Nov 11

Time to fight for PlanSJ

Many of the people who have participated in the PlanSJ initiative over the last 22 months probably think the work is done, and that adoption of the new Municipal Plan is a certainty. While it’s hard to imagine an outright rejection of the Plan by Council, there is still a significant risk that the Plan’s policies could be modified — to satisfy the desires of business and regional interests — in ways that would compromise the Plan’s prime goals: municipal sustainability and quality of life for Saint John citizens.

We’re in the last stages of the PlanSJ process … at least, the part of the process leading up to the adoption of the Municipal Plan. A final window remains open for public feedback to Common Council. It’s now very important that all those citizens who took the time to participate in PlanSJ also take a moment to communicate their support for the Plan (or their criticisms of it) to Council.

You can be very sure that the ‘big players’ in our region are petitioning Council at this crucial time and there’s a risk that this late and highly motivated input could skew the perception of Council and lead to undesirable changes to the Plan. Our councillors also need to hear our views and be guided by our enthusiasm for the work that’s been crafted by Saint John citizens over the last two years.

Letters and emails are being accepted until midnight on Thursday the 10th. If you don’t have time to send a letter, fire off a brief email. (Not sure how to start it? Appended below is the text from my letter to Council, in case that helps.) Every single statement of support from Saint John citizens will help ensure that PlanSJ stays on track, and remains a truthful reflection of our collective desires and aspirations.

To submit your input, email the Common Clerk at Or use the other options provided at the PlanSJ page. (There’s also some interesting documentation there.) Remember to provide your full name, contact info and ADDRESS so the Clerk can confirm you’re a Saint John resident.


To:          Mayor and Councillors, Common Council, City of Saint John

From:    David Drinnan
Member, PlanSJ Citizen Advisory Committee


Regarding: Adoption of PlanSJ

PlanSJ is approaching a watershed moment – both for the process and for our community. Adoption of the Municipal Plan will launch a new chapter in this city’s history and make quality of life and fiscal sustainability not only priorities, but measurable goals.

A wide range of residents participated in the various PlanSJ meetings, workshops and consultations over the past year and a half, and the resulting Plan reflects the many voices of Saint John citizens. Unfortunately, I fear that the loudest voices Council is likely to hear now that we’re close to adoption belong to those who either dislike certain aspects of the Plan due to impacts on individual or business interests, or belong to the few who resist PlanSJ’s implementation altogether. It is important that Council does not let those few, powerful voices drown out the community aspirations of the many citizens who have participated in this process.

With that in mind, I’d like to make some specific arguments in support of the new Plan in its current form:

Saint John citizens first. This Plan belongs to the citizens of our city, not to the businesses that operate here, and not to the good residents of Greater Saint John. Our priority must be the wishes and interests of our citizens first and foremost. Economic and regional interests are factors that influence sustainability and quality of life, and must be considered in any decision, but they are not our direct goals.

Instead, the promotion of business and regional prosperity should be tools we use to maximize benefits for our citizens. All too often in this city’s history it’s been the other way around, and Saint Johners’ quality of life has been compromised for the sake of business or regional interests. While that might have been good for business, and good for the region, it hasn’t been a winning strategy for the City of Saint John or for its residents. Saint John must come first and Saint John citizens must be the priority. This Plan embodies that imperative.

Status quo is not an option. One thing that has been clear to every member of the PlanSJ team, and to almost every participant in this process, is the fact that the status quo is unsustainable and unacceptable. This city faces a catastrophic future if we continue down our current path. Those who argue against change, or even against the very idea of strong municipal policy, are either blind to this reality or – worse – willing to sacrifice the future of our city and its residents’ quality of life in favour of other goals or in protection of entrenched interests.

We cannot afford to hold on to old and broken models. We must embrace change, despite the short term costs it will impose on many of us, and recognize the opportunity not only to reduce service burdens but to bring new kinds of prosperity to this city. To reject the need for change, or even to simply defer it, would be inexcusable.

Development and a range of residential options. Some in the business and development community have decried the limitations that the Municipal Plan will impose on suburban development in the city, suggesting that a lack of suburban options will increasingly drive migration to outlying communities. I find that argument baseless for the following reasons:

  1. Availability of suburban housing has already proven itself to be a poor ‘competitive advantage’ over outlying communities, in terms of both immigration and retention.
  2. The city already has a wide range of residential options in suburban settings.
  3. What the city lacks are more attractive options for urban living, needed to enable greater immigration and to give Saint John residents better options for staying in the city.
  4. The new Municipal Plan and the follow-on incentives needed to support it will promote infill and development in specific opportunity areas without reducing that existing suburban residential stock.
  5. Abandonment of the strategy of increased concentration and investment in opportunity areas is, effectively, a return to the status quo, as discussed above.

I acknowledge that the change in policies will be challenging for the development community. The implementation of the Plan – in terms of both restrictions and incentives – will create pain points for some developers, and opportunities for others. In the longer term, those developers whose business models and philosophy are compatible with a sustainable Saint John will prosper.

What will be critically important is the support and incentive structure the City provides once the Municipal Plan is adopted, to protect, motivate and reward those developers who are willing to adapt to this new framework and build for a more sustainable future. Smart incentives and investments in specific neighbourhoods will be crucial with respect to both infill and new development.

Board of Trade. I’m guessing that Council may have received further comments from the Saint John Board of Trade requesting modifications to the Plan to protect business interests (for example, accommodations for ‘homegrown’ businesses such as Moosehead, JD Irving and Irving Oil, or provisions for multi-functional energy transmission corridors [1]). As stated previously, I feel very strongly that the Municipal Plan’s policies should remain focused on the benefits to Saint John citizens. Any City decision regarding corporate projects and business opportunities should be based on a cost-effectiveness analysis that balances the risks and burdens placed on citizens against the economic benefits for citizens.

Hardwiring blanket accommodations into the Municipal Plan simply isn’t appropriate, regardless of whether the corporate actor is ‘homegrown’. Projects that could impact the quality of life for Saint Johners should be forced into substantive reviews (including, if appropriate, environmental assessments) to ensure that the benefits outweigh the costs and risks, not only for the citizenry at large but for the specific neighbourhoods affected by those projects. (The recent power line controversy on the Lower West Side provides a clear example of this type of situation.) The Municipal Plan’s policies should not be modified in any way that could later be used to justify an ‘expedited’ treatment of any project that has the potential to impact quality of life.

Airport. I also assume that Council has received comments from the Airport reiterating its request for designation as an Opportunity Area under PlanSJ, in addition to other supportive language within policy statements [2]. I am very sympathetic to the airport’s plight. The ongoing lack of federal support and the Airport’s omission from the federal government’s Atlantic Gateway Strategy has put the airport at great risk, and the Airport’s own inability to define a viable business plan has increased that risk. Our city benefits from continued access to a local airport, as do the many other communities in the airport’s catchment area, and it’s critically important that a strategy be found to ensure Saint John Airport’s sustainability.

However, that strategy must not place the burden on the shoulders of Saint John taxpayers alone, either directly through the infrastructure investments that an Opportunity Area designation would mandate, or indirectly through competition by the airport with the City’s own industrial park operations. The demands of the Airport to incorporate language into PlanSJ that would open the door to those types of costs is simply unacceptable. The solution to the Airport’s problems must be a regional one that shares the burden fairly across the many communities the Airport serves, and should also involve the other levels of government that benefit very directly from the taxes that result from airport operation.

Frankly, the suggestion that PlanSJ policy should be amended in a way that could eventually make Saint Johners solely responsible for subsidizing a regional facility makes me very angry, as a Saint John taxpayer and as a CAC member.

The changes in PlanSJ language made recently to address the Airport’s concerns are sufficient; if Saint Johners are going to be asked to pay to keep the Airport open, they should first be asked if that’s what they really want to do, and what costs they’re willing to incur to make that possible. The new language in the Plan will require public hearings before any change in policy regarding the Airport (as well as requiring the Airport to first produce a viable business plan).

In conclusion. I hope that Council has received a range of feedback during this comment period. My fear is that the majority of Saint Johners who support PlanSJ and those who have participated in the process may have assumed that the heavy lifting has been done, and that the Municipal Plan is certain to be adopted in its current form. I urge Council to consider the full range of input and citizen participation over the last year and a half when dispositioning the feedback received in the last few weeks.

The new Municipal Plan is a tangible product of Saint Johners’ desires and aspirations; it truly is community vision translated into hard, precise policy. The Plan’s value to current and future Councils and planners will be enormous, guiding decision-making to help ensure that this city develops in directions its citizens want; that is, so long as the Plan is adopted in its current form – as a true reflection of our citizens’ priorities. The Plan, and the commitment that Council has shown in launching and supporting the PlanSJ initiative, will help to ensure that those decisions serve to protect quality of life for Saint John citizens and promote a sustainable future for this community.

I want to thank you all for your commitment to PlanSJ. It has been an honour to serve on the Citizens Advisory Committee, and I appreciate the opportunity I’ve had to contribute to this process.

Best regards,

Dave Drinnan


[1] Letter from the Saint John Board of Trade to the City of Saint John Commissioner and Deputy Commissioner of Planning and Development, 2011-04-21.

[2] Presentation from the Saint John Airport to Common Council, 2011-08-15.



May 11

New challenges to an old partnership

This is possibly the most crucial moment in Saint John’s recent history when it comes to municipal planning and land use. Urban sprawl has challenged the ability of the City to sustain itself. Failing infrastructure has been left to decay to the point where catastrophic investments are needed. Traditional industries have failed. Many residents have fled what they perceive to be a dirty, industrial city centre at a time when industry is seen as a necessary evil rather than an asset. Out-migration is an ongoing challenge, and immigration is an opportunity that the City has yet to realize. The tax base has crumbled while service and infrastructure costs have risen. The City faces a crisis unless things change.

So it is very fortunate that the Saint John Port Authority – a key partner in the future of this City – has undertaken a review of land-use planning at the same time that the City has revisited its own municipal planning.

Saint John has always been a port city, and Saint John residents are inherently comfortable with the types of industry and activity that have traditionally been associated with a seaport. The Port was once the heart of this city. Dating back to the earliest days of Saint John, the harbour was the raison d’etre of the community. The Port used to be a primary employer in Saint John, giving jobs to a significant percentage of the total workforce. More than that, much of the remaining employment in the community could be mapped directly back to Port activity, either in terms of supporting the Port, or because of the opportunities created by trade through the Port.

The Port was integrated into the very fabric of the city. Port lands were accessible. More than accessible, since in fact a great many residents actually spent part or all of their working day at or on the Harbour. There were no security perimeters, no barriers to entry, and no sense that the waterfront itself was ‘off limits’ to Saint Johners.

Now, however, the Port is littered with derelict space and forbidding fences. Our Port is no longer accessible, no longer a part of daily life for the vast majority of Saint Johners. And it is no longer a primary employer.

The fact is, the Port will never again be what it one was. That’s the reality that most of us have quietly come to terms with. But now there are prospects that the Port could become something much different from the traditional seaport of yesteryear or even the rotting, inaccessible shoreline we see today; the Port of tomorrow might simply be a heavy industrial park, transported into the heart of our city onto otherwise prime waterfront property.

That’s a dystopian vision of our urban future, and hopefully an unlikely one. Unfortunately, the Saint John Port Authority’s current draft of its land-use plan seems to allow the Port to lease land to any industrial operator that comes knocking, regardless of whether the business is marine-related, and regardless of how heavy that ‘heavy industry’ gets. Worse still, tax incentives may make the Port a more attractive industrial park than the City’s actual industrial parks.

From the Port’s perspective, that’s a necessary evil, if not a desirable outcome. The Port is desperate to generate revenue from otherwise idle land as it struggles to survive as a working port. Its corporate imperative is to survive and to stop bleeding money, if not to actually generate profits. The potential impact on Saint Johners of coring out the heart of the City and siting noxious industrial operations adjacent to dense residential neighbourhoods, or of pulling the rug out from under the City’s own industrial parks, isn’t something the Port is going to lose sleep over.

But it’s something that Saint Johners should be losing sleep over, and talking about, and making noise about. But they haven’t. The 60-day public consultation period for the land-use plan has now come and gone. The Saint John Port Authority (SJPA) held two public information sessions, the first of which had almost no attendees, the second of which was peopled mainly by International Longshoremen Association (ILA) reps, commercial and First Nations fishers, and a couple of environmental activists. There has been virtually no attention from residents, little social media chatter and no press coverage. The SJPA did its part to make the public consultation process accessible, yet as far as I can tell there was almost no interest outside of the ‘usual suspects’.

I’m not sure if this is because the Port continues to be such a fixture in the community that people simply take it for granted, if residents don’t understand the potential impacts on the community, if there’s a foundation of trust in the management of the Port, or if people simply don’t have the optimism or stomach needed to tackle an organization that exists largely outside the public sphere of influence. (As a federal entity, the Port is unfettered by provincial or municipal approvals, and largely isolated from local public opinion.) And there’s the fear that I’ve heard some express when it comes to anything related to the ILA.

However, my money would be on the general apathy that Saint Johners seem to feel regarding many community issues.

Unfortunately, that failure to represent means that the Port now has a reasonable justification for proceeding with its plans on the basis that the public doesn’t seem to care one way or the other what the Port does.

That might turn out to be very unfortunate if, in a few years, big ugly smelly dangerous things start appearing on the waterfront or, for those of you living in the Lower West Side, just down the street from your front door. It’s also going to seem unfortunate when citizens start asking for access to the waterfront, or dream of a cross-harbour walk-on ferry, and the Port says no. It could be very unfortunate for the aspirations citizens have expressed during the PlanSJ initiative, with two of the residential intensification areas in the direct line of fire of potential future Port development.

On the other hand, maybe we’re collectively comfortable with the idea of living in a backdrop out of Bladerunner because many of us think that we already do. But there’s a big difference between the hard-scrabble skeleton of mid-20th century shipping and industry that we live in today, and what could be landing on our doorstep over the next few years. Think Saint John is dirty and industrial now? Just you wait for it.

For the record, here’s the letter of comment I sent in to the Port Authority in response to the draft land-use plan and the various discussions that have taken place over the last two months. Key points:

  • I fear what the Port Authority may drop into the core of our city, and in particular the Lower West Side;
  • I’m disappointed with the Port’s inability or unwillingness to provide better public access to the waterfront;
  • The federal government needs to make changes to the Port Authority to allow it to be responsible to the municipality and province as well as to the feds, and to incent the Port to sell off lands it doesn’t need; and
  • I desperately hope that the Port integrates itself more into the urban landscape through retail and office developments on Long Wharf, Pugsley and elsewhere.



I’ll close by saying that I am not entirely pessimistic about the future of the relationship between the Port and the City. During discussions with various Port Authority representatives, officials and consultants over the past two months, I’ve been consistently impressed with their professionalism. Despite the poor response, the Port Authority’s effort at public consultation was a genuine one. A great deal of thought and effort went into both the draft land-use plan and the public engagement. Many of these representatives live in Saint John, and they care about the future of the city as well as their Port.

The problems here are structural, not individual. My optimism is based on a trust that the Port Authority will overcome those structural issues (hopefully with the help of the federal government) and seek out ways to protect both the Port’s interests and those of Saint Johners. The Port and the City can work together to find a comfortable middle ground that will give both parties what they need. I just hope it happens, and I just hope it works.


Feb 11

Buffalo’s waterfront

Buffalo, New York has four times the population of Saint John (and an urban area only one third the size). However, the city had industrial roots similar to those of Saint John and once faced similar challenges. Buffalo has since reinvented itself through  investments in the educational and medical sectors.

As in Saint John, Buffalo’s waterfront is an important part of the urban landscape. Buffalo is now launching an initiative to re-vision its waterfront based on public engagement and the use of prompt, low-cost improvements. See link. It’s an interesting approach to place-making, and something to keep an eye on.

Feb 11

Airport’s big ask

Bernard Leblanc of the Saint John Airport has been very vocal in the last few months about his desire that the City integrate the Airport into its municipal land-use plan in a way that suites the Airport’s needs. Specifically, Leblanc wants the Airport to be able to commercially develop its excess lands, and states that the Airport must be designated a commercial or industrial Opportunity Area to allow it to do that.

That assertion is confusing, as the Airport is federally regulated transportation infrastructure. The Airport doesn’t need City zoning or permission. It can, within its federal jurisdiction, do whatever it wants with its 400 acres of excess land. It seems this isn’t a matter of the City ‘allowing’ the Airport to do anything.

Instead, I fear the Airport’s desire to be designated an Opportunity Area has more to do with the specific infrastructure and investment benefits that come with that designation. Infrastructure and investments that would be paid for by Saint John taxpayers. This fear is confirmed by a draft planning document produced by the Airport in June 2010, in which it said one component of its strategy must be: Working with the City of Saint John to achieve connection of the airport site to the City’s water and sewage distribution system. I think the Airport wants to be an Opportunity Area because the City would then be obligated to pay for the delivery of municipal services to the Airport.

That isn’t a trivial ask. The cost of running water, sewer and storm lines out to the Airport would be ballpark $20 million or higher. Yet Leblanc insists the Airport isn’t looking for any money from the City. Either Leblanc doesn’t understand what it is he’s asking for, or he’s hoping we don’t.

There’s no argument about the importance of the Airport. It’s crucial, and we’re far better off having one in this region. Hard decisions are likely going to be needed – by both the City of Saint John and other regional municipalities – about what types of investment to make in the Airport. But that clearly falls outside the scope of PlanSJ. The Airport requires a coordinated, regional strategy that brings together all its partners. The days of Saint John taxpayers fronting the bills for people in the burbs are over.

The Airport needs to develop a business plan to ensure its sustainability, and it needs to seek out support throughout its catchment area and from all levels of government. It also needs to be clear with partners and taxpayers about exactly what it’s asking for.

Feb 11

To whom is the City of Saint John responsible?

What’s wrong with this picture?

This is a page from a petition to the City of Saint John Common Council from the Friends of Rockwood Park, submitted last fall. Look at the addresses. On this page almost all the names are those of people who live outside the City.

Think that’s just one page? I looked through a number of other pages from this petition. See below. The yellow tags below flag  non-residents. (I give some credit to those signatories who actually disclosed that they lived in Rothesay, Quispamsis, Grand Bay or elsewhere; shame on those who didn’t.)

These few pages are just a sample, but in fact the petition is filled with signatures of people who don’t actually live in Saint John, but obviously think they should have a voice in the conduct of the City’s affairs. (I can only hope that Councillors didn’t take this particular petition at face value.)

Don’t get me wrong. My article today isn’t about Rockwood Park. I’m simply using the Rockwood Park petition as an example of another problem, and that problem is the sense of entitlement that many outside Saint John seem to have regarding their right to participate in City policy-making. (The Rockwood Park petition neatly demonstrates that attitude, as do many online comments under a typical Telegraph Journal City Section article.) Many residents of Greater Saint John also think the City has an obligation to provide them with services, even if they don’t pay municipal taxes in Saint John itself.

So who is the City actually obligated to serve, and who are its Councillors responsible to?  This is a key question underpinning the very definition of PlanSJ‘s mission, and it’s one that’s already being challenged as PlanSJ begins to communicate a vision for Saint John that some outside city limits seem to find either inconvenient or threatening.

This isn’t a trivial issue. A municipal plan that optimizes the outcome for the region as a whole would look very, very different from one that optimizes the outcome for Saint John and its citizens. Unfortunately, prioritizing the interests of non-residents means — at least to some degree — compromising the interests of Saint Johners themselves. So it’s absolutely essential that PlanSJ be clear in its mission, both in its execution of the municipal planning work, and in its dealings with various stakeholders inside and outside the City.

I’ve personally run into this issue when the topics of PlanSJ or City politics have come up during conversations with  people who live in outlying communities. More often than not, non-residents I’ve spoken with expect to have a voice in City affairs. They also expect the City of Saint John to look after their interests. That expectation is clearly reflected in the opinions of non-residents about what PlanSJ should and should not be doing, and what Saint John should be putting its money into.

It’s hard not to get a little angry over this. The fact is, residents of Greater Saint John want to eat their cake and have it too. They don’t want the burden of Saint John’s finances, but they certainly expect the benefits of its services and infrastructure.

And it isn’t just individuals. We’ve seen a prioritization of regional interests over City interests in discussions with the Saint John Board of Trade, and that issue also lies at the heart of PlanSJ’s resistance to the demands of the Saint John Airport (which is a regional facility and should be supported regionally). It’s even a key element of Enterprise Saint John’s current dispute with Saint John Common Council.

Regionalism isn’t a bad word. Regionalism and cooperation is the ideal, as long as every party involved gets benefits that outweigh their costs and risks. But regionalism that’s based on investments and compromises made by Saint John alone is unacceptable.

PlanSJ’s mandate is clear. We’re here to help make Saint John sustainable, and to serve the needs of citizens of Saint John. While I wish the residents of Grand Bay, Rothesay, Quispamsis and other outlying suburbs well, the sustainability of their communities and the interests of their citizens are not the responsibility of the City of Saint John or the PlanSJ team. We’re here for the citizens of Saint John, and that’s it.

So my message to all those good people of Greater Saint John who want a voice in City policy … If you aren’t allowed to vote here, then you’re out of the game. That’s one of the many costs of choosing to live outside the City.

Residents of Grand Bay, the Kingston peninsula, Quispamis, Rothesay, Westfield, Hampton, Sussex, St Andrews, Black Harbour, Musquash, Norton, Baxters Corner, St Martins, et al … please think about that the next time you’re signing a petition, pontificating in the TJ, or going mad dog at a dinner party. If you really want a voice in municipal affairs, camp out on the doorsteps of the people to whom you actually do pay taxes.