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Dock talk 

A developer and residents are at odds over what’s happening at the Oakland Street extension dock. Benjamin Witte reports.

The view from Branco Mizerit’s dining room is enviable. Across the narrowest point along Halifax’s Northwest Arm the Dingle rises proudly atop its carefully landscaped mound; in front, the placid waters of the Arm—maritime tranquility not 15 minutes from downtown.

“It’s the best view in the city,” says Mizerit.The foreground tells another story. The land off to the side of Mizerit’s home, leading at a steep incline down to the shoreline, has the look of a war zone. The earth is exposed.There is a massive pile of broken stones. Pieces of green rebar—steel bars used to reinforce concrete—jut out of the land at awkward angles. A ribbon of orange, plastic fencing droops pathetically down the hill.

Construction sites don’t tend to be attractive. This particular lot is no exception. Mizerit, who owned the property before carving it off from his own lot and selling it last year as a subdivision, is excited about the project. He’s in charge of the development and designed the plans himself. When it’s completed, he says, “This will probably be the nicest property on the arm.”

Several of Mizerit’s neighbours don’t share his vision. “His building project,” says nearby resident Amine Bartholomew, “is one of the worst examples of greed and uncontrolled and unapproved construction, the sort which is taking over Halifax.”

Their complaints include the construction site itself—an obvious eyesore. What’s now rebar and rubble was once an attractive space. Mizerit cut almost all the trees down, says neighbour Denma Peisinger, “There are just three trees left.”

Another issue is the subdivision. Bartholomew, Peisinger and others don’t think Mizerit should have been allowed sell off part of his lot. And city councillor Sue Utek says he didn’t receive permission, fuelling rumours that the subdivision was done illegally. It turns out Utek is wrong. HRM approved Mizerit’s subdivision plans on September 12, 2002.

A third complaint centres on Mizerit’s plans to build a dock and boardwalk along the shore of the property. This means infilling several metres into the Arm. This is problematic because it narrows the already thin water channel, making the Arm increasingly less navigable. And, says Guy MacLean, president of the Northwest Arm Heritage Association, building into the Arm destroys natural fish habitat. He says fish feed along the shore, between the high and low water marks—the area in which infilling takes place.

Nothing about Mizerit’s partially constructed boardwalk, however, is illegal. Written into the deeds of Northwest Arm shore properties are so-called pre-confederation water lot rights, meaning deed holders own not only the land above water, but also the submerged land extending 100 feet into the Arm. Infilling still requires permission—but not from the city. HRM has no say on the matter. Instead, the Arm falls under federal jurisdiction. Infill clearance letters come from the Department of Oceans and Fisheries and Transport.

“The bigger story is this,” MacLean says. “The municipality has nothing to do, they have no jurisdiction. It’s as if the Department of Agriculture ran the Public Gardens.”

But there’s an even more contentious issue. Along the northern edge of the property, according to blueprints kept in the city’s Registry of Deeds, runs what’s called the “Oakland Street extension.” It’s a thin strip of public access land (if you’re facing the water, the extension is just to the right of the property) that contains a steep staircase leading downhill from Oakland Avenue to a small public dock. Residents say the city-owned dock has been in place for a century.

A small portion of the dock, however, hangs across the property line. Both Mizerit and the new owners of the adjacent lot, furthermore, have what Mizerit describes as “right of way” privileges—something that, like the pre-confederation water rights, is written into the deed. “No one can tell us not to use it,” he says. It also means the city can’t build there without permission from the property owners, claims Mizerit.

Neighbours say they use the dock regularly. Denma Peisinger goes there to hang out with friends, moor his homemade sailboat and walk his dog. Other residents, he says, use the dock as a landing point for cross-arm kayak or rowboat commutes. Now they fear Mizerit will use his deed privileges to close the public dock. “He says the dock’s on his property line,” says Peisinger. “He’s asked people to leave the dock. He says it’s a place where people go to drink and do drugs.”

That last part, says Mizerit, is true. “During summer evenings it’s a heavy gathering point for drug trafficking and drinking.” Last year he claims to have called the police 85 times to have people removed.

But as for closing the dock, Mizerit says he has no plans whatsoever. Instead, he says he’d like to work with the city to make the area safer—maybe install lights, fix up the deteriorating staircase.

Although Mizerit says he’s not bothered by his neighbours’ accusations, it’s obvious he’s frustrated by the unwanted attention. “Those people just don’t like change,” he says.Frustration is a two-way street. Everything Mizerit’s done is legit—and he has the paperwork to prove it. There’s still a problem, though, say the neighbours. “I don’t think it’s just a neighbourhood issue,” says Armine Bartholomew. “It’s indicative of what’s going on all over the city. A lot of people are asking, ‘who’s at the helm?’”

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