Seize the day

Photo: Irwin Barrett

In the first 11 years after unveiling its regional plan in 2006, which included a commitment to create the Blue Mountain Birch Cove Lakes regional park, HRM failed to buy any land.

While the province signed over 1,740 hectares of Crown land that also got wilderness protection, it appears as though the city was slow to contact all the landowners. As recently as a year ago, some of the people who owned smaller parcels said they still hadn’t heard from any HRM representatives. It negotiated with some of the larger ones, some of whom were driving a hard bargain and wanted more than the city would pay.

The city won’t talk about land negotiations, so they might have reached out to all the landowners since then. If I was committed to making the park happen, I would have most certainly had conversations with every landowner in the first couple of years as a prelude to more detailed negotiations within the first five years. By the end of five years, I would have had a pretty good idea of what all the land was going to cost, with a range that included a breakdown of landowners’ asking prices and possible lower negotiated prices that reflect market value.

If the city didn’t do this, blaming anyone but themselves for this failure is foolhardy. Furthermore, if they’ve failed to engage in meaningful discussions with other landowners it might have put the city at risk of squandering two glorious opportunities. It’s no secret that the city’s budget is limited and they can’t afford to buy all the land themselves, at least not as fast as many would like. To buy all the land required for the proposed park, Halifax will need some federal money. And Ottawa recently announced a couple of programs that seem tailor-made for Blue Mountain Birch Cove Lakes.

But they aren’t going to sign a blank cheque, so hopefully, the city has sharpened its pencil and put together a detailed proposal to allow it to apply for funding from two federal programs. Ray Plourde of the Ecology Action Centre raised this idea at the public meeting in early April and publicly urged the city to follow through on this.

The first federal program is a $1.3-billion fund for land conservation, which was announced in February. This would help acquire the additional land (approximately 500 hectares) most of which is owned by the Annapolis Group and the Stevens Group.

Ottawa also announced an $828-million plan for infrastructure projects in Nova Scotia and some of this is earmarked for green projects. The proposed Blue Mountain Birch Cove Lakes regional park, which would create a mini-Kejimkujik within the city limits, should qualify as a green project.

The park checks off a number of boxes because it achieves these objectives: prevents urban sprawl, encourages active living, protects valuable habitat, and provide a wilderness experience that would be accessible by bus in Atlantic Canada’s largest city.

If it hasn’t already done so, it’s time for the city to put together a budget with a ticket price for acquiring the land and a budget for developing some of that. If they have, then the regional park announcement we’ve all been waiting for is just a matter of time.

None of the provincial land already given wilderness protection can be developed. It will largely be left untouched and remain a wilderness. That’s the whole idea behind wilderness protection, which is something that developers like the Stevens Group and the Annapolis Group don’t seem to understand.

They think that because the province has given all this land, that this creates the park. Not so. The land that will be heavily used for picnics, hiking trails, canoe rentals, and washrooms is land the city will get from private landowners.

The city already has enough developable land for the next 30 years, so it doesn’t need to change the zoning to stimulate the economy. Much of the land it wishes to acquire is zoned Urban Reserve until 2031.

There is support at the provincial and federal level for this park. In 2015, a facilitator’s report that recommended developing the land galvanized public support for the park and led to a large letter-writing campaign to Council.

If ever there was a time that Halifax could achieve this goal, it is now. By the end of 2019, the preliminary work to acquire land and funding to create the infrastructure should be a done deal. If not, it’s because the people whose job it is to make this happen didn’t act quickly enough to take advantage of some great opportunities.   

This story was originally published in Halifax Magazine.

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