“We need housing,” developer John Lafford declared as he addressed Tantramar Town Council Tuesday about his company’s plans for a controversial six-storey, 71 unit apartment building in Sackville.
“The vacancy rate is less than 1%; JN Lafford’s waiting list alone is 250 people.”
Lafford argued that his $17 million building would help provide the housing needed to attract new people, including health professionals, to settle here.
“We need different types of housing and the one way to do it quickly and effectively is to put up a building with high density,” he explained.
“Our goal is to break ground mid-July,” Lafford said. “I call on the council and its leadership group to make a swift, quick decision.”
The Sackville developer was the final speaker at a public hearing held to discuss the pros and cons of rezoning about 1.3 acres his company owns behind the historic Allison/Fisher/Fawcett house at 131 Main Street.
The zoning change to Urban Residential 3 (R3) would allow for construction of an apartment building with more than six units.
JN Lafford Realty is also seeking to change height restrictions in the R3 zone from a maximum of 15.3 metres (50 feet) to 19.8 metres (65 feet), a change that would apply to a number of other properties in Sackville.
Apparently irritated by a series of speakers who voiced various objections to his plans, Lafford assured council the town would benefit from an additional $130,000 in annual property tax revenue as well as increased outside investment and development “when this building goes up. And this building is going to go up,” he said turning to face about 45 spectators in the council chamber.
After a pause, he added, “and I’m not being cocky and I’m not being foolish.”
Thumbs up from planner
Tuesday’s public hearing began with a 12 minute presentation by Southeast Regional Service Commission planner Lori Bickford who suggested that the proposed building meets all basic requirements.
She noted, for example, that Sackville’s municipal plan sets a target for multi-unit residences at 10 buildings per year, but that in the last five years there have been only four new buildings with a total of 53 apartments, far fewer than needed to meet the town’s current housing shortage.
Bickford added that 18 one-bedroom apartments would be classed as affordable, a point repeated later by John Lafford who said that 17 would rent for under $1,000 per month with an additional 18 under $1,150.
As for safety, the planner showed a slide indicating that the building’s height would be at the “maximum of Sackville Fire and Rescue’s fire suppression equipment’s capabilities.”
Bickford also showed flood mapping images indicating that the building could be within the zone for a severe, one-in-one-hundred-year storm.
“It is important to note,” she added, “that the flood mapping regulations currently under the zoning bylaw do not prohibit development, but it does prohibit overnight accommodation from occurring below that elevation. So, the indications to date of the proposal, as well as the mapping that we have available on site, indicates that the overnight accommodation areas would be above this proposed one-in-one-hundred-year [flood].”
Bickford showed a slide to demonstrate that even though there is no heritage bylaw in place, the design of the building incorporates elements of the existing historic house on the front of the property. She also indicated that the old carriage house on the property would remain in place, a point that John Lafford also made during his presentation.
A total of 12 residents spoke during the 78 minute public hearing. Three expressed strong support for the new building while seven voiced their opposition. Two speakers said they were concerned about the development suggesting council should conduct further research before approving the zoning changes that would make it possible.
(1) Emma Neilson, who identified herself as a recent graduate of Tantramar Regional High School, said the new building would change the landscape of Tantramar as a community as well as a tourist destination: “For me and for many of my fellow graduates, Tantramar is our home. This would completely change how we remember our experience in Sackville and our school and our relationship, especially with the Waterfowl Park and our memories there as children.”
(2) Susan Gourley wondered if there would be an environmental review of the development and suggested it would be an opportunity for council to apply its “climate lens” to the project. She also expressed strong concern about the potential effect on young birds who live in and around the Waterfowl Park. “There are many windows in that building and this is a quote from flap.org: ‘More and more cities and municipalities across the globe require that new constructions be built with birds in mind. There are a wide variety of cost-effective and attractive options that can be an integral part of bird-safe building design or retrofits.’ To learn more about effective bird-safe design and solutions, please visit birdsafe.ca.”
(3) Sabine Dietz, the former Sackville councillor, identified herself as a professional with possibly more experience/expertise in climate change adaptation than anyone in Atlantic Canada. “I’m also a Sackville resident who cares about keeping all of us safe and I also want to make sure that we make as a community the fewest mistakes possible.” Dietz said that although climate change is creating many uncertainties, we do know that things are changing fast and dramatically. She urged members of council not to approve the zoning changes in this location. “It’s not a question of if we should have more housing, any kind of housing, it’s a question of where we should put the housing…As council, you cannot put your head in the sand and say it’s a safe location. It is not.” Dietz said even though current flood risk maps are outdated, they show the proposed building could be in danger and that councillors should make their decisions on zoning based on the evidence. “I urge you to not approve the zoning change in this particular location — the zoning change is tied to this one location — because, at this time, it’s the only tool you have to prevent building in a risk zone.”
Note: Mayor Black replied that even though the town needs to review its municipal plan and zoning bylaws, there is nothing in either at the moment that deals with flooding. “It doesn’t limit a development from being built in that location,” he cautioned. “I just wanted to make that point.”
(4) John Read, who spoke strongly in favour of the new building, stressed the need for high-density housing. “I know of at least one doctor who has not come to town because of lack of accommodation.” He said a previous Lafford building made 29 houses available in Sackville after their owners sold them to move into it. [Lafford himself made the same point later adding that as many as 58 single-family homes could become available in a single year as their owners move into his new building at 131 Main Street.] Read said the town is lucky to have a local developer who wants to build a quality project where there is already a lot of housing in a location that is close to the university and the downtown. He added that as he walks around the Waterfowl Park he already sees buildings on all sides as well as the TransCanada highway, so the new Lafford building would not make much difference to the view planes. Read did express concern about a zoning change that could lead to six-storey buildings in other areas: “I guess that’s one thing I could challenge council to think about. Could they change the zoning requirement so that it’s only this location, so each location could be looked at in terms of height, but overall, I just think that it’s an exciting prospect and I’m really in favour.”
(5) Jeff Egger, who spoke on behalf of the nearby St. Paul’s Anglican Church, said he wanted to register their concern that the new building could be large enough to raise the water table leading to flooding in the church hall basement. “When it was built, the basement was above the water table. Since that time, and it’s not an old building, the water table has risen…and already we do have to work to prevent flooding, to deal with occasional floods.” Egger also expressed concern about the possible effect the new building could have on the church’s two geothermal wells that are underneath the hall and the church itself.
(6) Bill Burrows, who represented the board of directors of the nearby Marshwinds Housing Co-op, said he had two points: “It is in a neighbourhood where people have made sure that the properties look similar. We have taken great pains to make sure our properties have been maintained in the way they were built. When we changed the railings on the front porches, we made sure that they looked like cattails because that’s the way they were before. Other houses in the neighbourhood have also done the same thing. I would urge you not to look at this proposal as a single building on a single property, but rather a building within a neighbourhood.” Burrows said his second point was about the height of the building. “This thing would be right across the fence from us and it would loom over our properties. I’m sure someone could stand on the balcony up there and flick their cigar ashes on people at the Co-op below. It’s just too close and just too high.”
(7) Meredith Fisher, who owns a rental property on nearby Rectory Lane, referred to a six-page document she had sent town council listing 11 concerns. She said the new building would have looked very different if there had been a heritage bylaw in place. She said Sackville had been promising heritage protection for five years ever since the old bylaw was scrapped, but it hasn’t happened. She suggested that if the town were to scrap the property tax rebates under its 2020 economic development incentive program, it would also alter the Lafford proposal. Fisher expressed concern about the height of the new building in one of Sackville’s “last, iconic streetscapes.” She said the zoning change would set a precedent for other R3 properties in Sackville.
(8) Mike Wilson, CEO of the AIL Group of Companies, said AIL held a job fair about a month and a half ago for its newly built pipe factory on Walker Road. “We had 142 people we interviewed in one day. There’s a lot of people that would like to stay here and work here. I think this particular well-thought-out development meets a lot of the criteria the town should consider.” He added those criteria would include higher density housing in an attractive building that would be a real asset to the town. “I’d like to have more housing here in town so that people can stay here. Quite a few of the people that we interviewed…want to stay here, work here in town rather than commuting to Moncton, Dieppe and elsewhere. We’ve also got quite a few people from the area — from Amherst and Dieppe — working already at the top of the hill on Walker Road and I think the town needs more development. We have a few gaps in the downtown thanks to a few fires and I hope that as council, you don’t want to put any more roadblocks to development than there are already with high interest rates and that sort of thing because we need to re-develop the downtown as well.”
(9) Cathy Pettipas, who is secretary-treasurer of the non-profit Marshwinds Housing Co-op, said the Co-op defines affordable housing as 30% below market rent. “That’s what we try to maintain and let me tell you, it’s a heck of a job to try to meet those demands and we are always after funding and have been working on that heavily the past year for…funding which we luckily just got.” Pettipas expressed concerns about the height of the proposed building, its closeness to the Co-op and other neighbourhood buildings as well as the effects on Main Street traffic, bottlenecks at the nearby Mt. A. crosswalks and the shortage of parking in the area. “I’m very worried that there’s been no idea of what putting a 71-unit building, literally, 3.5 times the population density of the Marshwinds Housing Co-op in that tiny little space at the back.”
(10) Keith Carter said he’s a landlord in the town “and it’s not the easiest job to have.” He said he applauds John Lafford for trying to alleviate Sackville’s rental problems. “I don’t think we should be staying back in the 1800s with three or four storey rules that we’ve had. We should get on with the way the world is going because it’s to make things more dense in an area.” He added that Dieppe is facing similar problems and the solution is to let buildings go higher.
(11) Courtney Hay said she served as chair of a community group in a similar-sized town in western Canada. “We worked with town and with developers as our town became a centre of development in a ski village out west where there were lots of development interests and we wanted to work together. So I see an opportunity here for some leadership, for some collaboration, for some…sustainable aesthetic, thoughtful planning.” She suggested there are other towns that could serve as models adding that Sackville is lucky to have a developer who lives in town. Hay said she’s concerned by the flood mapping and the rate of climate change. “I am not convinced that you’ve explored and properly discussed the rate of change as we know things are increasing. She added she’s also concerned about fire risks in light of the recent wildfires in suburban Halifax. “Could you handle an extreme situation? Maybe you’re equipped and maybe you’re not. I don’t feel that it’s been entirely thought through adequately.”
(12) Carrie Phinney, who also lives in the housing co-op, echoed concerns about the closeness of the new building. “I won’t have any privacy, they can look in my windows. I won’t be able to be outside. People will throw things off the balconies. We all know what people are like and I have a lot of pride in my property and in my home and I don’t want it to be wrecked.
Planner Lori Bickford said council will be asked to give first reading to the zoning bylaw changes at its next regular meeting on July 11th. She added that all three readings cannot take place at one meeting, so a second one would be needed for a final vote.
To read her background information as well as the e-mails and letters she received for and against the Lafford proposal, click here.