Saint John Board of Trade

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.



Nov 10

Saint John Board of Trade input on PlanSJ disappointing

I was very disappointed to read the Saint John Board of Trade’s response last week to the latest round of PlanSJ consultations. (See the letter on their website.)

Essentially, I read the Board’s letter as expressing the following criticisms:

  1. Regional focus good, Saint John focus bad.
  2. Build an economic development plan rather than a municipal plan.
  3. Focus on industrial land use as well as residential land use.
  4. Resistance to the very idea of municipal planning.

While there may be some merit to item 3, and that’s worth discussing to ensure that it’s more clearly addressed down the road, the overall Board of Trade position is that the very basis of PlanSJ is wrong. That simply isn’t credible, and the Board has provided no sound basis for their criticisms.

Key points

Projections vs. goals

The Board of Trade seems to misunderstand the difference between goals and projections.

Realistic population projections are essential to any urban planning exercise. (The 1973 plan failed catastrophically because of overly optimistic population projections.)

In our case, the population projection sets the lower bound of the envelope within which the plan remains valid. Since in our situation there is no realistic upper bound to population that would challenge the plan, we only care about the lower bound. Hence our numbers may appear ‘pessimistic’ to some. In fact, they’re realistic and based on methodologies and research that Urban Strategies applied using established urban planning practices.

The Board of Trade can have all sorts of optimistic goals, goals which should drive its plans to promote business in this region. The City also has goals towards which it works in accordance with the values and priorities of the citizens of the City of Saint John. Goals are just that – ideals (hopefully realistic) to work towards. However, the attainment of goals cannot be guaranteed. (Let’s recall the train wreck of the Benefits Blueprint.)

Thus, goals cannot be the sole basis of a plan – unless you’re planning for failure. The municipal plan must be based on realistic estimations of near-future population growth and not the Board’s hopes and dreams.

If the Board has a basis to justify an increase in the lower bound being used for the plan, I’d like to hear it. If they have some substantive argument for more ‘optimistic’ numbers, they should make the case for that, in detail, providing evidence. I’m very disappointed by the motivational language that PlanSJ has received from them to date. It might play well with their membership or with the public but it doesn’t provide any basis for a change in our methodology.

Defined opportunity areas

The Board of Trade is rejecting the very idea of defined opportunity areas (page 3 of their letter, item 1). Instead, their letter appears to propose that we continue on with the status quo while providing incentives to achieve ‘higher density development’ in urban, suburban and rural areas. I’m not even sure what they mean by that, as it appears to be self-contradictory.

I’m confused about why they even care about defined opportunity areas. Such areas appear to benefit local businesses by providing a growth medium in which businesses can thrive by meeting the needs of small, complete neighbourhoods. The Board’s position is that the use of defined opportunity areas could actually reduce urban density. (See page 3, item 1, para 2.) I cannot imagine how that would be true.

Boundaries and growth

The Board is ignoring the oft-stated fact that while defined areas must inevitably have boundaries, those boundaries are gradients and not ‘walls’, and development can occur outside opportunity areas (with conditions, obviously, to offset or prevent burdens on taxpayers). (See page 3, item 1, paras 1-2.)

Rejection of the very idea of urban planning

The Board apparently does not understand the nature of planning and zoning. (Bottom of page 3, in case anyone misses this whopper.) Zoning – telling developers where and what they’re allowed to build, and people where they can live – is a universal practice. It isn’t something new to PlanSJ. Is the Board of Trade really arguing against zoning? Or are they arguing against urban planning in general?

A municipal plan is not a regional economic development plan

The Board apparently does not understand the difference between a municipal plan and a regional economic development plan. Much of what they’re talking about falls into an economic development strategy. That’s not what PlanSJ is meant to be. The Board of Trade should be looking to Enterprise Saint John to drive economic development regionally, with the burden of that development also shared regionally.

Airport and port

The Board’s argument for prioritization of the airport and port (both regional assets) is not within the scope of the municipal plan. I’m against ‘hotwiring’ the plan to serve arbitrary, specific interests. The City is littered with assets and enterprises that could be considered critical, and if we start assigning arbitrary designations outside the underlying logic of the plan there could be no end to it, leaving the plan essentially meaningless. I think it’s worth looking at the criteria used in the plan to identify industrial zones, in order to ensure that they’re fully rationalized, but I’m against arbitrary designations outside those criteria.

Specifically with regard to the airport and port, any ‘special consideration’ should be exercised by Council outside the scope of the municipal plan itself, whether that consideration takes the form of pipes or dollars. Particularly in the case the airport and port, the benefits those facilities offer are regional and not municipal; any investment or support should also be regional in nature, and the costs of promoting that shared infrastructure should be shared across municipalities and levels of government.

Regional approach

Finally, and most importantly, the Board’s insistence that we take a regional approach to this planning effort is simply ludicrous, and seems to betray a real lack of depth in their consideration of PlanSJ and their understanding of the issues.

Trying to accommodate regional interests solely within Saint John’s municipal planning would be difficult to impossible at this point. Such an effort to define a regional land use plan would require the active collaboration of all the region’s municipalities, and we know that’s not going to happen.

Even if other muncipalities were interested in regional land use planning, it’s been pointed out to me that Saint John wouldn’t have a legal basis for doing what the Board of Trade has suggested. A municipal plan is a legal, binding document and Saint John has no jurisdiction to plan outside its current legal boundaries.

Regardless of the legalities, the fact is, Saint Johners don’t want to continue bearing the burden alone for regional prosperity. Compromising Saint John’s municipal planning goals to optimize regional interests isn’t fair to Saint Johners, and most would be very angry at the suggestion that their quality of life should be ‘leveraged’ for regional interests.

If and when amalgamation eventually takes place, the region will be operating under a new reality that will require new planning. If the Board’s vision of a desirable future is one in which Greater Saint John is managed on a regional basis, they should be lobbying the Government of New Brunswick to attain that goal.

In the meantime, PlanSJ must remain focused on the goals and challenges faced by Saint John as it is currently defined. It would be highly irresponsible of us to do otherwise. It is very important that PlanSJ not be perceived by our citizens to be compromising local interests for regional ones.

General concerns about the Board of Trade

I have more general concerns about how PlanSJ should disposition feedback from the Board of Trade and other entities that do not necessarily represent the best interests of Saint John citizens. For one thing, the Board of Trade is inherently a regional body. Their inputs have value, but not necessarily face value.

How we try to de-bias or interpret that input is a complex issue. It isn’t just a matter of coming up with a methodology; it’s also a challenge to explain this to Saint John citizens who may be concerned about undue influence by business interests. Saint John has had a long history of business interests co-opting public interest. People are watching for that, and we have to be able to demonstrate the fairness and integrity of the process.

In closing

  • I’m glad the Board of Trade has finally begun to participate in this process.
  • The PlanSJ team values the viewpoints of all our stakeholders as we work together to improve quality of life and sustainability in the City of Saint John.
  • The Board of Trade must recognize that PlanSJ is designed to serve the interests of Saint Johners first. While business interests are important to the future of this region, Saint John’s 68 000 citizens need liveable communities and a sustainable city. We won’t compromise on that focus.
  • PlanSJ is a municipal development plan, and not a regional economic plan. The Board of Trade should pursue Enterprise Saint John to find new ways to foster economic development in the region and to develop a regional economic development strategy. That economic development plan needs to accommodate a new reality:

    If there is to be a regional approach to economic development, that regional approach needs to accommodate the vision of the residents of Saint John (not the other way around).

    Saint Johners don’t want a future where Saint John exists primarily as an industrial zone to promote wealth generation in other outlying communities.

    That means other communities need to share the burden of economic development, rather than simply reaping the benefits.

    It means that any regional economic planning, and the Board of Trade, must accept the priorities that Saint Johners have expressed for their city through the PlanSJ process.

    The Board of Trade should be working with Enterprise Saint John and all the region’s municipalities to attain regional goals that accommodate municipal priorities rather than trying to prescribe them.

Oct 10

Saint John Board of Trade needs to get on board

I’m concerned about the article in today’s TJ about the Board of Trade and PlanSJ. I strongly disagree with any extension of the deadline for feedback.

First of all, the PlanSJ schedule is already defined to meet specific milestones. A delay here will roll forward throughout the rest of the schedule, as well as setting a precedent that will introduce additional delays later in the schedule. A delay would have significant cost implications.

Secondly, while the Board of Trade might not have seen the document before, the invitation was made for them to participate right from the start. Their lack of engagement until now speaks to their lack of interest, and not any attempt to exclude them.

The feedback period allowed at this stage in the plan development process is appropriate for the decisions that stakeholders are being asked to make. Even for the Board of Trade. If they aren’t able to solicit feedback from their members in the 15 day feedback window (Oct 15 to 29th), that suggests to me that they simply aren’t prioritizing this opportunity to participate. Again.

Third, there will be additional opportunities for feedback as the process goes forward. The engagement with the public and stakeholders is a process of increasing refinement and detail. If Board of Trade members aren’t able to fully voice their feedback now, there will be additional opportunities to have a voice later on.

Fourth point: Why should the Board of Trade get special treatment? If PlanSJ makes an exception for them, many other groups in the community would be justified in demanding the same, or even greater, extensions. That’s a losing game. We’ll end up with much longer periods of consultation that will generate little additional input of value, while throwing the plan development schedule out the window.

Finally, while the Board of Trade is an important stakeholder – hence the efforts to date to engage with them – they are not the only people the new plan must serve. PlanSJ must serve the interests of our citizens first. Businesses bring benefit to the region as a whole, but I think we’re all on the same page that the priority, as a municipality, is quality of life for Saint Johners first, with regional business interests as a less central consideration.

If we want the PlanSJ process to have any credibility and validity with Saint Johners (especially those who have made the effort to provide feedback in a timely manner), then the Planning department needs to say no to demands for special treatment from any sector.

I’m also surprised and disappointed that the Board of Trade has chosen the public forum of the TJ to make this play. It smells more like an attempt to attack the credibility of the process than a good-faith argument to provide input.