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A new regional park will adjoin the provincially protected Blue Mountain-Birch Cove Lakes Wilderness Area. Now, Halifax must figure out how to fund land acquisition and other associated park costs. (Irwin Barrett)
A new regional park will adjoin the provincially protected Blue Mountain-Birch Cove Lakes Wilderness Area. Now, Halifax must figure out how to fund land acquisition and other associated park costs. (Irwin Barrett)

PROPERTY REPORT

Wilderness wins in tussle over Halifax park Add to ...

Raymond Plourde walked into last week’s Halifax Regional Council meeting with a lump in his throat.

After more than a decade of hemming, hawing, studies and negotiations, the municipality’s government was set to vote on the future of a 1,681-hectare plot of land – a bus ride northwest of downtown. Councillors had a choice: They could set in motion a long-written plan to make it a regional park, building on and protecting an even bigger designated wilderness area, or accept a compromise with the landowners on the conceptual park’s boundaries.

Mr. Plourde, wilderness co-ordinator with Nova Scotia’s Ecology Action Centre, worried that the compromise would be a one-way affair – to give up crucial parts of the would-be park to development and strip away a crucial buffer to the provincially protected Blue Mountain-Birch Cove Lakes Wilderness Area. Then he got a surprise; the council voted against planning for development, asking city staff instead to start negotiating boundaries that would better favour the park.

It was a decisive – though not final – victory in a long-running battle in a corner of Canada that’s looking to define itself in the 21st century. Halifax is a history-rich city in a history-rich province. The choice council faced last week was about investing in the kind of city they want Halifax to become: one with either a surprisingly close regional park or another fresh suburb.

For Mr. Plourde, and more than 1,000 residents who’d written to council this summer in support of the park, picking a side was simple.

“Halifax is striving very hard to be a world-class city – which is a bit of an overused term, but no less – and it’s trying to attract talented, high-end companies and workers who choose to work and play and live and invest here, as opposed to anywhere else in the world,” Mr. Plourde says. “When a city is trying to do that, it needs to put its best foot forward in terms of its assets.”

The council vote, says Halifax chief planner Bob Bjerke, was “recognition of a more sophisticated understanding” of what the municipality can provide to current and future residents. Some of the private lands are designated for development only when the city needs them later. But according to the city’s projections, there’s already enough land for fresh housing stock for at least a quarter-century – and that’s not counting infill or redeveloped properties.

The 346 hectares of private land in question on the Blue Mountain-Birch Cove Lakes site is owned by Annapolis Group Inc. and Susie Lake Developments Ltd. An Annapolis spokesperson was not available for comment before publication; Scott Stevens, vice-president of The Stevens Group, which operates Susie Lake Developments, did not respond to multiple requests for comment. (Thirteen other property owners have land in the affected area, but discussions have primarily been with those two developers.)

The conceptual urban park, surrounding a protected wilderness area nearly the size of Halifax’s central peninsula, would both buffer pristine nature and give residents an opportunity to spend a day hiking or portaging, all within city boundaries. For decades, there have been calls to make the land an official park, but the city first enshrined its intent to do so in its 2006 regional plan.

The park plans zigged then zagged. Annapolis and Susie Lake soon requested to start the planning process for their lands that overlapped with the proposed park. Then the province designated Crown property within the conceptual boundaries as protected land. Then came another request from the landowners to start a development strategy. Then a number of studies, including one of the watershed. Finally, in 2014, Halifax council appointed an independent facilitator, Justice Heather Robertson, to oversee discussions between city staff and the two property owners.

This past June, Justice Robertson made public a report on the discussions. She recommended that park boundaries be adjusted as sought by developers to allow them to build both single and multi-family residences. This would, she argued, be economical for the city, provide public access points to the park, and give landowners the chance to develop their property.

Activists, city staff and more than 1,000 members of the public soon came forward to contest this. On the financial side, discrepancies emerged. The developers’ plan was contingent on selling the city 85 hectares for $6-million; the city, on the other hand, appraised the same land at $2.8-million, leading them to consider the developers unwilling sellers. The environmental side effects, too, drew concern.

Both Mr. Plourde and Karen Beazley, a Dalhousie University professor whose research includes conservation biology and protected-area-system planning, say that the developers’ compromise design failed the park’s intentions on numerous fronts, including that it hardly protected the pristine back-country wilderness.

Without a significant buffer around it, they say, human impact could deteriorate the natural environment, rendering protection efforts useless. “Today’s the day to protect it, because if not, tomorrow it’ll be gone,” Dr. Beazley says.

Halifax planning staff released a report ahead of last week’s council meeting, countering Justice Robertson’s conclusions and suggesting the city instead start negotiating boundaries and land-acquisition prices on their own terms. At the meeting, Councillor Reg Rankin – whose district includes the proposed park, and who’d previously made a council motion in favour of the developers’ compromise – voted to follow staff recommendations, rather than the facilitator’s.

He admits he flip-flopped, and says Justice Robertson’s recommendations seemed like the first chance to get the ball rolling after a decade of waiting. “But it turns out it didn’t even come close to an acceptable compromise,” Coun. Rankin says. Now, though, he’s thrilled. “Let’s get on with purchasing, and get on with gaining some degree of access to the back country.”

Next, Halifax must figure out how to fund land acquisition and other associated park costs. Coun. Rankin and other park supporters are hoping that, given Ottawa’s 2012 pledge of $144-million over 10 years to establish Canada’s first urban national park at the Toronto area’s Rouge Park, that they, too, could secure federal funding.

“Many cities go through the idea that developing however you can, as quickly as possible, is the best path forward,” Mr. Bjerke says. But lately, “there’s a growing recognition of what will be cost effective, and also for things that really represent aspirations for Halifax residents. One of the huge amenities available in Halifax is access to a fantastic range of natural places. You can take a bus 15 minutes from downtown and be on a canoe in the middle of the wilderness.”

Council’s decision

The Halifax Regional Council chambers were packed Sept. 6 as councillors prepared to discuss a new staff report on the proposed Blue Mountain-Birch Cove Lakes regional park. The report included a once-mysterious “Map 3A,” a city staff-drawn map supposedly representing a development-centric compromise. Supporters of the original park plan were worried it would become the park’s future.

Instead, council mostly discussed discarding compromise with developers and sided with staff recommendations, with hopes to hew as close to the original park boundaries as possible. Councillor Reg Rankin, who represents the area, made the motion. The chief dissident, Dartmouth Councillor Gloria McCluskey, raised fears about costs of buying land from developers – especially given that her constituents on the other side of the Halifax harbour “will never get to this park.”

But most councillors favoured moving ahead without compromise. Councillor Jennifer Watts pointed to the 1,400-plus letters of support as a “love story” about the “relationship of people to the water, to the land.”

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