Planning for the Future

I hadn’t really thought about the time lag between amalgamation in 1995 and the adoption of a single Municipal Planning Strategy for the CBRM in 2004 until I saw it spelled out in the CBRM Forward Issue Paper presented to council by planning director Michael Ruus on Tuesday. Knowing it took almost a decade for the CBRM to consolidate the 15 planning strategies and 16 land use by-laws of its constituent municipalities into a single, “unified document” really does put the two years its taken to update that strategy into perspective.

Ruus explained that as part of its participation in something called the Provincial Regulatory Modernization Pilot, the CBRM initiated a “comprehensive review and development of a new Municipal Planning Strategy, Economic Development Strategy and associated Land Use By-law and Subdivision By-law” in March 2021. The review was undertaken with the following goals:

As a result, the regional planning strategy has been compacted from over 300 pages and more than 100 zones to fewer than 150 pages and under 25 zones.

Senior planner Karen Neville (who really knows her stuff, there was not a single question she was unable to answer) walked council through the new documents on Tuesday.


Public input

Neville said that public participation in the review process, despite the initial COVID restrictions, had been “really great” and Ruus described it as “the most robust” public engagement process they’d ever undertaken. Between April 2021 and May 2023, the municipality offered citizens a variety of ways to make their views known, both virtually (via options like online Town Halls and focus groups) and in person (via options like pop-up engagements in malls, parks and farmers’ markets and public open houses). Ruus noted that the CBRM Forward website had experienced over 30,000 website views from 8,000 unique visitors.

Over four rounds of engagement, the municipality determined the community’s priorities look something like this:

In response, planners set a “final general approach to zoning and development” that looks like this:

Ruus in his Issue Paper and Neville in her presentation discussed all of this in terms of four “major themes.”



People want “a greater choice of housing type, more housing affordable options, and better access to amenities in residential neighborhoods.”

A woman standing at a podium behind a laptop.

Karen Neville

In response, the proposed residential zones in the new strategy permit “a range of housing types and densities, along with opportunities for some sales and services use.” Permitted density will increase the closer you get to the various downtown cores and will be permitted “as of right,” which Neville said will reduce the need for zoning amendments.

In response to a question from District 5 Councilor Eldon MacDonald about building height, Neville (after noting there are currently no height restrictions in the municipality) said they will be introduced in all zones and will be connected to housing density. She also noted that the view planes that are currently protected in the North End will remain protected.

MacDonald also asked about mixed-use development in the North End and Neville said the Fringe Zone from the existing North End Strategy will carry over into the new plan while adding that they do “allow for a little flexibility” in terms of retail and restaurant development in residential zones, albeit with limitations.


Granny suites & Tiny Houses

The new Land Use By-Law will permit so-called “granny suites” (“accessory dwellings” in by-law terms) in all residential zones. A lot containing a one or two-unit dwelling may contain a granny suite (no bigger than 72 square meters and no taller than the main building), provided it’s situated beside or behind and not in front of the original dwelling and complies with all necessary building code requirements.

In response to a question about Tiny Houses from District 4 Councilor Steve Gillespie, Neville said the problem for the municipality was that they needed to ensure building code compliance and many Tiny Houses are built off site and not inspected (unlike modular homes and park-model trailers which are CSA inspected and stamped). Neville said a Tiny House would require something like an engineer’s sign-off stating it was up to code.

District 6 Councilor Glenn Paruch asked about people who have already built accessory dwellings and Neville said the CBRM intends to establish a process whereby owners who did not get a permit can turn their accessory dwellings into a legal units retroactively, although they are not yet sure exactly what this process will entail.


Rooming houses

I was particularly interested in the discussion of rooming houses or “shared dwellings,” having followed some of the discussion on this subject in Halifax. Neville said that where the current Land Use By-Law restricts the areas in which such houses are permitted, the new by-law will allow shared dwellings in all residential zones, provided the developer obtains a building and development permit, ensuring inspection for building code compliance. She said the municipality could also looking at licensing rooming houses and subjecting them to annual inspections, which councilors seemed to favor, although I need to take you on a little side trip now to consider Halifax’s experience with licensing and regulating rooming houses, which shows it needs to be done with care.

As Uytae Lee explains in this 2017 PLANifax video, rooming houses are considered “an essential form of affordable housing” existing within the private rental market.


But over the past 25 years, the number of rooming houses in Halifax-Dartmouth has fallen from 156 to 17, and the loss has been particularly sharp in the North End of Halifax and Downtown Dartmouth. Lee offers two possible explanations for this, the first being that both areas have seen new development, the opening of “cool new businesses” and the arrival of new people, driving up property prices and making it more lucrative for landlords to convert rooming houses into apartments or redevelop their properties entirely.

The second reason is uglier and implicates my industry: rooming houses tend to be the subject of a lot of bad press. A 2016 Dalhousie study analyzed media articles from 1996 to 2015 and found that they tended to reinforce negative stereotypes about both the houses and their tenants, as illustrated by the words used to describe both:


As Lee says, if someone dies in a rooming house it makes the news, whereas the rooming houses operating without incident are rarely mentioned.

In response to demands it “do something” about rooming houses, Halifax introduced a by-law to regulate them in 2001, requiring they be “licensed, inspected and held to a minimum standard.”  And while the intention may have been good, the result was the loss of rooming houses, because landlords found the new regulations too onerous. As Zane Woodford put it in the Halifax Examiner:

Rooming houses are more affordable than bachelor or one-bedroom apartments, but the municipality basically regulated them out of existence by requiring licensing and registration in the early 2000s.

Halifax later had a change of heart about the issue—the Centre Plan, adopted in 2021, legalized shared dwellings in urban areas, and in 2022, council voted to legalize them in the rest of the municipality.

Woodford said some “suburban and rural representatives” worried about the lack of minimum parking requirements in the amended by-law but social policy planner Jillian MacLellan said parking requirements can be a barrier to to the viability of shared housing, “especially if one space were required for each bedroom.”

MacLellan told council:

We are relying on the developers to provide the parking, to know who they’re building for and to be able to provide that appropriate amount of parking, or the user to say, “Hey, I have a car so I’m not necessarily going to live in this space because I actually want to have a parking space.”

By not including a minimum parking requirement, we are leaving that sort of flexibility so that the parking can be provided based on the user.

Which leads us very nicely into the next major theme presented to CBRM council on Tuesday:



Neville explained that the new by-law moves away from regulating minimum parking requirements, counting instead on “the market” to get the balance right, which sounds very similar to what MacLellan told HRM council.

Bicycle racks at the train station in Steinhausen, Germany. (Photo by Datendelphin, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons)

In fact, Neville noted that a lot of jurisdictions are moving away from minimum parking standards, which are:

…one of those things that get carried over from document to document and we don’t really re-evaluate, ‘Is that need really still the appropriate standard?’ So, is it really one parking space for every 300 square feet of commercial use?

She also told council that the new by-law includes requirements for bicycle parking—when you reach a certain number of dwelling units or a certain square footage of sales and service use (“or actually square meters, we’re going metric, it’s going to be a whole new world for us”), you will be required to provide bicycle parking.

Neville said the department knows these documents represent “a big change,” so they plan to review them after a year to see if they’re working. Ruus added that modernization of the parking regulations is part of the municipality’s housing action plan, because they’ve heard that parking can be a significant barrier, particularly given much of the development in CBRM is infill.

Ruus added that the old parking regulations also affect commercial development, reminding council of the “months’ long” process necessary to allow the redevelopment of Sacred Heart Church into an events venue, all because of the lack of flexibility in parking requirements.


Rural Development

Although the new planning strategy aims to concentrate development in areas already serviced by municipal sewer and water, Neville stressed that the new document does offer incentives for rural development.

These include increasing the number of one-unit dwellings permitted on a single, unserviced lot from one to two; permitting shared dwellings; allowing two RVs per lot; increasing opportunities for sales and services uses of rural properties; and allowing private roads outside serviced areas.

In response to a question from District 8 Councilor James Edwards, Neville said the changes would permit a resident to add a second seasonal dwelling to a lot, provided they met other regulations about percentage lot coverage and set-backs. The “limiting factor,” she said, would be getting approval from the provincial Environment Department, which would decide whether an additional septic system was necessary.

As for private roads, Neville said there are “kind of little buffers” around the current municipal units where private roads are not permitted. Under the new by-law, “proper private roads,” those permitted by the planning department, will be allowed outside the areas served by municipal water and sewage. Neville said the standards for such roads have been modified, in consultation with Public Works & Engineering, to make their construction “easier.” Owners’ associations will be mandatory for such roads to ensure their upkeep and maintenance. (Neville noted that there are varying degrees of “what people call roads” within the CBRM and unlisted roads will remain unlisted—they’re not private roads, “they’re their own kind of entity.”)

Ruus also noted that private roads will be subject to a maximum length, the wisdom of which regulation has been highlighted by the recent wildfires in Halifax subdivisions.


Next steps

Neville explained that as part of the consultation process, the CBRM had to solicit comments from the “abutting municipalities” of Membertou and Eskasoni, neither of which had any to submit.

The next step will be a Public Hearing, which council has scheduled for Thursday 20 July 2023 at 6:00 PM, to consider the adoption of the new Municipal Planning Strategy and associated Land Use By-law and Subdivision By-law.

Citizens may review these documents on the documents page of the Cape Breton Forward website (which, I have to say, has become something of a hot, albeit cheerful, mess).

Those wishing to may present at the hearing or make a written submission via email. The deadline for written submissions is 4:00 PM on Monday, July 17th. Submissions must include your full name and address for the public record.