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A glacial pace for Blue Mountain–Birch Cove Lakes park 

While a deal's been made for the Purcell’s Cove Backlands, negotiations for the city’s other wilderness park remain sluggish.

Plans for the Blue Mountain–Birch Cove Lakes regional park are moving forward, but like the glaciers that carved out the environment millennia ago, it’s all occurring at a pace imperceptible to the human eye. - VIA TRISTAN GLEN
  • Plans for the Blue Mountain–Birch Cove Lakes regional park are moving forward, but like the glaciers that carved out the environment millennia ago, it’s all occurring at a pace imperceptible to the human eye.
  • VIA TRISTAN GLEN

The more time people spend in nature, the more they value it, says the Ecology Action Centre’s Jeana MacLeod.

To that end, MacLeod and the EAC will be leading the public into the Blue Mountain–Birch Cove Lakes Wilderness Area this weekend for several bio-blitz events. It’s a chance to get people thinking about Halifax’s eco-diversity, and show off the untouched backcountry that’s located just a short bus ride from the downtown core.

“It’s already an impressive landscape, both in the actual presence of being there and also in the life it can support,” says MacLeod. “It’s a really valuable piece of land.”

No one’s questioning the land’s value, though. Only what it’s worth.

On that front, the recently approved price tag for the Purcell’s Cove Backlands could end up being the key to Halifax’s sluggish negotiations for Blue Mountain–Birch Cove Lakes.

Last week, HRM announced a tentative agreement to purchase 380 acres of wilderness from the Shaw Group for $6.6 million. The city will cover $4.1 million, with the remainder fundraised by the Nature Conservancy of Canada.

The sale establishes an appropriate value for wilderness parkland—a price both HRM is willing to pay, and the seller finds fair.

Meanwhile, it’s been over a year since Regional Council voted to acquire lands surrounding the provincially protected Blue Mountain–Birch Cove Lakes Wilderness Area and turn them into a park. That commitment hasn’t changed, but after 12 months there’s been no public consultation, no land acquisition and seemingly little progress.

Raymond Plourde, wilderness coordinator with the EAC, says he’s concerned about HRM’s timeline.

“We remain concerned that the timeframe is unclear and the plan to create the park is still unclear,” he says. “There doesn’t appear to be any park planning going on, and there doesn’t appear to be any communication with the public or stakeholders.”

Affectionately dubbed “Halifax’s Keji,” the wilderness area—just past the Bayers Lake Industrial Park—features a dizzying array of indigenous and at-risk species living amongst picturesque lakes, forests and cliffs.

The city has been talking about using the Blue Mountain lands as a park since the ‘70s. But the concept only really took shape in the 2006 Regional Plan, which called for “necessary private lands within the park” to—over time—“be acquired for public use.”

A year later the province stepped forward to preserve the would-be heart of that regional park. All HRM had to do then was buy the land around the Blue Mountain–Birch Cove Lakes Wilderness Area and plunk in a little infrastructure, like trailheads and bathrooms. The parkland would provide easy public access points into the wild Blue Mountain yonder while also acting as a buffer against any encroaching development.

It would take another decade and 1,400 letters of public support before council finally wed itself to the idea.

Given the history, Plourde’s scepticism isn’t entirely unfounded. Yes, there’s the promise of a park, he says, but actually buying the land and building that park requires strong leadership.

“If nobody’s driving the bus, the bus doesn’t roll.”

The wheels are in motion, assures municipal spokesperson Brendan Elliott. Behind closed doors, Halifax is “actively communicating” with six of the 15 private landowners in the area with an eye towards acquisition.

Vague, sure. But at this point, adds Elliott, any dialogue has to be taken as a hopeful sign.

“Anytime there’s still talking, that’s encouraging,” he says. “The discussions are slow, but I wouldn’t characterize them as stalled.”

A lot of the momentum is happening behind closed doors, during the in-camera updates to council that Plourde criticizes for blocking the public and conservationists from “knowing what’s going on.”
Complicating matters is a $119-million lawsuit from Annapolis. The development firm, which owns 965 acres abutting the wilderness reserve, alleges council abused its authority last year and “effectively expropriated” the company’s lands by denying a zoning change.

The case is slowly making its way through the courts. Even if HRM wins, though, it doesn’t mean Annapolis will offload its lands for cheap.

The company previously tried selling 210 acres of that property to HRM for $6 million. City assessors pegged the same land at $2.8 million. The price was so high that staff concluded it did “not reflect a willing seller.”

Under the new Purcell’s Cove valuation, Annapolis’ 210 acres should be worth $3.6 million.

“If need be, we’ll focus on those people that are interested in talking to us and arriving at a price that everyone feels is fair,” says Elliott.

Finding those willing sellers is, right now, the focus for staff so that the municipality can finally finalize the park’s boundaries.

“At the end of the day, to some extent, what we are going to be able to achieve in terms of a final park will depend on what we are able to acquire,” legal services director John Traves told council this past April, during an update on negotiations. “There may be some compromises.”

Only Plourde says they’ve got it all backwards. You can’t build a park based on what you’re lucky enough to acquire.

“You don’t build roads like that. You don’t plan major projects with infinite, undefined timelines and a vague, undefined process.”

First, you decide on the right configuration, he says. Then, and only then, you offer some money. If nobody’s willing to sell, well, there are other options. Forget “effective” expropriation, says Plourde—let’s try the real thing.

Halifax does have the legal authority to expropriate lands for fair compensation, though generally, the municipality tries to negotiate a purchase price first.

There’s unlikely to be much political appetite for expropriation at City Hall, this much Plourde admits. But as the months and years roll forward and the Blue Mountain park continues to elude Halifax, it might be the only move left.

“Sooner or later, we’re going to need to contemplate that.”

The EAC’s week of HaliBlitz events hikes into Blue Mountain–Birch Cove Lakes on Friday, September 15 from 2-9pm at 225 Chain Lake Drive (behind the Bayers Lake Kent) and Sunday, September 17 from 9am-4pm at the Maskwa Aquatic Club (91 Saskatoon Avenue). More information is available on the Ecology Action Centre’s website.

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