Sunday, August 28, 2016

Max The Cat Unhappy With Lunenburg Changes

While locals and tourists alike sip their lattes, savour their pastries and enjoy the serenity of the garden at the new No. 9 Coffee Bar on Montague st. in Lunenburg, one former resident is less than pleased.

Max the cat was the proprietor of Out of Hand, the gift shop that was previously located at the same loCATion.  His human and business partner, Marja, had purchased the building for him, many years back. Last year, Marja decided to retire and sell the building and did not consult Max on her decision.  She bought a new home 2 kms. away in Garden Lots, put him in her car and uprooted Max from his home and livelihood.

Marja may have been ready to retire, but Max was not.  Taking matters into his own hands, Max escaped Garden Lots and headed down the road, back to Lunenburg.  It took him one week to find his way to the shop.  He arrived in the garden on a Friday afternoon and was nothing less than outraged at the state of his establishment. "This place has gone to the dogs!", said Max "Literally.  There were dogs seated next to their owners at many of the outdoor tables. I mean, it was bad enough that I had to tolerate, Oreo (Marja's dog) and her stupid ball,  but this is truly outrageous. Why do humans behave this way?  Lunenburg used to be such a nice place." Max briefly inspected the indoor area before being rudely manhandled and placed outdoors again. "They moved my favourite chair!", exclaimed the disillusioned feline.

Max had just resigned himself to accepting some of these poorly thought out changes when he was spotted by Annie May, the 92 year old neighbour who happened to be hanging her bloomers on the laundry line above the garden.  She quickly called Inge, another neighbour, who grabbed Max, stuffed him in her car and drove him back to Garden Lots.

Righteously humiliated, Max is currently planning his next escape. He is hoping to find his way to Lunenburg Town Hall so that he can express his displeasure to Lunenburg Council.  "Apparently there had been some sort of consultation process and these changes had been approved by council, but nobody ever consulted me.  What a farce!," said Max. 
"I just don't understand what's happened to this town. Why is it O.K. for someone to just waltz in here from away and move my chair?"

The No. 9 coffee Bar is located on Montague st. between King and Prince. They sell rather incredible fresh baked bread on Tuesdays and make seriously good coffee.  You can see their Facebook page by clicking HERE.

If you spot Max wandering the streets of Lunenburg please drop him off at Town Hall.

Thursday, August 25, 2016

The Court of FaceBook

Facebook has some wonderful qualities.  It's a great place to spread a message, promote a business, announce an event, share an interesting article, thought, photo or story.  But lately, I have come to think that Facebook is also down right dangerous. I'm not talking about trolls or online bullies, I'm talking about all of us, intelligent people, good people, thoughtful people, people that are concerned with the state of the world and social justice.

Facebook has narrowed the gap between ourselves and our barbaric, medieval ancestors who enjoyed a pleasant afternoon of watching a man get gored to death.  Facebook has brought us closer to our Puritan ancestors who burned women at the stake for witchcraft.  Facebook is bypassing a long evolved system of justice and any standards of accountable journalism.  Where once we lamented that people were tried by the press, now they are tried by a sea of opinion.

I have engaged in my fair share of Facebook discussions.  Actually, Facebook discussion might be an oxymoron.  I can think of one time where two people with opposing views heard each other.  In every other circumstance, a well mannered Facebook discussion looks something like this - person one states opinion, person two states opinion, person three states opinion....If opinions differ, then person one emphasizes opinion, person two restates their opinion and person three gets louder.  Occasionally, a tidbit of information gets thrown in.  Might be true, might not be true.   If the information aligns with the opinion holder then it's kudos and bravos, if the information doesn't suit the opinion holder then it's ignored or attacked. If the aim of discussion is to broaden our thinking then Facebook fails as a platform for exchanging thought.

If this were as bad as it gets then I'd just leave bad enough alone, share what I want to share and try not to engage in a debate that has no hopeful outcome.  But this is not as bad as it gets. Take this recent example:  A photo of a  classified ad from The Cape Breton Post has been circulating online.  The ad reads, "House for rent, two bedrooms, one bathroom, Well maintained home for family (white) within downtown of Sydney, NS, and then the phone number,"  I saw this post myself and did what most people did.  I flipped.  What kind of backwater, racist moron writes something like that? I did the Facebook thing and I shared it with a strong dosage of indignant outrage.  Then a friend sent me a message.  Apparently, English was not the first language of  the people that posted the ad. Someone who saw the post called the number and talked directly with the owner who confirmed, in less than perfect English,  that the house and trim were white and they did not care what colour the renters were.  Oops.  I took down the post. Chalk it up to an editing oversight.  But so many other people had shared it as well.   I watched the comments.  A few people chimed in, explaining that there was a misunderstanding.   I would have thought that the discussion would end there, but it didn't.  Lots of back and forth, questioning the motive.  No way could someone make that mistake.  I don't believe that for a minute.  A flurry of opinions and not a fact to be found.  Call them! Find the house! Teach them a lesson.  (Burn them at the stake, stone them, feed them to the lions!)

I confess, I really wanted to join the discussion, but I resisted.  The last thing I need is to unleash an ugly mob of Facebook comments.  But seeing as this is my blog, I'll write what I wanted to write here....
Who cares what you think?  Your opinion could easily be right as it could be wrong.  Haven't you watched enough law and order to know that things are not always as they appear?  Do you think that lawyers spend years in law school to finely hone their opinion? What gives you the right to pronounce anyone guilty without even speaking to them?  Think of the damage that your opinion might be causing.  If that stupid error was shared on 1000 pages, what's to say that some wingnut vigilante won't find these people and hurt them?  Watching these Facebook discussions feels like watching a barbaric ritual.  We really aren't as evolved as we think we are.

Cat videos.  I'll be sharing cat videos.

Thursday, August 18, 2016

Why I Love This Seriously Flawed Building Code Amendment.

On August 1st, the province of Nova Scotia amended the Nova Scotia Building Code Regulations to clarify that home based businesses that stay within a set of rules are not subject to building code rules meant for commercial occupancies.  This clarification was a great relief.  I spent two years of my life fighting for this clarification. This amendment is a wonderful thing for all of rural Nova Scotia. The amendment is, however, seriously flawed. It's a poorly written rule that is, in itself, red tape and will most certainly cause problems down the road. But that said, it's the perfect rule for Rural Nova Scotia. I'll try to explain what I mean.

In order to understand why this rule is problematic you will need to understand a few facts:

1-There was no need to amend the building code.  The building code was never broken.  The only thing that was ever broken was communication and the only thing that was ever needed was clarification.  We already had very good rules.  They functioned in Halifax, some small Nova Scotia municipalities, in all of Canada and in all of North America.  The planning rules that allow home based businesses to exist are good, well thought out rules that have evolved over time.

2- This amendment has been presented as an "exemption' to certain rules in the building code.  Balderdash. There is no such thing as an exemption to the building code.  I repeat, there is no such thing as an exemption to the building code.  The building code is there to keep people safe in buildings.  An exemption to the code would mean that we are less safe.  The building code amendment has simply clarified which are the correct rules for a building inspector to apply.  That's not an exemption.  That's just about understanding which paragraph to read.

3-Planning and the building code are a happy couple.  They work together and communicate.  Lunenburg and other municipalities insisted they never talked to each other.  The province knew better.  Here's part of a communication to myself from the senior planner for the province of Nova Scotia,

"......Home Based Businesses (HBB) and the relationship between the building code and land use / zoning controls, has, I expect, been significantly informed and made clearer by your experience over the past year. I certainly recognize your point that Home Based Businesses are a planning matter (ie land use / zoning matter) and indeed that is one of the reasons that I was invited to assist and provide input to the Nova Scotia Building Advisory Committee (NSBAC) in their review of this matter......Land use regulation via municipal planning documents work hand in hand with the building code which regulates the design and construction of buildings, in particular as it relates to safety and access. ...."

So, if the province understood how a municipality's planning informs the building code, why didn't they take the simplest route to clarification?  Put in writing, within the code,  that when land use regulations permit a home based business, there is no change of occupancy classification to the house.   End of story.  Two good, but separate rules,  a zoning bylaw and the building code. They live side by side and talk to each other.  That's the way it has always been and that's the way it should have stayed.  But here's what happened instead- the chocolate (zoning bylaw) fell into the peanut butter (the building code) and we got a whole new recipe. I like Reese's peanut butter cups, too, but not in this case.

Here's an example of a possible mess:  The amendment states that no more than 25% of the house can be used for the business or up to 50m2  (a little more than 500 sq. ft.) 25% is a pretty typical number seen in zoning bylaws as the permitted maximum percentage that can be used for a business.  But, when creating zoning bylaws,  this percentage can change from municipality to municipality.  If a town has small homes, then 25% of the house would not be sufficient.  So, let's say that you have an 800 sq. ft. house and this amendment allows you to use 25% of the house.  That's 200 sq. ft., but next to your house you have a little outbuilding that is  250 sq. ft.  Understanding that the average house size is small, and wanting to permit the use of accessory buildings, the municipality might have allowed 40% of the house to be used, but now, because of this amendment, there's a conflict.  The use of a percentage is a planning tool,  each municipality would decide on an appropriate percentage and maximum square footage based on the typical house size in the municipality.  It's whichever number comes first, the percentage or the square footage.  A municipality with large house sizes might apply a low percentage and a municipality with small house sizes might apply a higher percentage.  A municipality can use discretion based on what works for their community.  When the percentage is written in stone, in the building code, discretion has been removed and as a result, we will see instances where the rule makes no sense.

Here's another example:  The business owner needs to be a full time resident.  This is a planning rule.  It doesn't belong in the building code.  Building codes control occupancy load, accessibility and fire safety, but they don't control residency.  Now a building inspector has been given the authority to control something that would ordinarily be out of their jurisdiction.  That scenario often does not end well. Imagine arguing with a building inspector about the 4 months you spend in Mexico each winter and whether or not this qualifies you as a full time resident.

But like I said, I love this amendment.   I love this amendment because of the lady that I talked to today at the farmers market.  She had shared her story with me last year and thanked me for taking on this battle.   I never wrote about her experience.  It was too heartbreaking.  I asked her if I could share the story now and she said I could.  I'm going to change her name.  Let's call her, Laura.

Laura and her husband had a Bed and Breakfast in Lunenburg County.  They were in a terrible car accident.  Her husband was killed.  She was badly injured.  She could not work and went on disability.  When Laura began to heal she decided that she was not up for running a bed and breakfast, but she would instead like to have a small gallery in her house.  The building inspector came and told her she would need fire separation, barrier free access...the works.  The building inspector told her that she would be on the lookout for a sign and if Laura opened her business she would shut her down.  Today Laura came to tell me that she plans on getting that gallery up and running.   This flawed rule is perfect in this situation and it will be perfect in many situations.  This flawed rule will help so many people.

It is an excellent rule for a province that communicates poorly.  It is an excellent rule for those building officials who lack the capacity for discretion.  It is an excellent rule for a province with a multitude of fifedoms.  It is an excellent rule for small municipalities that are not interested in learning from our largest municipality.  It is an excellent rule for small municipalities that are not interested in cooperation with other small municipalities.   It is an excellent rule when there is poor management.  It is an excellent rule when there is an absence of strong leadership.  It is an excellent rule for rural Nova Scotia.

Perhaps one day we will be able to throw this rule away, put in a little paragraph of clarification in the building code and operate like the rest of Canada.  But we're not there yet. In the mean time, I'm happy this amendment exists.


Sunday, August 14, 2016

Spin Disguised as Communication

 Last week I was one of many residents in attendance at Lunenburg's council meeting.  On the agenda was our very stinky Waste Water Treatment Plant.  Living in Old Town, the only time that I, personally,  smell sewage is on my daily walks on the back harbour trail, but for residents of certain streets in New Town it is a constant.  I have friends that lost the sale of their house because of the odour and I know many people who often can not open their windows in the summer and fall.

The meeting was very informative. What I learned was that our sewage treatment plant was built without an odour control system.  At council it was discussed that the  omission of this equipment was a cost savings strategy and that it was believed that it would not be necessary but whatever the reason, an error was made.  In the end (no pun intended) , the residents of Lunenburg have paid dearly for this attempted cost savings.

 From the discussion at council, at least one councillor believed that the entire Waste Water Treatment Plant was a mistake.  Councillor Mosher spoke to the public, at length, about how the plant was intended for Northern climates and does not operate well when the weather turns warm.  After years of pouring money into repairing the plant, he felt jaded and asked staff to compare the cost of installing an odour control system to the cost of an entirely new plant.  His request was not granted.  Mayor Bailey expressed that since the plant's installation in 2003 it has had many upgrades and repairs and the sewage that is treated is passing all provincial standards, so in that regard it does work. She reiterated that it's not that the odour control system was broken, it's that there never was  one.  So, it seems that the reason the town has failed to remedy the odour problem is because they were trying to solve the problem without actually installing an odour control system.  Doing the job right is a lot less expensive than doing the job twice (at least twice).

About a month ago, council went against staff recommendations and voted not to apply funding towards the  installation of an odour control system.  I'm not unsympathetic.  It's a case of the boy who cried wolf. Staff presented them with many solutions that failed and now when presented with a real, honest to goodness, odour control system, that has been proven to work in Charlottetown, PEI and a couple of other places they have lost faith and are weary of wasting tax payers' money. But here's where citizens come into the picture.  A friend of mine who lives at ground zero put a post on FaceBook regarding being gassed and it got a lot of attention.  The post was noticed by council and the issue made its way back on to the agenda.  Because so many people showed up to the meeting demanding an immediate solution, the motion was passed to approve the spending of $54,000 for the design of a bio filter.  (that's the odour control system.)

Now, here's where you need to pay attention.  The $54,000 is for the design on a piece of paper.  Let's say that you want to build a new house  You pay an architect to draw the house.  Now you have a drawing.  You do not have a house. What was approved at council was to pay for the design.  The design will be completed in October. Remember, council voted to spend money on a different problem, so there is no money to actually implement the design.  The cost of implementation was estimated at $780,000.  The next council will vote on whether or not to approve the implementation of the design.  They likely will, but they don't have to.  If between now and then something else breaks down on the plant, council might feel that it is not worth pouring more money into the beast. If the next council does approve the implementation, then and only then will staff try to secure funding.  Most infrastructure grants are funded one third federally, one third provincially and one third municipally. There probably will be funding, but maybe not. So, right now, we, the tax payers of Lunenburg have approved a picture on a piece of paper.  That's it.  Don't get me wrong.  I think it's great.  I think it was the right thing to do and I think there's a good chance that everything else will fall into place.  If all goes well, it was estimated that people in New Town will be able to take the clothes pins off their nose in July of 2017. (Hang in there, Guys.)

 So, the town put out a press release on the town web site.  Here it is.   To summarize, the announcement explains that 'the town has approved $54,000 for the design....  the town has taken a major step towards addressing waste water treatment odour..... The design will be completed in October.... '    No mention of installation, cost of installation, estimated date of installation or that there is no money to carry out installation at this point in time.  The press release is not communication.  It is not technically dishonest because everything in it is true, but if the aim is to inform the public, I would say there were some pretty key pieces of information left out. The press release is political spin.  The reader is led to believe that Mayor Bailey and council have finally fixed a thirteen year old problem.

I read this press release last week, noted to myself that the town desperately needs to hire a communications person, posted a brief clarification on Facebook and then I walked away from it because, really, who needs it?  I've got better things to do with my life than writing this  blog post at midnight.  But today, CBC picked up this piece of spin and ran with it.  Without interviewing the town, they took the press release at face value and wrote an article.  Seriously?  CBC? I sent in my complaint and they adjusted the article a bit, but it's still misleading.  You can read it HERE.   But now there are so many people that actually believe this problem was solved for $54,000.  What a disservice to the public.

So, yes, I am concerned with a lack of real journalism and all that jazz, but what I am really concerned about is that most people will read the town's communication and believe that the problem will be solved in October.  There was nothing wrong with the actual facts.  Mistakes were made.  They fixed stuff, figured stuff out along the way and now they really think they have the solution.  They approved the funding for the design, which will completed in October and the next step is to approve the installation and secure funding.  The whole thing should be fixed by next summer.......  That would be clear communication with the aim of educating the public. Why can't this sort of communication come directly from the town? 

Saturday, August 13, 2016

We need to stop telling politicians to develop thick skins.

Two years ago I bumped into politics in a big way.  I was just minding my own business, making pretty hats, when an incorrect interpretation of a rule got in my way.   Realizing that Nova Scotia had lost many valuable people because of this same mistake, I set about trying to get it fixed.  To understand the details of this situation you can click HERE and also HERE.  It was meant to be easy,  but it became a long, complicated and often very ugly experience.
I watched politicians obfuscate, threaten, attempt to get others fired, shut down communication and ignore reason and facts.  This was by no means the sum of my experience, but it was part of it.  It was the most difficult part.

While I learned many things in the past few years about planning, the building code and the political process, I was left with a giant question that lives in my mind without an occupancy permit. Why?  Why do politicians behave this way?  What happens between the beginning, where a fresh faced person, wanting to make a difference, puts their hat in the ring,  to the point where they, too, are playing the game of politics?

I had many moments over the past couple of years where I considered running in the municipal elections.   A healthy government is a diverse government and adding my voice to the table would mean people with similar circumstances to myself would have representation.   But there was one main thing that stopped me from offering.  It seemed to be a given that in order to be a politician you needed to either have or develop a thick skin.  I neither have a thick skin, nor want one.  I wear my heart on my sleeve and that's the way I like it.

But the past couple of years have sparked a notion
that things don't have to be this way, so  I have been on the lookout for inspirational politicians who govern with grace.   Yesterday, I came across an interview with Lisa Helps, The mayor of Victoria, BC.  On that page were the words I have been looking for, the words that we need to be teaching all our potential politicians.  This is what she said, "Stay open-hearted. People say to me all the time that you must need a really thick skin to do this job, but as soon as you have thick skin, you don’t let stuff in. It means you’re closing down. And there’s a lot of shit that comes my way for sure, so [when] that comes in I say, “That is kind of irrational and makes no sense and is not based on any evidence.” All right, so that doesn’t stay. But then I get some really good feedback like, “Why are you doing it this way? How about this instead?” and that actually is important. If you’re thick-skinned and closed-hearted, you aren’t open to feedback."

And that's the problem with politics.  We keep telling potential politicians that they need thick skins, so that is exactly what we end up with- people who walk around wearing invisible armour,  people that protect themselves from the very real ugliness of public opinion and the unrealistic expectations that we have of our leaders by blocking out all feedback, good and bad.   But really we need to encourage open hearts and strong, healthy filters. So, that's my personal goal. I want to grow a thick filter.   I'll work on it for the next four years and then we'll see where life has taken me.  You can read the full interview by clicking HERE.