New school sites reflect outdated development policies, say planners
Land use professionals say climate change and health need more weight in building decisions
Controversy over the location of a new school in Moncton has drawn attention to the fact that New Brunswick does not have development policies that prioritize modern planning goals such as climate change adaptation or healthy living.
It also raises questions about a new school project in the education minister's riding.
The proposed location of the new school in Moncton, next to Bernice MacNaughton High School, will mean very few students will live within walking distance, and those who do would have to cross one of the city's busiest streets to get there.
In that sense, it repeats a pattern from several years back, when a new location was chosen for Moncton High School.
"Today the majority, if not all, of the children attending the school must be bused," said Jamie Burke, president of the New Brunswick Association of Planners.
"And housing is cropping up on unserviced lots around the school rather than on readily serviced lots within the Moncton city limits."
A similar situation is playing out in the Rural Community of Hanwell, a recently incorporated area along a 25-kilometre stretch of Route 640 southwest of Fredericton, where a new K-8 school is being built.
There is one neighbourhood within 2.4 kilometres of the school, but it's across a busy highway with no sidewalks.
And one-acre building lots are now being sold in undeveloped wooded areas nearby.
The planners association has been asking the province for decades, said Burke, to adopt provincial planning policies to guide development and address the problem of urban sprawl.
"What we're trained to do and what we're trying to do as professional land-use planners is direct new development in the right place," he said.
The NBAP represents 68 registered professional planners who work for municipalities, consultants, and the provincial government. They do things such as administer zoning bylaws and work with developers on new building projects.
And they plan land use, taking into account a wide range of factors, from social and cultural needs and esthetics, to efficiency, the economy and environmental conservation.
"From an economics point of view and efficient delivery of services, we try to put it in strategic areas where, for example, services already exist, such as water, sewer, storm, transit — reducing the need for people to rely on private automobiles."
The planners pointed out in a report submitted to government in 2016 that growth in the urban-rural fringe undermines the viability of communities by affecting the growth and tax base of municipalities.
"The belief that growth at any cost is good for the economy is no longer sustainable," said the report, prepared by Dillon Consulting.
The attraction to build on the fringes is understandable, said Burke. Property is often cheaper there.
"There's no doubt we need new schools and we are an urban and rural province. There certainly needs to be a balance."
What's also needed, he said, is an improved level of communication between the stakeholders, including municipalities, the Department of Education and the Department of Transportation and Infrastructure.
Strategic areas where new schools could be located should be identified that work for everyone, Burke said.
Education Minister Dominic Cardy said he wanted to keep politics out of school site decisions but agreed that municipalities should have a say.
The location of the new K-8 school in Moncton was recommended by staff in the departments of Transportation and Infrastructure and Education and Early Childhood Development, he said, who have "expertise in this area."
The team is made up of the senior project manager and director from the Education Department's facilities and transportation branch, staff from the Transportation and Infrastructure Department's property services branch, and engineers and architects from its design and construction branch, said department spokesperson Tara Chislett.
Cardy said they take into account things such as cost, access to services and amenities, future growth in the neighbourhood, safety issues and suitability of the existing land.
"The same criteria you would have for picking any new build project," he said, "and trying to connect that to the people you were hoping that new building would serve."
As with the recent decision about the Moncton school, there were also complaints in Fredericton when the Hanwell school site was selected.
The city had been planning for a new school in a new neighbourhood in its southwest end, with serviced lots, high population density and sidewalks.
"Our new Municipal Plan needs to be part of any planning process for new schools," said Mayor Mike O'Brien, noting the city's growing population.
Cardy said it's always a challenge to build schools in urban areas.
"You don't have large parcels of land available or affordable."
That's why new schools tend to be built on the edges of communities, he said.
"That's part of the way urban development works when you have population growth," he said.
Cardy anticipates facing a similar challenge in the near future as George Street Middle School in Fredericton has to be replaced.
"It's difficult to see where in downtown Fredericton right now you could build that new school."
But Burke said putting schools on the outskirts of communities also comes at a high cost.
"Planning decisions and the locations of certain land uses, particularly schools, can come with extremely expensive repercussions if they're not put in the right place."
Growth in Hanwell represents urban sprawl from Fredericton, but at least it's not entirely unplanned.
The rural community adopted a zoning plan in 2016. It sets objectives such as minimizing environmental impact and requires applications for new large subdivisions.
Elsewhere, on more than 60 per cent of the land mass in the province, there is no plan to regulate and control land use, according to the Dillon Consulting report.
"We have a huge area unincorporated outside municipal boundaries," said Burke.
"Some have rural plans, some don't. Where there is no local land use planning, people are free to do what they want with their property."
Protection of the province's most renowned natural features, such as rivers, forests and coastlines, is "unco-ordinated," said the planners report, "to the point that there has been a gradual erosion of the value of the natural environment."
Their report was prepared in cooperation with provincial planning directors with funding from the Environmental Trust Fund.
The goal was to look into and promote the modernizing of planning legislation.
The project started in 2014 and the final phase was completed in 2018.
Recommendations were made for planning policy statements in five areas: climate change adaptation, flood plain development, health and the built environment, coastal development, infrastructure investment and transportation planning.
Planners have identified these as "essential areas that need attention," said Burke.
He's hopeful action will be taken in the near future.
"Really and truly, I think we do need them."
Cardy said he looked forward to issues such as school siting being included in coming discussions about local government reform.
With files from Shane Magee/CBC