalk is a great place to sit and read or people watch, and there are few better places to sit and sip a beer on a sunny day than the Stillwell Beer Garden.

I think the proposal for the Khyber Building offers the opportunity for a similarly exceptional public space, this time for the arts community. These types of spaces will attract more people back to our downtown core, to live, work and play. Let's make it happen.

Similarly, in a city which has sometimes gone out of its way to erase neighbourhood identities, we have seen the resurgence of great neighbourhoods like the North End (which is really made up of a number of great neighbourhoods) and Downtown Dartmouth, both of which have been recognized as being among Canada's great neighbourhoods.

Another area in which Halifax has arguably been punching above its weight is the restaurant scene. For a city of our size, we really have some top notch chefs and restaurants: Edna, Gio, Agricola Street Brasserie, Chives and Bicycle Thief to name but a few. I've taken friends, family and colleagues from Toronto and Vancouver to restaurants that are on par with what's they are used to getting in bigger cities, often at a fraction of the price.

Yes, the selection of international food still leaves something to be desired: good Indian can be hard to come by, and options like Malaysian food are practically nonexistent. But with the proliferation of Thai, Korean and other foods, it's a far cry from the days when Alfredo, Weinstein and Ho's was considered exotic.

And while the explosion of craft brewing isn't unique to Nova Scotia (and arrived here a bit later than most places), our Province has really come into its own in the last few years. When I moved to Halifax 9 years ago, there were 3 craft breweries total. I now count 10 in HRM, and 25 across the Province, with seemingly more opening all the time. It really is an embarrassment of riches.

All of these things; good public spaces, good neighbourhoods, a vibrant food and drink scene, are important elements in making our city an attractive place to live.

This isn't to say we don't still face challenges. Nova Scotia continues to struggle economically and demographically, the only province to have negative population growth over the last few years. That being said, despite perceptions, Halifax has done reasonably well, with relatively low unemployment and relatively strong median income compared to similar sized cities.

There is no question that Halifax doesn't necessarily have the breadth of opportunity that bigger cities offer: that is partly a function of size. But sometimes being in a smaller centre offers opportunities that wouldn't exist elsewhere. I have friends that have leadership roles, that run organizations, that influence public policy, in a way that would not be possible in larger centres.

Our transportation system also needs work. Although Halifax enjoys a fairly high proportion of people who take transit or walk to work compared to similar Canadian cities, we continue to resist and delay improvements to transit and active transportation infrastructure. Between the recent uptick in pedestrian/car collisions, and the misguided government response, it's obvious we have some work to do to make travel in our city easy safe and friendly for all users of our streets.

We still need to work on making our downtown core a more attractive place to live. Although the debates on downtown development are not as toxic as they were a few years back, and some exciting developments are moving ahead in the urban core, we need to make sure that we get the right kind of density in the right areas, in a way that supports a vibrant urban environment rather than taking away from it.

Finally, we have a challenge which is also an opportunity: Halifax has amazing near-urban wilderness, but we are at risk of losing it. Places like the Purcells Cove Backlands or Blue Mountain Birch Cove Lakes provide amazing wilderness recreation opportunities in location that are, in some cases, minutes from our downtown core.  But more needs to be done to protect these amazing areas from development pressures which threaten to destroy the very things that make these areas attractive to live in the first place. Coalitions like Our HRM Alliance and its member groups continue to work on policies like greenbelting that could preserve these areas for future generations, but can only do so with sufficient public support.

All of which is to say that in our desire to make our city a better place to live, we shouldn't lose sight of many of the great things we already have, but also shouldn't lose focus on some of the real challenges we face: diversifying our economy, fixing our transportation system, densifying our urban areas, and preserving our amazing outdoors, among others. A city isn't made better by blind optimism, but it isn't made better by relentless pessimism either.

Halifax: you're on a bit of a roll. Let's keep things moving forward.

Monday, December 7, 2015

The War on Walking: Nova Scotia's ludicrous pedestrian fines

Nova Scotia's crosswalks and intersections are once again in the limelight, once again for all the wrong reasons.

Last week, the Nova Scotia legislature passed Bill 133, which, passed a series of changes to the Motor Vehicle Act. Among other things, it increased the fines in Nova Scotia for breaking the rules related to crosswalks and pedestrian signals to almost $700 (and higher for subsequent offences).

On the face of it, this might seem reasonable. Halifax in particular has been suffering from what seems like an epidemic of crosswalk accidents and other car-pedestrian collisions, with advocates calling for better enforcement of the law. Education campaigns don't seem to have worked. Surely increasing the fines will help with enforcement?

Indeed, that's what the Minister of Transportation seems to think. He says the increased fines are "not about punishment ... , it's about deterring these actions" and that the changes are about shared responsibility and are designed to "save lives". All of which seems reasonable on it's face.

But once you start to dig down, the law looks less reasonable, and less likely to be effective at saving lives.

Bill 133 increased certain fines by making all violations of s. 125 and certain violations of s. 93 of the Motor Vehicle Act into Category G offences, which carry fines of $697.50 for a first offence, $1,272.50 for a second offence, and $2,422.50 for a third offence.

As I've explained elsewhere, Section 125 contains a broad range of rules relating to whether cars or pedestrians have the rights of way in crosswalks and elsewhere. Section 93 deals with the rules for traffic signals, including pedestrian lights. Any violation of the right of way rules in section 125, or a violation of section 93 where a person fails to yield the right of way or, as a pedestrian, proceeds other than when authorized to do so, now carries the nearly $700 fine.

The problem is that these sections include a wide range of offences, some of which are much more dangerous than others. The pedestrian who enters the crosswalk a second or two late (on a flashing hand), even if there is no traffic coming, gets the same fine as the pedestrian who carelessly steps off the curb directly in front of a car. The car that fails to stop at an unmarked crosswalk because they didn't see the person waiting gets the same $700 fine as a car that turns on a red light into a pedestrian-filled crosswalk. The fine is in no way proportional to how dangerous the activity is, or whether or not someone gets hurt.


It's particularly problematic when you start to compare the new fine to other violations of the Motor Vehicle Act, as this table does:


Blowing through a red light or a stop sign will only cost you $180. Texting while driving is $237.50. Speeding by any amount more than 30 km/h, or passing a schoolbus that is unloading is only $410. The "jaywalking" fine of $700 is now comparable to the minimum fine for drunk driving. These are some of the most dangerous driving behaviours, but somehow, the law treats them as less bad than the pedestrian that forgets to push the crosswalk button, even if there is no traffic.

Reality is that the increased fine is not going to deter bad behaviour.  Nova Scotia already had some of the highest fines in the country for intersection violations at $180 and crosswalk violations at $410, compared to fines ranging from $110 to $172.50 in Toronto, Calgary and Moncton. Yet we still had an abysmal rate of crosswalk safety. If the risk of someone getting killed isn't deterrent enough, an increased fine isn't going to change things.


This also ignores research which suggests that the certainty of punishment, and not the severity of punishment, is more likely to deter people. In other words, a lower fine can be just as effective if not more so, as long as you enforce it more often. The more likely people are to get caught, the more likely they are to change their behaviour. Increasing the punishment without changing enforcement does little to nothing.

Yet, if anything, increasing the fine means the law is actually less likely to be enforced. Police were already reluctant to fine drivers or pedestrians for intersection or crosswalk violations when the fines were $180 and $410 respectively, except when someone got hurt. Police will be understandably even more reluctant to administer a $700 fine to people who have committed relatively minor infractions

As I've said before, what's needed isn't increased fines, it's better enforcement of more reasonable fines. Police in Nova Scotia should be instructed to carry out a series of high-profile crosswalk and intersection enforcement blitzes, similar to those used for drunk driving. Fines should be handed out to both pedestrians and drivers that flout the law.

We also need to take a hard look at how we design and maintain our roads, intersections, sidewalks and crosswalks in Nova Scotia. Poor visibility, signals that aren't synchronized or don't work properly, faded lines, poor clearing in winter, and arbitrary and dangerous sidewalk and road closures cause unnecessary delay and frustration for drivers and pedestrians alike, and contribute to some of the "bad behaviour" that we see on our streets. Higher fines don't solve these problems, they are just one more barrier to walking.

As for the changes to the Motor Vehicle Act, these were done with with very little public consultation.  The government should go back to the drawing board, and consult with the public and safety advocates, and come back with suggested changes to address safety issues in a fair and balanced way that is based on a real assessment of the danger that different pedestrian and driving behaviours cause, and an assessment of the actual effectiveness of safety measures. There's no question the current law isn't working. We need to dig a little more deeply to find out why, instead of papering over the problem with more bad laws.



Friday, March 6, 2015

Bill C-51: Be Afraid. Be Very Afraid.




Stephen Harper is on a bit of a roll. Capitalizing on recent events, his proposed anti-terror legislation, Bill C-51 seems to enjoy widespread popular support, at least according to one opinion poll. The Liberal Party have announced they won't oppose the Bill, and it seems almost destined to become law.

Nonetheless, a number of prominent Canadians, including former Prime Ministers, Judges and Justice Ministers, academics, and even some conservative commentators, among others, have expressed concerns about the Bill, including that it allows widespread sharing of citizens' private information within government, lacks sufficient oversight and accountability for security agencies, and potentially infringes certain fundamental freedoms, including freedom of speech and protest rights.

I share many of these concerns, and want to focus in on two aspects of the Bill that I find particularly troubling:

First, the Act is is no way limited to stopping or disrupting terrorism. It allows government agencies to gather and share information in respect of "activities that undermine the security of Canada". It gives a broad, open ended list of such activities, which includes terrorism, but also includes "interference with critical infrastructure". The only thing it excludes is "lawful advocacy, protest, dissent and artistic expression".

This allows our security agencies to spy and exchange information (with very little oversight) about Canadians who are taking part in all kinds of activities which are an accepted and important part of life in a democracy, including strikes, labour disruptions, and other types of pickets or protests, which are protected by our rights to freedom of speech and freedom of assembly


The carve out for "lawful" activities is simply not broad enough to protect those rights. There are all kinds of ways in which an otherwise peaceful protest can be deemed "unlawful" including a protest march that fails to get the proper municipal permits, or which inadvertently trespasses on private property. And there is often uncertainty about the lawfulness of protest activity. One group I work with spent two years prevented by a court order from protesting against a particular power project: the Court of Appeal ultimately threw out the order because it had no legal or factual basis. Still, during that time, their activities potentially fell under this new legislation, and could have subjected them to spying and other heavy handed measures. This kind of broad power will have a chilling effect on even the most peaceful protests, because of the possibility that any protest you take part in could be deemed unlawful, and result in Canadian security agencies spying or sharing private information about you.

The carve out for protest and advocacy is very different than the existing carve out in the Criminal Code, which exempts any advocacy or protest that isn't intended to cause serious harm or risk to persons or property. If the goal is to target terrorism, then security agencies should continue to be restricted to spying on those individuals and groups that are actually threatening real harm to Canadians and their property, not merely any group that happens to cause some inconvenience or disruption as part of a peaceful protest activity.To do otherwise is to subject law-abiding Canadians to the powers and scrutiny of a police state merely for exercising their constitutional rights.


Second, it creates a new offence for "advocating" or "encouraging" terrorist offences, whether they take place in Canada or abroad. The problem with this is that the definition of terrorist offences in the Criminal Code is already quite broad, and can include any kind of armed struggle, including one against an unjust government. As has been pointed out elsewhere, if this law had existed at the time, Canadians who expressed support for Nelson Mandela and the ANC during their armed struggle against the apartheid government in South Africa could have been considered guilty of "advocating terrorism". Similarly, anyone who expressed support for the Hungarian people in their uprising against communist rule in 1956 would have been guilty under this law as well. No matter what side of the political spectrum you are on, the fact that you can no longer openly voice support for people who are fighting an unjust or despotic government without fear of being convicted is a gross infringement of freedom of speech.

There are a number of other problems with the bill, including the broader policing powers it gives to our security agencies, and the lack of accountability or oversight, which are discussed at length in some of the links provided above. At the end of the day, the overriding problem with the Bill is it actually undermines the very freedoms it claims to protect. Among the many things that make Canada such a great place to live is our freedoms: the ability to speak, to ask questions, to criticize our government, and to voice our support for others around the world who are struggling for those same rights. Those rights were hard won, and are the lifeblood of our democratic system. We shouldn't let the terrorists take those rights from us, and we shouldn't let our government take them from us either.









Thursday, September 11, 2014

Halifax's Barbershop Booze Bust

Social media in Halifax was abuzz yesterday with the news that some popular local barbershops and salons had been told they could no longer provide their customers with a beer or other drink while they waited for a haircut. The practice  is one that a few local salons and shops have adopted, and an option that seems to be very popular with customers. One barbershop offered their customers the option of a beer or a coffee with their cut, while another would offer sample beers to waiting customers.



Apparently, based on an anonymous complaint, the Halifax Regional Police made the rounds to a number of shops and salons yesterday to inform them that serving drinks was considered a no-no. However, some of the shops claim that they had previously contacted the Province's Alcohol and Gaming Division, and been told that they didn't require a license, or what they were doing was perfectly legal.

News of the bust created a social media firestorm, with Haligonians asking what law the police were enforcing, and why they were hassling hardworking business owners over such a trivial matter. It was pointed out that certain other local businesses (including retailers, massage therapists, spas) have been offering a free drink to their customers for years.


The key thing to remember is that Nova Scotia's Liquor Control Act is an outdated piece of legislation informed by a prohibition mindset. Liquor is a controlled substance, and according to section 78 of the Act, it is unlawful to sell, transport or keep liquor, or even to give or consume it unless the Act or regulations specifically say you can. I personally don't agree with this approach, but that is the reality underpinning the Act.

You can buy liquor at the liquor store because the Act says you can. You can keep, give and consume liquor in your residence (which you have lawfully purchased from the Liquor Corporation) because section 62 of the Act says you can. You can transport the liquor from the store to your home (unopened) because section 54 of the Act says you can. You can purchase liquor at certain licensed establishments or events because the Act says you can. You can give liquor as a gift because section 55 of the Act says you can. Most other things are off limits. You can't even give alcohol away for free at an event without a special occasion permit.

The categories of licensed establishments under the Act are archaic, and there isn't a permit or license that really fits this situation. That leaves these shops in a bit of a no man's land.

You could argue that the drink is a gift to the customer from the shop, and covered by section 55 of the Act. But the Act also has a very vague and broad definition of what constitutes selling liquor, and a pretty broad prohibition against giving someone liquor. It would seem that the police are taking the perspective that it does apply here. Either way, there is some uncertainty in the law.

Even if they could get a license, the cost and rules around licensed establishments would make it difficult if not unworkable for these businesses.

But that begs a bigger question: why would this even be against the law? What is the harm in allowing a business to serve a single drink to a customer as part of the service they offer? I'd argue this is a pretty low risk activity, and that, in a city that has problems with more serious crimes, a waste of valuable police time and resources.

We could simply ask the police to back off, but that would be a stopgap solution.

The common sense solution, in my view, would be to clarify the law by passing a simple amendment to the Liquor Control Act allowing a business that is not a licensed establishment to give a single drink to their paying customers. They would still be subject to all of the restrictions regarding not serving underage or intoxicated customers. This should allow a largely harmless and popular practice to continue, while ensuring that appropriate rules are still in place to protect the public.

Our Liquor Control Act desperately needs an overhaul in any event. This seems like an obvious place to start.