Parks and recreation staff are advising HRM Regional Council to buy the Purcells Cove Backlands property being offered by the Shaw Group, but the development firm needs to chill out with all the high-pressure sales tactics.
Shaw, in partnership with the Nature Conservancy of Canada (NCC), made an unsolicited presentation to council back in April urging a quick answer from the municipality on its offer to sell 154 acres of land between Spryfield and Purcells Cove. Council ignored Shaw's August 31 deadline and instead asked for a staff report on the idea’s feasibility.
The finished report is appearing before council Tuesday, and recommends HRM begin the negotiations to purchase the backlands while cautioning against rushing the complicated land deal.
The property in question makes up a sizable chunk of the Purcells Cove Backlands (PCB) on the Chebucto peninsula, about five kilometres out from the Armdale Roundabout. A “gateway” to adjacent wilderness lands, the PCB contains most of Colpitt Lake and Williams Lake, and forms an important conservation area for a number of migratory birds and threatened species.
It's easy accessible from the urban core, and that—along with the ecological importance of the area, the widespread public support for the idea and the community partnership opportunities in Shaw’s ask—are all factors in the recommendation to council.
“The proposal offers a unique opportunity for a partnership between HRM, NCC and community groups and enables each party to collectively achieve their mandate to a great extent,” reads the report. “However, the proposal is complex and requires proper due diligence to ensure HRM’s needs are met.”
The Shaw Group is willing to sell 170 acres of the property directly to HRM. The remaining 209 acres would be sold off to the NCC, who would lease it on a renewable 99-year term to the city. The municipality would be responsible for maintenance and improvements for the entire site (in collaboration with NCC), though Shaw would kick in a capital contribution and endowment fund for infrastructure elements like access roads and signage.
Buying all that land for a wilderness preservation (usually a provincial responsibility) that’s partially owned by a non-profit but managed in perpetuity by HRM will be a worthwhile, but complicated endeavour, say staff.
Shaw’s original August 31 deadline was meant to ensure the NCC could find funding for its portion of the parklands. Both parties have since agreed to extend the deadline until next April. Staff are advising council to take its time assessing the complicated deal, though, even if that runs the risk of Shaw and the NCC walking away.
If it did leave the negotiation table, Shaw's options to do anything else with the lands would remain limited. Like Blue Mountain-Birch Cove Lakes, the PCB lands were designated “urban reserve” in 2006 and won't be needed for residential growth nor able to be developed until at least 2031.
The biggest unknown now is how much this will all cost. The asking price from Shaw remains classified in a separate in camera report before council on Tuesday. The developer wants 30 percent of its assessed value from HRM in a downpayment due April 25 of next year. The balance would be paid off from the municipality in two lump sums over the following years.
A fair market value (“or better”) for the lands “appears to be achievable,” according to staff. If council approves the plan, HRM will conduct its own independent assessment before committing to a purchase price.
Staff note that HRM's parkland development reserve will only have $3.6 million in available funds come next spring, which might not be sufficient on its own to cover the proposed purchase.
Shaw’s subsidiary, Clayton Developments, purchased the property in 2010. Four years later, Clayton petitioned council to rezone the property instead of continuing with what its lawyer called the self-serving objecting of keeping the lands “for no other purpose than park and open space.”
“These are private lands that are neither designated nor zoned for park and open space,” reads the lawyer’s letter to city hall, which says Clayton would be prepared to offer a portion of the property as parkland if the zoning was changed to allow for development.
“What they are not prepared to do is sit back and allow RP+5 to further entrench their lands in a state of planning purgatory so that the general public can continue to treat private property as public parkland.”
The request was narrowly defeated by council, and the following year
Shaw approached the NCC the NCC approached Shaw looking to buy the Purcells Cove property.