Skip to main content

Across Nova Scotia, conflicts over who owns the shore are increasing as coveted and costly waterfront property runs out

Owl's Head resident Beverley Isaacs walks on the shore of Owl's Head Provincial Park.Meagan Hancock/the Globe and Mail

Beverley Isaacs stands on the seaweed-slathered rocks, on the land she helped save from becoming a golf course, and breathes in the ocean air. Walking through an overgrown trail, she points out the nectar in a pitcher plant, the saucer-shaped sheep laurel, the wild blueberry still flowering. The place is untouched, a pure piece of nature.

Had it not been for the fight of Nova Scotians such as Ms. Isaacs, much of these 266 hectares of coastal barrens and wetlands and eight kilometres of rugged coves and beaches on the eastern shore of the province might have been bulldozed by an American developer planning to build a luxury resort.

“Owl’s Head didn’t have a voice,” Ms. Isaacs says. “So we used our voices.”

A sign supporting the park alongside the municipal sign for Owl's Head.Meagan Hancock/the Globe and Mail

Across Nova Scotia, similar battles are being waged – to preserve public rights to the province’s shoreline in the face of expanding private development, to balance economic interests against protecting nature.

In fact, in June, just as the province was officially announcing that Owl’s Head would become a provincial park, another group of residents, 200 kilometres away on the south shore, were starting their own protest to stop private construction on the edge of a sandy beach used by the community for generations.

In Halifax, the Ecology Action Centre, a conservation group, began investigating why a developer had placed a locked gate across a road leading to a wharf that locals had long used for fishing. The same month, the Nova Scotia Supreme Court ruled that a property owner had illegally blocked the public right-of-way to a path leading to Silver Sands, a Halifax-area beach popular with surfers and dog walkers.

These conflicts over who owns the shore are only increasing as coveted and costly waterfront property runs out, and private and public interests clash. Meanwhile, nature is having her own say, with sea levels rising and erosion slicing away the coastline. Next year, Nova Scotia is slated to bring into effect a new Coastal Protection Act that will require new developments to meet regulated setbacks from the water, which will be based on the projected impact of climate change.

The legislation may ensure that new houses are built more safely, but it doesn’t resolve the issues of public access to the shore. Already in Nova Scotia, more than 80 per cent of 13,000 kilometres of coastline sits in private hands, says Will Balser, the coastal adaption co-ordinator for the Ecology Action Centre. Conflicts over use have increased over the past few years, he says, because of a building boom in the province and a shopping spree for waterfrontage.

The result, Mr. Balser says, is that a community’s path to the beach, used as far back as anyone can remember, might now cross a front yard, not an empty field – intruding on the privacy the new owners thought they were buying for a higher-than-ever price. “We are running out of coastline that is available to the public,” Mr. Balser says.

Fighting for access can be complicated because of overlapping jurisdictions from different levels of government. “It is hard even for the people involved in the process to know who to call for what,” Mr. Balser says. In other cases, public right-of-ways traditionally used by communities have not been officially designated. So while the land below the high-water mark may be “absolutely public,” Mr. Balser says, the public is running out of ways to reach it. And since there is no provincial strategy to preserve the coastline as a public good, conflicts usually have to be settled in court, an expensive endeavour for grassroots community groups.

A section of coastline near Owl's Head Provincial Park.Meagan Hancock/the Globe and Mail

Court is where the Save Owl’s Head group eventually landed.

The community learned that the province had quietly de-listed the land as a protected area, when a local CBC reporter broke the story in 2019. The then-Liberal government entered into negotiations to sell the land, even though, as the court decision would later outline, the province’s own document had identified the area as a nesting ground for the piping plover, an at-risk species.

A handful of protesters and a Facebook page grew to thousands of Nova Scotians signing a petition to oppose the sale. Scientists argued the land was ecologically valuable. In court, the group sought to reverse the government’s decision. The judge ruled that even though the land had been both represented and treated like a park for decades, the provincial government had acted within its authority.

By fall 2021, however, the developer had abandoned plans for the resort, and in June, the nearly year-old Progressive Conservative government announced the land will be officially designated as a park.

A group is now appealing the court’s decision, however, hoping to make the future process for the sale of public lands more transparent.

“There is a real gut feeling of unfairness and injustice,” says Bob Bancroft, a retired biologist, who is one of the lead applicants in the case. ”It shouldn’t be up to citizens to try to keep an eye on backroom deals.”

As Owl’s Head highlighted, communities may wrongly assume that land is protected, or that a right-of-way, used for generations, is written into property deeds. And they may only learn otherwise when the land is unexpectedly sold.

The fight for Nova Scotia’s shoreline has inspired determined grassroots activism, the kind that requires persistence, money and devotion to the cause, even in the face of critics.

Nova Scotia draws buyers who haven’t set foot inside their future home

In June, Talla Corkum, a university student home for the summer, received a curious call from her grandfather. He was watching construction trucks heading down the road to Eagle Head Beach, near Liverpool, a community 150 kilometres southwest of Halifax. Ms. Corkum found that the footpath leading to the beach had been widened and blocked with boulders. Residents soon discovered that a parcel of land had been sold, and the new owner was trucking in sand between the beach and a pond.

The beach, a traditional gathering spot for locals, was a place where Ms. Corkum had celebrated birthday parties and taken chilly swims in early May. She became one of the leaders in a fight to stop any construction on environmental and public access grounds – organizing protests at the site, calling municipal and provincial politicians and raising the case with the media.

“We just want to protect the coast,” she says, “whether it be our beach, or someone else’s.”

Ms. Isaacs, meanwhile, had never been involved in a protest before Owl’s Head. “I like trees,” she says, “but I wouldn’t say I am a tree hugger.” She didn’t expect to lose friendships over her opposition to the development. But the community around Owl’s Head was divided, with some wanting the touted economic benefits of the golf resort, while others gave speeches and signed petitions to fight it. Even now, the road to the new park land is sprinkled with fading signs from both camps.

Signs in Owls Head show the community's divided opinions. Meagan Hancock/The Globe and Mail

The conflict also raised questions about who gets to have a say; Ms. Isaacs, for instance, is a Nova Scotian by birth, but had only moved to the area eight years earlier. “I was told to keep my mouth shut,” she says.

Standing on the edge of the newly designated park land, she and Wallace Publicover, another resident-turned-activist, whose land abuts Owl’s Head, share the lessons they learned.

Wallace Publicover’s land runs adjacent to the newly protected park. With no trail infrastructure, land access to the park is limited.Meagan Hancock/the Globe and Mail

Be loud and persistent, Mr. Publicover says. Take the high road, says Ms. Isaacs. Find allies and environmental experts to support saving the land. Stick to the facts, Mr. Publicover adds. “Be truthful, and have the science behind you.”

In the end, the organizers suggest, the dispute over Owl’s Head came down to vision: why a golf course, and not a place that could inspire ecotourism, held in trust for generations? Since 2005, for example, the Mahone Islands Conservation Association has managed, through donations and government dollars, to acquire 20 island and beach properties in the waters of Mahone Bay.

In early July, after weeks of public protests about Eagle Head, the municipality withdrew the development permit for the site, at least for now. The municipality’s Mayor Darlene Norman declined to comment on the decision, citing legal advice.

“There is just so much here, if you open up your eyes,” says Ms. Isaacs, pausing on her tour of Owl’s Head. So much beauty, she says, that once sold and developed, would have been lost forever, were it not for the people who rallied to defend it. “I come here, and I go home feeling grounded.” And also, knowing now, she won’t be the last generation to enjoy it.

Beverley Isaacs enters a wetland area of the park.Meagan Hancock/the Globe and Mail

Our Morning Update and Evening Update newsletters are written by Globe editors, giving you a concise summary of the day’s most important headlines. Sign up today.

Your Globe

Build your personal news feed

Follow the author of this article:

Follow topics related to this article:

Check Following for new articles