The unclimbed mountain

Photo: Irwin Barrett

For the longest time, Halifax was a front-runner for the title of world-class procrastinator by failing to do anything to make the proposed Blue Mountain Birch Cove Lakes Regional Park a reality.
In 2006, Halifax put the grandiose concept in its Regional Plan, but while the province was doing its part by giving wilderness protection to huge tracts of Crown land, the city twiddled its thumbs. “The province really has stepped up to the plate and, as far as I’m concerned, they’ve hit a home run,” says Bob McDonald, chair of the Halifax North West Trails Association. “They’ve protected that land in perpetuity.”
The province protected two-thirds of the land within the proposed park boundary, leaving the city to acquire the remainder. For people awaiting the promised park, the city’s inaction was a promise unfulfilled. “I understand that land owners have actually approached HRM with their land for sale and nothing has happened,” says McDonald. “It’s all very upsetting.”
Finally, in November 2010, Council ordered a watershed study for the Birch Cove Lakes land. It also decided to negotiate the boundaries for the proposed park with the help of an independent facilitator, but even that decision went nowhere until the watershed study was completed last June.
Finally, last September, Council approved spending $25,000 for an independent facilitator to help the city and three landowners reach an agreement. The Annapolis Group Inc., Westridge Developments Limited and the Stevens Group (through its subsidiary Gateway Materials Limited) would share the other half of the $50,000 cost.
With that one step, Halifax Mayor Mike Savage has done more in 18 months than his predecessor accomplished in six years. It’s a modest accomplishment, but it’s progress. “I hiked out there and I know the importance of the area,” Savage says. “I’m hopeful that we’ll be able to do our part to have a park there.”

Photo: Irwin Barrett

Photo: Irwin Barrett

In December, Councillor Waye Mason (District 7—Peninsula South) expressed dismay that three months after money was approved, the search for a facilitator was still on. Six months later, the post remained vacant, but in early March, the mayor appeared unconcerned. “It’s important to get the right person,” he says. “Nothing in this process has gone at lightning speed … I’d like to see it move as quickly as possible, but I’m more interested in getting it right than getting it fast.”
A few weeks after Savage’s interview, the city and the landowners agreed on a facilitator.
“That person’s name won’t be shared publicly until the facilitator’s report is filed and the public meeting is scheduled, to ensure the facilitation process proceeds unimpeded,” HRM spokeswoman Jennifer Stairs says in an e-mail.
Residents will have an opportunity to speak at a public meeting led by the facilitator, which is expected to be held some time in June.
Savage anticipates it will take six months of negotiations to reach a deal.
“Hopefully, we’ll be in a position next budget year to allocate money,” Savage says. “I’d be very happy if we were able to do something in 2015–16. To me, that’s not a bad timeline from where we are now.”
The task before the city is more complicated than what the province faced, to be sure. It will be negotiating with three private landowners who own 569 hectares of land within the proposed park boundary. Of the 569 hectares, 480 hectares are designated as Urban Reserve, which means it can’t be developed until 2031.
However, the other 89 hectares are classified as Urban Settlement and eligible for development, if approved by the city’s planning department. Surely the landowners are eager to get clarity on what they can do with this land, so they might be more eager than the city to move the negotiations along. A spokesman for the Annapolis Group, which owns the most land (approximately 400 hectares), declined comment on the negotiations and the appointment of the facilitator.
The Stevens Group, which in early in 2014 bought 54 hectares of land owned by the Sisters of Charity, owns 174 hectares. Mark Van Zeumeren, a designer/engineer with the Stevens Group, was more forthcoming. “We’re pleased with the negotiations,” Van Zeumeren says. “I don’t see any big road blocks in our way.” Once a facilitator is named, he adds, it will only be a matter of time before the park becomes a reality. “The park is there already, there’s all the provincially owned land,” he says. “We’re moving forward. There it is.”
Chris Miller of the Nova Scotia chapter of the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society has been eagerly anticipating action by the city. This is an opportunity to create the finest urban wilderness park in Canada, he says, one that would surpass the Gatineau Park in Quebec and Rouge Park in Toronto. The Blue Mountain Birch Cove Lakes Regional Park would offer a network of hiking trails, a beautiful vista from the highest elevation in the municipality and an opportunity to canoe and portage through a chain of 10 lakes.
That quintessential Canadian experience is something that could be available in an area accessible by public bus. But right now, it’s mostly inaccessible because most of the front-country land is privately owned and there are no marked trails on the Crown land. That’s an obstacle to generating public support for the park, but Miller and others are working to change that by organizing hikes.
“When people go there for the first time, they’re blown away,” says Miller.
Miller thinks that Blue Mountain Birch Cove Lakes could be as significant to future generations of Haligonians as Central Park is to New Yorkers. It will provide excellent recreation opportunities with fresh air, clean water and natural beauty.
He had hoped that the decision to hire a facilitator was a turning point, but he’s patiently waiting for more progress.
“I’m still prepared to give the city the space to make this happen,” he says. “Some of the landowners are kind of working in a coalition. I don’t have any specifics on this, but there is more on the table than an outright land purchase.”
Savage is confident future generations will be able to enjoy the park and says creating it fits with the city’s vision of “densifying the core, have livable communities outside the core, but protect green spaces.”
“There is a lot of good will on council to making this thing happen and certainly from my office that’s the case,” Savage says. “It’s worthwhile and it’s something that we need to put our backs into a bit more.”

This story was originally published in Halifax Magazine.

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