Coastal disaster

Climate change is turning Nova Scotia’s coastal planning from bad to worse.

Developers are hurting Nova Scotia's coasts and putting homebuyers at serious risk.

Jen Graham, the Ecology Action Centre's coastal coordinator, sends me a slideshow of houses under construction mere feet from the ocean, seaside roads torn up during heavy storms, causeways built for personal access to islands and private-property signs on beautiful beaches, often owned by Americans spending a couple weeks a year here (see the slideshow at I find more shocking photos, of a house being built in the middle of a narrow causeway, on the Friends of Martinique Facebook page.

Not only do these developments keep out the public and risk life and limb of rich owners and unlucky drivers, they mess with the coasts, which are living systems. "Coasts are not stable systems," Graham tells me later over chai. "They move, and that change [creates] the things we love, like trails and nice beaches." Putting a road or house on a beach screws up that natural movement. I shudder to think what happens when the waves hit the septic systems.

In the jurisdictions where many of the developers come from, like Florida, Carolina and Massachusetts, there are laws against building in coastal zones. New Jersey works to identify land that is subject to storm damage and protects that land using real estate tax monies. "New Brunswick and PEI are better at protecting coasts that we are," Graham says. British Columbia has mapped out its coastal zones and identified vulnerable areas. Not Nova Scotia.

Our province's shorelines are a regulatory dead-zone of role confusion. They suffer the suction of a massive leadership void. "There are 15 different departments---some provincial, some federal, some municipal---with responsibilities involving coasts," Graham says. "Yet there is no one really responsible, no real direction and kind of a collective government head-in-the-sands denial."

And because we have no one department designated as the coastal department, no one is held accountable for dumbass development decisions. Developers bully municipalities---threatening to take their business and tax dollars elsewhere---into approving septic systems on cliff-side dwellings (of doom) because the province lacks standardized buffer zones.

The developers make a pretty penny off rich Americans ignorant of Maritime weather patterns, and the rest of us pony up the dough to build roads to their doors and save their asses when Tropical Storm Cabot hits. We also drop a wad on bureaucrats from 15 departments running in circles contradicting each other.

Climate change is hitting all these problems with tornado force. With its rising tides, bigger waves, increased flooding, greater erosion, more rapidly shifting coastlines and annually increasing storm damage insurance claims, climate change is making things much more complicated and urgent.

Even HRM, the richest municipality in the province, is unprepared. Our fair city scientists have done great high-tech work Light Detection and Ranging (LiDAR) mapping and wave simulating to determine where the harbour will grow as the icecaps melt. The problem is, hardly anybody knows about their excellent research, and the only detailed mapping that's been done is for the harbour. Developers have been informed and encouraged to build appropriately, but it's really up to them. "They're not restricting development on the harbour," Graham notes, "and there's no encouragement of beaches or natural vegetation there."

HRM, despite those limitations, is the hands-down provincial leader in climate change preparation. Smaller municipalities and First Nations reserves don't have resources for this stuff. Yet the only regional attempt to analyze the coastal hazards of climate change, the $2.3 million Atlantic Climate Adaptation Solutions project (funded by the feds and the four Atlantic Provinces), chose HRM as one of six sites to explore. "Shouldn't someone be helping Lockeport or Mabou?" Graham asks. "They have no money, no staff, no planners or engineers."

Maybe Mabou's time will come soon, if not in the form of funding at least in better regulations. To its credit, the province is holding a consultation on the creation of a Sustainable Coastal Development Strategy. You have until June 30 to influence a "vision for the future" of our coasts.

Graham recommends skipping the government preamble and cutting to the core of the matter with your comments. "We need consistent land-use standards across the province that protect sensitive areas and guarantee public access for hiking and recreation," she says.