The Blue Mountain Birch Cove Lakes park is no closer to happening than it was at the beginning of the summer, but at least some of the land is not in danger of being developed thanks to a resounding vote from Halifax city council on Sept. 6.

“We could have lost the park this summer,” says Ray Plourde, the wilderness coordinator for the Ecology Action Centre.

The threat came in the form of what he called a “flawed” facilitator’s report from Justice Heather Robertson that favoured allowing some developers to begin secondary planning.

Robertson, who had presided over eight meetings between the city and the landowners, was supposed to help the two sides reach a deal. When she delivered her report, it was presented to the public without giving them a chance to ask questions or provide feedback.

Plourde said the facilitator’s report “went beyond its terms of reference” and when she couldn’t broker a deal, Robertson decided to arbitrate and sided with the developers. She accepted their argument that the wilderness area set aside by the province was the park and that by allowing some development, the city could afford to buy land.

She briefly outlined the opinion of city staff, but disagreed with it and suggested the city let the developers go ahead because it was an economical way for the city to achieve the objectives of creating a park. City staff opposed that because there’s a surplus of developable land and the Regional Plan is trying to halt urban sprawl.

The developers wanted to build houses around Susies and Quarry Lakes. They are the two largest lakes in the chain of eight Birch Cove Lakes, which together present such a golden opportunity for year-round recreation, especially a canoe portage route.

Additionally, the landowners said they wouldn’t sell any land to the city unless the city approves their proposed development. For the Annapolis Group, this includes the land classified as Urban Reserve, which would require an amendment to the Regional Plan to develop.

The developers raised the stakes by informing Robertson the city should either set the park boundary or allow development. Failure to do either would be “actionable,” she said in her report. If that was supposed to be a threat or make council blink, it didn’t.

“She got some things spectacularly wrong,” Plourde said and in doing so she motivated citizens to act.
The first thing proponents of the park did was attend a rally organized by the EAC at Dalhousie University.

About 300 people took a pledge to become “Birch Cove Rangers.” People raised their hands and vowed to “remain engaged, informed, and vigilant” about the long-promised park, and to do everything they can to “promote, protect, and defend this special place,” just like Jennifer MacLatchy, the park’s self-appointed ranger.

Jamie Boyer chairs the Canadian Association of Retired Persons’ provincial environmental committee. He invited all councillors on a hike to the area, and several took him up on the offer over the summer. Boyer has vowed to leave a legacy for the next generation. “I used to be just an average citizen. Now, I’m ready to march or tie myself to a tree,” he said at the June meeting.

Plourde drew a standing ovation from the audience when he encouraged people to tell Council what they wanted. “Tonight, collectively, we draw the line in the sand. That place is not going to get paved over,” he said to cheers. “Are you listening mayor and council? The citizens demand this be done.”

The next step was writing into council. Residents had two weeks to send in their thoughts on the park and with the deadline on a Monday after a long weekend, some thought response would be modest because people were in summer mode. They were wrong. Because people didn’t get a chance to speak at a public “information session” on June 20th at which Robertson and the developers presented the facilitator’s report, they took their vengeance with their pens and laptops. By July 4 almost 1,500 people wrote in and letters continued to roll in after the deadline.

At the Sept. 6 council meeting, Coun. Heather Watts and many other councillors were amazed by the public’s response.

“This is an amazing love story,” she said. “I have read every single word that has come forward here and I just want to say how much I very much appreciate the time that people have taken.”

The letters and the pledge are a shining example of how a group of concerned citizens can organize and mobilize to exert their influence on elected leaders. That it is an election year perhaps made the councillors more attentive. It also raised awareness of the commitment the city made to the regional park in its 2006 Regional Plan. The city’s partner in creating the park, the province, has set aside some 1,740 hectares of land and gave it wilderness protection, but the city has accomplished nothing.

“The city has not purchased one square centimetre,” said Bob McDonald of the Halifax Northwest Trails Group, at the EAC meeting. That comment drew cries of “Shame! Shame!” from the crowd because the city was supposed to buy land from developers and create the largest urban wilderness park in Canada.

After council’s vote, there was an emotional high, but there is no real progress on the park. Dismissing the facilitator’s report and rejecting a proposal for secondary planning were only defensive measures. Council still has to buy land from the developers.

The two main landowners are the Annapolis Group and Susies Lake Developments, owned by the Stevens Group, hold 539 hectares. Most of the Stevens Group’s 139 hectares is zoned Urban Settlement while just 118 of Annapolis Group’s 391 hectares of land is. The rest is classified as Urban Reserve, which means it can’t be developed until at least 2031.

Although two years was wasted preparing the facilitator’s report, it did accomplish one thing. It mobilized citizens and who have given council a clear mandate to act decisively to purchase the lands.
Plourde is optimistic, but cautiously so, and says there’s still a lot of work to do and citizens must remain engaged.

“We have to watch every move of the aggressive developers who have a laser-like focus on achieving what they want,” he said.

He’s concerned about the lack of leadership from City Hall and that no one has pushed for the park as a legacy project.

“This would a world-class asset to a city that is trying desperately to be world-class,” Plourde said. “This is a beautiful dream and it is worth completing so that it’s a beautiful reality.”

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