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Treading water 

The controversy over waterlots and restrictions on infilling heats up.

Every good ship needs a captain and a compass. Just ask the amateur sailors who regularly navigate the Northwest Arm —it's a bad idea to leave the dock without somebody at the helm. But who's at the helm of the Northwest Arm? Property owners along the Arm have been increasingly concerned with that question, especially due to a debate over infilling. In the past week, city councillors Linda Mosher and Sue Uteck held two public meetings to address the issue.

It's a complicated problem. Many of the private lots along the Arm have what are known as waterlots, an extension of private property that stretches approximately 100 feet into the water. Currently, the federal government is in change of approving or denying any private waterlot developments, as they have jurisdiction over most of the Northwest Arm and the Halifax Harbour. Waterlot developments are primarily scrutinized by the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, which make sure any infilling proposal doesn't pose a threat to the marine ecosystem.

Infilling opponents argue that waterlots are primarily intended for wharfs or docks that would extend out into the water. However, some property owners along the Arm have begun to challenge that definition by adding retaining walls, permanent walkways and even buildings that extend to their waterlot.

At the moment, the HRM has very little recourse if a private property owner chooses to infill along the Arm, which is part of the reason Mosher initiated the public meetings along with Uteck. She's interested in giving the HRM more say over what happens to waterlot developments.

"We can't stop the infilling. So what we want to have is an appropriate degree of control," says Mosher. "Right now, all we can do is examine the situation is regards to zoning rules for the city, not the particular infilling itself."

Mosher sent a letter to Geoff Regan, federal minister of Fisheries and Oceans, in 2004. The ultimate result of that letter was an agreement from the federal government to "come to the table and be a partner if the HRM was going to pursue regulation on infilling," says Mosher.While the HRM debates the best way to go about regulation, the city has asked for a moratorium from the federal government to keep property owners from making any last-second developments on their waterlot properties. The city has made two requests already, but they have yet to receive a reply.

Guy MacLean is president of the Northwest Arm Heritage Association, and has been dealing with the infilling issue since 1998. In that year, a waterlot owner applied to build a floating dock on the Arm and received federal approval. However, the floating dock turned into significant infill, but was never legally challenged by any branch of government. The incident drew complaints from the Heritage Association—MacLean sent letters to both DFO and HRM officials pointing out the problem. MacLean says the city's resolve to take action is a good sign, but they have yet to map out an effective solution.

"Obviously, this is our problem—it's the city, not federal," he says. "But people haven't yet understood what the problem is and put together some coherent suggestions."

For MacLean's part, he is not unilaterally opposed to all infilling. However, he sees most new infilling to be a misuse of Northwest Arm waterlots, contrary to their original purpose."These waterlots were useful when there was a commercial fishery in the Northwest Arm during the 19th century," he says. "At the time, there was a need for wharves and sheds along the water—that's how they were intended to be used, not as a way to extend your property however you choose."

Still, property owners who want to develop on the water argue that they have the right to do so, so long as they don't violate any federal regulations or municipal zoning laws. But Mosher, who represents district 17 on the Armshore Drive side of the Arm, argues that infilling affects more than just the property owner.

"There's a property owner's right to infill, but what about the property owner's rights on either side? What about their right to the quiet enjoyment of their property?" says Mosher. "And it's not just an issue for homeowners. It's an issue for somebody who drives in from Timberlea everyday. Or somebody who paddles that stretch of water. Or somebody who takes sailing lessons. Or goes to Horseshoe Island or Sir Sanford Flemming Park. I think it's a big HRM issue."

Mosher is asking concerned citizens to contribute any suggestions to city council, or to contact herself or Uteck about the issue. She estimates that a HRM public hearing on any potential resolutions will be held sometime in January.

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