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A compact agenda was on the table for this Monday’s regular meeting of council, full of notices that few noticed and few loose ends to tie up. Mayor Breen settled into his chair with a smile and a comment about the beautiful weather at the ringing of the bell, and we were off.

Council Agonizes Over Minor Setbacks

The first several items on the agenda were routine procedural matters: establishing building line setbacks (the distance—surprise!—from the front of a lot and the buildings thereon). Concerning an application to move a shed on Linegar Ave a few inches, Cllr Collins said what everyone was thinking and wondered aloud why these decisions had to come before council at all. 

“I dunno why we got to run that before council,” Collins said. “You know we’re three months, and it’s no fault of staff, they done an excellent job, but there was so many things [and] they’re only moving the shed they’re building nine inches or something.”

Both chief planner Ken O’Brien and city solicitor Cheryl Mullett pointed out that the authority in the development regulations rests with council and to change that would require an amendment to the development regulations. Mayor Breen asked staff to “take a look at that.” Motion approved.

Big Deck Energy 2021

Two more downtown establishments are getting patios for the summer: Bannerman Brewing at 90 Duckworth St. and the St. John’s Fish Exchange at 351 Water St. Notably eight out of nine submissions from neighbours of Bannerman were in support of the application. I am always delighted when people take time to offer support and not just objections to notices published. I would entreat all readers to consider doing the same when they see applications come up that fit with how they want their city to look.

Mayor Breen was visibly delighted when he noted that 80 applications for patios had been thus far received by the City. You’ve got to hand it to the man, he has presided over an extremely tumultuous period in history and it has to be a relief to sometimes get to just approve nice things.

Which leads me to this week’s lesson in municipal governance that nobody asked for: when does council have to approve things? When do staff make that call? Let’s talk about discretionary uses.

A Short Digression Upon Discretion; or, Why Development Regulations Are Somewhat Important

In the development regs, each zone has uses that get approved at the staff level, and uses that can be approved by council. In most of the downtown, zoned Commercial Central Mixed, “eating establishment” (what normal humans call a “restaurant”) is a permitted use—meaning no council approval is required. An “outdoor eating area” is discretionary “where the Eating Establishment is located within 150 metres of a Residential Zone, an Apartment Zone, a Church, or a School.” So a new restaurant gets approved at the staff level, but adding a patio has to come before council.

If you’ve wondered why you’re getting a notice about a proposal for one thing in your neighbourhood when another thing has been done without your knowledge, it’s because the former is discretionary and the latter is a permitted use. And one important thing to note here is that council has no discretion over what is and isn’t discretionary once it’s enshrined in the regs. There is no option to skip the two week advertising period or the vote to approve, and conversely no option to subject something to a vote if it’s a permitted use. This is the “set it and forget it” part of land use planning and a good reason why we should all care a lot about what goes into the development regulations in the first place.

Delicately Putting the Anglican Cathedral Parish Hall on Blast

The last item on the agenda is the proposal to rezone the Anglican cathedral parish hall. Initially the proposal formed part of a larger development that involved redeveloping the open space behind the parish hall into a large condo building in addition to building the townhouses fronting on Queen’s Road. In February, council voted to separate the application into two parts: the townhouses (which were dealt with on Monday) and the condos (to be handled at a later date). 

The application seeks to rezone the lot from Institutional to Residential Downtown. Before the townhouses can be built, however, there remains the matter of removing the heritage designation from the Hall, which is a municipally but not provincially designated building, owing to the fact that the majority of character-defining elements of the building were lost in a fire in the 1960s. The house at the West side of the hall, built in 1893 and undamaged by the ‘60s fire, will retain its heritage designation. This, as well as the final design of the townhouses, will be dealt with through the built heritage experts panel and come before council again at the development stage.

From the Land Use Assessment Report dated July, 2020

The decision note reviews previous directives from the first Council vote on this rezoning back in April:

“…that

  • The City, together with various partners, develop a management plan for the Ecclesiastical District National Historic Site as future neighbourhood planning work of the Planning Division;  
  • The City ensure that demolition of the Cathedral Parish Hall will follow the recommendations of the Provincial Archeology Office, and the applicant salvage as much of the useable building fabric as possible, as indicated in the Land Use Assessment Report.  
  • Council request that the applicant add interpretive elements to the site design and document the structure before it is demolished.”

Cllr Burton emphasizes the commissioner’s recommendation that any demolition be done in a way that protects the nearby heritage structures. Staff note that any blasting would have to be done under provincial requirements. Several councillors chimed in to emphasize this point; city manager Kevin Breen added that the responsibility ultimately rests with the developer to ensure the structural integrity of these irreplaceable buildings. The deputy mayor stated, “I wasn’t looking for a legal standpoint, just looking for more of an actual deconstruction standpoint.” 

Right.

There was some palpable discomfort with the inability of the City to take more control, given the sensitive nature of the area. Rezonings are early-stage interventions by council and a lot more happens at both the staff and council level during the development approval stage, meaning there will be more opportunity to delve into this at a later date. Motion approved.

Municipal Brandy (151 Proof)

Before the meeting on Monday, and summarized by Mayor Breen during the go-round, was a decision taken by council to discontinue St. John’s Days—normally celebrated during the last week of June—in favour of encouraging residents to observe national Indigenous People’s Day on June 21. 

From the statement issued Monday afternoon:

“For many years, St. John’s Days has traditionally been celebrated in late June. It has always been closely associated with the historic landing of John Cabot on the island of Newfoundland in 1497. For this reason, the celebration of St. John’s Days has also typically coincided with the provincial holiday formerly known as ‘Discovery Day’.

While in more recent times St. John’s Days has grown into a celebration of the City and its diverse residents, Council and staff recognize the inherent contradiction of holding such celebrations on a colonial holiday. In August 2018, Council voted to no longer recognize ‘Discovery Day’. Last year, the Government of Newfoundland and Labrador followed suit, with plans to hold consultations with Indigenous groups to help identify a more permanent name.”

As has often been the case in recent years, the City has led the way on meaningful progressive change like this. As more and more people experience discomfort with celebration of a colonial history, given its brutal and genocidal legacy, the City has made significant moves toward reconciliation: signing a Declaration in Support of the Rights of Indigenous People, Cllrs Froude and Burton’s membership in the First Voice Partnership Table, starting council meetings with a land acknowledgement, and renaming “discovery” day before it was cool. 

City of St. John’s Council Meeting Minutes, August 6, 2018

It’s interesting to note when some members of council object to writing to the Province (correcting historically inaccurate and colonial holiday names) and when they don’t (throwing piles of cash at a dying oil industry that is killing the planet and our economy simultaneously). That minute from 2018 is an important reminder that those who claim the side of right often benefit from being pulled in that direction by their peers. It makes plain that having even a minority of progressive voices can move the needle on important issues.

How hard hindsight smacks us in the face is a question of whether we were looking into the future to begin with, or clinging to the past.

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Hope Jamieson is a municipal correspondent with The Independent, covering city council meetings in the weekly column, So Moved, St. John's. She served as Ward 2 Councillor from 2017 to 2020. Hope works in the affordable housing sector, and is dedicated to poverty reduction, social equity, and inclusion. She lives in St. John's with her partner and their three children.