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 commonclerk@saintjohn.ca. 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

2011-11-07

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.

 

 

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