Saturday, February 24, 2024

February 21 2024

Could a consolidated Antigonish be fractured?

The seeds for the potential consolidation of the Municipality of the County of Antigonish and Town of Antigonish, it could be argued, were planted more than 20 years ago.

In 2001, the town – needing room to grow – applied to the Nova Scotia Utility and Review Board (NSUARB) to annex more than 1,600 hectares of county land (an amount that had been lowered), including prime real estate in the then rapidly developing, particularly commercially, Post Road area.

Arguing that an annexation would cripple its tax base, the county applied to the NSURB for the amalgamation of the neighbouring municipalities. Amalgamation – a word vehemently shied away from by many proponents of consolidation.

As part of the decision-making process, the NSUARB scheduled three weeks of public hearings in Antigonish, where both sides had the opportunity to present evidence and make their cases. Those days included plenty of legal arguments; not to mention financial ones.

And, during a handful of evening sessions, town and county residents had the opportunity to share their views with the NSUARB panel. There were myriad perspectives; town residents concerned about the loss of its rich, more than century-long identity; county residents contended that – because the municipalities shared so much – they were essentially already one entity, just not on paper. And, of course, there was a crossover, when it came to those positions.

Along with an avalanche of information, the public hearings deepened an already existing divide between the municipalities. At that time, disputes and competition were not uncommon. The extended process, including the sessions, also opened wounds among some town and county residents.

In 2005, the NSUARB’s ruled in favour of amalgamation; but, before making its decision final, the panel ordered a plebiscite of town and county voters.

In March of that year, the Nova Scotia Court of Appeal dismissed the town’s appeal of the decision, in which they argued the NSUARB did not have the jurisdiction to order the municipal marriage.

As for the plebiscite, which took place in June, residents were asked if they supported amalgamation; 84 per cent of county voters were in favour, while 74 per cent of town residents were opposed.

Nevertheless, despite those vote results and its preliminary decision, the NSUARB’s final decision – which came in Oct. 2006 – opted for the status quo, noting that there was not enough support for the potential merger; not to mention the potential that an amalgamation process could increase the head-butting and tension between the town and county.

Although it may be like comparing apples and oranges in some ways, there are parallels between that more than five-year journey that unfolded in the early 2000s with what has been happening over the past couple of years; the former serving as a prequel, of sorts, if you are a movie buff.

A lot of eyes from Antigonish, more than maybe ever before, will be turned to the opening of the spring session of the provincial legislature on Feb. 27, one in which Nova Scotia Minister of Municipal Affairs and Housing John Lohr – at some point during the sitting – is expected to table special legislation that would clear the way for the consolidation of Antigonish town and county.

Although we are not saying the municipal marriage is a fait accompli – as we just outlined in our mini history lesson, a lot can change in a short period of time. Nevertheless, it is highly unlikely there is anything that will happen to put everyone on the same page. When the legislation is passed, much of the population – of both existing municipalities – will be pulled into the merger against its will.

Not a great way to start building the foundation for a strong consolidated unit.

There are not only those who are ‘for’ and ‘against’ consolidation, but also many – like members of the community group Let Antigonish Decide – who are not necessarily against a potential merger, but believe they haven’t received enough information to make an informed decision; not to mention no chance to have their say – with multiple calls for a plebiscite falling, seemingly, on deaf ears.

A pair of commissioned phone surveys indicated a strong majority of Antigonish voters want a plebiscite on the issue.

Although proponents have offered, in resisting calls for a vote, that plebiscite results are not binding, it doesn’t ease concerns from residents that they have had no input in such a game-changing decision for the future of Antigonish.

We are also concerned with the strength of the mandate for both councils to carry out the consolidation process. In a second vote, one requested by Minister Lohr before he would commit to presenting the special legislation during the spring sitting, the counts were razor thin; 4-3 for the town and 5-4 for the county. And, more broadly, neither council received a mandate for consolidation; no sitting councillors ran on the issue in 2020.

How everything has unfolded, sadly, has tainted the idea of consolidation. Even if the benefits of a town-county merger are many, they have been overshadowed by the process, particularly what has been perceived as lack of a chance for people to have their say.

Interestingly, when all is said and done, residents – whether of the town, county or a newly-consolidated Antigonish – will have their say, at least indirectly, at the ballot box. But, instead of a plebiscite on consolidation, it will be voters showing their discontent in the next municipal and provincial elections.

Regardless what happens, there will be a lot of healing to do, so leaders – both elected and from the community – will be needed.