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If developers can bend zoning bylaws in Halifax, why can't citizens?

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If it's become acceptable -- routine really -- for developers to apply to bend municipal planning strategy and land-use zoning regulations to green-light projects that don't fit within the rules as they are, should it not be just as possible for ordinary citizens to seek similar exceptions to red-light those who plan to do things zoning laws legally permit but which are not in the public interest?

Let's consider two cases.

First, there's the Robie-Quinpool-Parker block adjacent to the Willow Tree.

It's currently home to a 10-storey office building and four-storey above-ground parking garage, a former funeral home and some single-family housing, all of which comply with existing land-use bylaws.

Those properties are now owned by two major developers. They want city council to rewrite the rules so they can erect two massive high-rise towers on the site.

Their plans not only fly in the face of neighbourhood height restrictions -- one would be twice as tall as existing rules allow -- but they also don't comply with unit and population density regulations. Not to forget that local residents oppose them.

No matter.

There's a process that lets developers apply to city council to make exceptions to the rules whenever they feel the need.

There's no similar process for citizens.

Which brings us to Steele Honda, the car dealership that plans to bulldoze two dozen north-end residential properties around its Robie Street lot in order to make space for... more car parking and vehicle display-casing.

Really? Does replacing housing for people with parking for cars -- especially on prime peninsular residential real estate -- fit the city's long-term municipal planning strategy? Is it in the public interest?

Most of us would probably say no, but the area is zoned commercial -- based on land-use bylaws passed nearly 40 years ago -- so Steele has the right to do what it does. And the rest of us have no recourse.

I'm not advocating for councillors to rule individually on "every garage and façade change." That would create, as Councillor Waye Mason points out, "chaos. No one would know what they could ever build."

But it's at least worth noting the power imbalance that exists between developers, who finance most councillors' election campaigns, and the rest of us who merely vote.

This article first appeared in Stephen Kimber's Halifax Metro column.

Photo: Benjamin J. DeLong/flickr

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