On the rocks

Nova Scotia’s famous coast is “an international treasure”

illustration Jesse Jacobs

Some smart person named this newspaper "The Coast" because there's nothing more emblematic of Nova Scotia than the coast—the actual coast, the seashore, the place where the continent meets the ocean.

Truly, Nova Scotia is the coast. Our plucky forebears scratched out a living along the coast, building hundreds of fishing villages and a way of life that nowadays is fundamental to our cultural identity and centre-stage in our tourism industry.

And, as our license plates remind us, the coast is our playground: the destination for hundreds of thousands of beachcombers, surfers, sand-castle builders, fishers, boaters and the more quietly reflective.

But observers say the coast we've come to know and love is disappearing before our eyes. It's being sold off to the highest bidder, gated away and locked up, kept off-limits to the pesky public. And, they warn, we're so badly mistreating the coast that we may end up killing it completely—utterly destroying its natural and cultural environment.

"The entire coast of Nova Scotia is an international treasure," says Bill Estabrooks, the provincial legislator for Prospect. "We're blessed with this wonderful landscape, and a way of life that goes along with it. But I have two daughters, and I don't know if they'll be able to enjoy the coast as I have. The next generation won't know the coast like we did."

"It's all disappearing," agrees Geoff Le Boutillier, a filmmaker who leads the St. Margaret's Bay Stewardship Association, a group dedicated to protecting the coast. "All those heritage buildings and the architecture, the old towns, the old buildings. They're the physical embodiment of lives lived, and of a kind of life.

"Those buildings hold the tales. It's a moral issue: do we get our values from watching Law & Order on TV, or from the physical structures around us? We need to preserve the oral history and morality of the older generation, and we do it by valuing the coast."

The coastal environment in Nova Scotia is being degraded by development at nearly every turn, adds Jen Graham. "We know how to do this right, but we keep building in stupid ways that harm the coast. It's everywhere. The entire coast is threatened, all of Nova Scotia."

Disaster tourism

Graham is the coastal coordinator at the Ecology Action Centre and therefore follows these issues closely. On a foggy July afternoon, she and Alexi Baccardax, an activist who grew up in Hubbards, take me on a tour of the South Shore. The idea is to show me what's wrong, exactly, on the coast. We travel around St. Margaret's Bay, but the same issues hold everywhere, up and down the coast of Nova Scotia.

We stop at Whynachts Point to look at a causeway that has been built through a marsh. The marsh once served to cushion Head Bay from storms and provide breeding grounds for all sorts of aquatic species, but the culvert under the road is too small and so the marsh is silting up. Water quality in the bay has taken a big hit, and unless the road is rebuilt correctly, homeowners up Whynachts Cove will one day find their waterfront lots are landlocked.

Down Indian Point Road we look at a new construction project. Someone has bought an old cottage that was wedged onto a small lot. In order to build a much larger house, they tore down the cottage, dumped a bunch of rip-rap—gigantic boulders used to hold back the sea—along the shore, and filled in behind. Controversy surrounds a septic system being built on the property—"the tide comes up as high as that outfall," points out Graham—but she concentrates mostly on the "infilling," the fill dirt dumped behind the rip-rap in order to turn what once was marsh into dry, hard land suitable for building.

"This used to be a flood plain, and part of the natural system up and down the coast," she explains. "This construction is more of what we call the hardening of the coast."

There's a lot more of this "hardening" along Highway 3, where it parallels the coast. Dozens of houses are built atop rip-rap, literally jutting out into the sea, with the remnants of beaches on either side of them.

"There used to be fish shacks here," explains Baccardax. "They weren't meant to be houses—they flooded when storms came through. But people buy them up, and rebuild them as these giant homes. They don't want their houses flooded, so they build these giant seawalls around them."

At Queensland Beach we see a particularly egregious example of hardening, where an old restaurant is looking to rebuild after burning down. The portion of the lot that consists of dry land is about the size of a small car, but no matter, the structure will be built entirely above what is now sea. The nearby beach road was built by bulldozing through a rare stand of dunes, and it effectively cuts a marsh off from the sea.

At the Hubbards Yacht Club we take a look at Baccardax's sailboat, a 17-footer tied to a buoy, in the shadow of the ruins of an old fish processing plant. Nearby, there's a suspended stab at development—the project was stalled by an ecological disaster. It appears that a 1970s-era development higher up the hill had insufficient ground for septic fields, so the waste was simply piped to a marshy area abutting the harbour. Still, the marsh did its job, cleansing the waste water before it reached the cove.

"When I was 13, I swam here," Baccardax says. "It was clean."

But the property owner started filling the marsh for a new development, and the waters coming down the hill, which had been feeding the marsh, were diverted to a pipe leading to the sea. Raw sewage is now dumping into the historic cove.

"At low tide you can smell it," says Baccardax.

Plummeting plovers

Looking at these problem sites, it doesn't take long to realize that the common conception of "the coast"—the solid, permanent black line drawn on the map, separating land from sea—is all wrong.

Instead, "the coast" is a complex of two dynamic systems. One consists of nutrients, pollution, silt and water moving down the rivers and out into the sea. Things that happen far uphill—housing developments with faulty septic systems, clearcut forests that increase runoff—affect what happens down at sea level.

"The coast is a whole system of estuaries," explains John Charles, a planner with the Halifax Regional Municipality who wrote his master's thesis on managing coastal zones in the Halifax region. "Those rivers and wetlands are breeding areas for juvenile fish and other wildlife. We look at the coast as everything from the head of the river out to that place in the ocean where fresh water stops mixing with saltwater."

For St. Margaret's Bay's portion, says Geoff Le Boutillier, "the coast is everything from the beginning of the river down to the ocean." For the Northeast River, which dumps at Tantallon, that includes all the land in the watershed, all the way up to Uniacke, he says.

By that definition, the entire province of Nova Scotia is "the coast."

The second coastal system is what biologists refer to as lateral movement: water and wind erode headlands and move the resulting sand and silt along the shoreline, forever forming and reforming beaches.

Harden the shore with multimillion dollar houses built on rip-rap, and that sand stops moving and piles up on the up-current side of the barrier. And whatever land, houses or highways that happen to be down-current are eroded away.

"Sand needs to be able to move in order for the ecosystem to remain healthy," explains Sue Abbot, a biologist who works to protect the piping plover, an endangered bird species that nests on Nova Scotian beaches.

"Plovers are amazingly adapted to a dynamic ecosystem. They're looking for those really dynamic, flat areas with sparse vegetation. When we allow beaches to do their thing, move around a bit, we get plover habitat."

Plovers can be thought of as an "indicator species," the absence of which demonstrates a sick ecosystem, not just for plovers but for an entire range of animals and plants that ultimately feed nearby fish stocks.

There are now fewer than 40 nesting pairs of plovers in Nova Scotia, says Abbot. Along the south shore, which has seen the heaviest and arguably worst development, the population has been cut in half in 15 years.

These plummeting plover numbers tell us the coast is deathly ill.

Get out and stay out

There's another dynamic system along the coast that is badly out of whack: the human system.

"I describe it as a Mobius strip," says Le Boutillier. "It's a never-ending feedback loop."

People buy up coastal property to build expensive homes, which drives up nearby property assessments. Neighbours who are then priced out of their homes subdivide and sell off their property, which brings in more high-priced homes, driving assessments up even further. And so on.

The character of the coast changes as traditional fishing villages, already hit hard by the collapsing fishing industry, are transformed into the private estates for the wealthy. While many of the newcomers buying coastal property are Haligonian commuters, a good number are Americans and Germans buying vacation or retirement property.

"There are companies devoted entirely to selling off the coast to wealthy foreigners," says Bill Estabrooks, the MLA for Timberlea-Prospect. "They have websites, put brochures in the airport: "Own your private Nova Scotia island.'"

Estabrooks says that when he asked the legislature to look into the issue in the 1990s, he was unfairly labelled a racist.

"That's not what I was saying," he says. "But then I'd hear the old guys talking about the Germans, "We beat them in the war, it looks like we have to beat them again on the coast.'

"The Germans have a magnificent appreciation of the coast, sometimes more than the locals. Some of the locals—how can I put it?—their septic system needs an upgrade. The Come From Aways do it to code, but the problem is they don't want to fit into the community, they want their piece of private property.

"They can fly into Halifax and be at their own private spot in 45 minutes. Some of these islands are big enough for a helicopter pad or a landing strip.

"We've got prominent people from Hollywood buying up property, building estates," he continues. "And up go the gates, up go the fences, the lights and all the rest. Particularly irksome is when the sign goes up: "Private Beach.'"

Illustration Jesse Jacobs
Estabrooks correctly points out that, legally, there is no such thing as a "private beach"—the crown, and hence the public, owns everything up to the high-water mark, which means every beach is public. But unless the public hikes long distances along the shoreline, or swims or boats to a beach, adjacent private landowners can effectively "privatize" the beach by disallowing public access through their property.

The website "Private Islands Online," which lists dozens of Nova Scotia coastal properties, is one example of privatization in process. A parcel in West Head priced at $4.8 million (US) is typical:

is one of the premier pieces of bold oceanfront property in North America. The property consists of approximately 90 acres of pristine land with 13,000 feet of unobstructed ocean frontage, crashing surf, and unobstructed sunrise & sunset views. It has many of the best qualities of an island, but also has the convenience of being connected to the mainland...

he sweeping ocean views on all sides of this property, along with the coves, bluffs, beaches, and grazing pastures make this a rare offering. In addition, this particular peninsula has the unique topographic feature of having a portion that narrows like an hourglass so that it can be easily secured to offer maximum privacy and protection. It is, therefore, an excellent site for those who may particularly value their security and privacy and it lends itself to many uses including a family estate, a group retreat compound, or a corporate meeting facility.

Development of islands, headlands and peninsulas lends itself to the construction of gated causeways. What had been a low-lying coastal wetland providing access to the coast becomes a hardened, private lot, interrupting the lateral coastal flow of nutrients and sand, and the human flow of public access.

These are precisely the areas surfers most treasure, says Iaian Archibald, co-chair of the Coastal Access Committee, an ad-hoc group of surfers. "The locals, those born-and- bred bluenosers, they're OK with surfers crossing their land. But a lot of coastal properties are being bought up by Americans and Germans, and they don't want people on their property."

Archibald is particularly concerned about "a real jewel of a break" at Cow Bay the surfers have named "Minutes," which he says has the best surf conditions anywhere in Canada, and has been the site of televised international competitions.

"For decades, the man who owns the property has allowed access through his property for surfers," says Archibald. "He'd sit on his porch, wave at us."

The property owner didn't return a call for comment, but according to Archibald the owner is subdividing his property and selling it off. Archibald is worried that new owners will deny access to surfers.

"He's selling coastal property 25 minutes from downtown Halifax," Archibald says dispiritedly.

The surfers have hoped that a provision in the Halifax Regional Plan that charged subdividers either ten percent of their land or the equivalent in cash would be used to provide some sort of public access at the site. But the regional council recently decreased that provision to five percent for smaller property owners such as the one in question, and Archibald is worried that an opportunity is being lost.

"The property owner is ready to deal," he says, "but no one from the city has contacted him."

Meanwhile, nearby property owners have started denying access through their backyards to the ocean, making it difficult to access the ocean at any point close to Minutes.

"We're going to have to trespass just to get to this beach," says Archibald.

With headlands eroding and sea levels rising, billions of dollars of property could be at risk.photo Tim BousquetWhat's to be done?

All of the people interviewed for this article agree that from a governmental standpoint, coastal regulation is an ineffective mess.

"If you're developing something on the coast," explains Geoff Le Boutillier from the St. Margaret's Bay Stewardship Association, the federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans looks at fish habitat. But waterlot leases are handled by the provincial Department of Natural Resources. Another division of that department looks at wharfs and moving rock. The Department of Highways handles construction of any new causeways or roads, and the Department of Environment and Labour deals with water quality issues. Then, the municipal planners take care of zoning.

"The developer knows the political landscape, knows where to place the political contribution, whose hands to shake," he continues. "There's a political scheme that goes side-by-side with the bureaucracy. Residents who are opposed to the development are overwhelmed. Developers understand the process, and the public panics."

Le Boutillier wants to cut through this mess by establishing a coastal development board that will review every development on every watershed of St. Margaret's Bay. The board wouldn't have any official judicial role, but because it will be composed of a cross-section of the community—residents, environmentalists and developers—"the governmental agencies will pay attention. When the board speaks out against really stupid ideas and the development goes through anyway, the opinions of the board get a lot of weight before the Utility Review Board on appeal."

Additionally, each of the 12 watersheds leading into the bay will have its own watershed protection group to help draw up the rules governing development.

That kind of work takes a lot of citizen involvement, Le Boutillier acknowledges. "I've put my career on hold for this, and I've got to get back to it."

Estabrooks would like to see the provincial government take action. "We need a clear inventory, something beyond the legal holding for the land—who actually owns it, not some law firm in Halifax. We need to put together more public land, and have a strategic plan for preservation of coastal land and islands."

He also suggests Nova Scotia adopt Prince Edwards Island's tax policies for non-resident landowners (they are taxed at twice the rate as residents). The Ecology Action Centre's Jen Graham, however, feels that tax is merely a feel-good measure for locals, and doesn't really accomplish much in terms of real protection for the coast.

Alongside those initiatives, Graham and city planner John Charles argue for what's known as integrated coastal management. Essentially, it means that all the various levels of government get together and figure out a single set of rules governing development. Issues related to hardening the coast and public access are written into the rules ahead of time.

"It doesn't slow down development," says Charles. "Developers love it—it's predictable. They know how long a project will take, and they won't have people with placards showing up opposing them when they're in the middle of construction."

What governs how much and where development happens is water quality. Water quality goals are established, and if the environment degrades, the rules are rewritten to lower the amount of allowable development.

The best Canadian model of integrated coastal management occurs on the Fraser River in British Columbia, says Charles. But it took 15 years of wrangling, deal-making and rule-writing between the public, developers and the various levels of bureaucracy to put the Fraser River system together.

"It will take at least that long here," says Charles.

The sunken coast

A lot more bad development can be built in 15 years, destroying many more beaches and locking a lot more people off from the coast.

But there's still another reason for concern: Due to global warming, sea levels are rising, and much of Nova Scotia's coast will be flooded or eroded away.

Scientists predict that sea levels will rise 59 centimetres this century, and in coming decades more frequent and larger storms will visit the coast. Planners expect storm surges of 2.5 metres.

A study of relatively tiny Shediac Bay in New Brunswick found that property valued at $117 million would be flooded by a 2.5-metre storm surge. It's likely, then, that many billions dollars worth of property along the Nova Scotian coast is at risk.

Much of that property will be houses built in the next 15 years.

John Charles notes that, in the Halifax region, increased storm activity will be especially troublesome around Musquodobit. "There's some granite," he says, "but there's a lot of sand that moves around, and we'll see those headlands eroded."

"But people like to build houses on top of those bluffs," I point out.

"Yes," he says. "And then the houses fall into the ocean."

Tim Bousquet is a freelance journalist who writes Sustainable City, a bi-weekly environmental column, for The Coast.

He is giving a keynote speech about media spin and individual responsibility for the environment at the Nova Scotia Environmental Network’s annual general meeting, Saturday, August 11 in Avondale, NS.

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