John Charles walks along the road in Prospect Village, pointing out houses that crowd the right-of way. “This one encroaches,” he says, pointing to a building whose corner nearly touches the road. Then he draws attention to a home on a tiny lot with a bump-out near the pavement. “This one also encroaches. I think maybe it’s the encroachment champion of the village.”
Back in the 19th century, the width of the public right-of-way down the Prospect Bay Road was 50 feet (15.2 metres). Now it’s 66, or 20.1 metres. The original road was “a cart track between the houses. I don’t think the road was even paved until the 1940s or 50s, and then the road was widened. The houses didn’t move. Nobody built new houses on the road right-of-way, but the road right-of-way just kept expanding,” Charles said in an interview.
One of those old houses encroaching on the road may soon be demolished. It stands empty at the entrance to the village, at an intersection leading to a popular trailhead. Charles doesn’t know the age of the building, but notes that the property dates back some 180 years, that many historic buildings in the community have been lost, and several more are currently unoccupied.
The house went on the market earlier this year, In April the provincial Department of Transportation and Active Transit (NSTAT) bought the property, with the intention of tearing down the building.
And that has Charles, other community members, and District 11 councillor Patty Cuttell concerned.
Cuttell said in an interview that the property “has quite a history in the community.” NSTAT is set to demolish the house at a time when the municipality is “talking about the importance of protecting our heritage, protecting our cultural landscape… creating more cultural heritage districts,” and focusing on heritage as part of tourism development, she said.
Located at 1533 Prospect Bay Road, the house sits at the corner of Indian Point Road. NSTAT says it represents a hazard, because the visibility for motorists stopped on Indian Point Road is poor, and because its location close to the road complicates snow-clearing.
Guy Deveau, Central District director for NSTAT, said in an interview the house came to his attention through a route hazard assessment done by the plowing team. Each year, snowplow operators note potential trouble-spots on their routes. The house has come up more than once, “as being first of all a hazard for maintenance staff in that area, due to the house being right up to the roadway,” Deveau said. “The other issue is sightlines. Staff had noted the house is right on the corner and the house blocks visibility and sightlines.”
Deveau also pointed to the narrowness of the road by the house, saying, “Not that we necessarily have any plans to widen that road right now, but if we would in the future have plans in widening that road that would be one of the structures that would be in the way.”
Asked if he knew of any car crashes caused by poor visibility or the house’s proximity to the road, Deveau said no. But, he said, it represents an inconvenience to snowplow operators. “When the truck goes by, it’s very narrow. They have to reduce speed, and tuck in their wing all the way. Of course, the last thing you’d want to have is a plow impacting a dwelling.” However, he noted, “If that was the only issue we wouldn’t purchase the property.”
Charles, a former planner with the city (he retired in 2017), moved to Prospect Village in 1979. He sent the Halifax Examiner a report he prepared showing that a dozen houses between 1533 and the nearby Cove Road Park encroach on the right-of-way. “Many other homes on Prospect Bay Road in Prospect Village are partially located on the road ROW,” he writes. “This is typical of the layout of coastal villages throughout Nova Scotia.”
He asks: “If I’m a traffic engineer, do I look at the cultural heritage of a village? Consider the age of the building or any significance? Are there any policies guiding my decision-making? Or is the main policy road safety and nothing else needs to be considered? I sort of think it’s probably the latter.”
Deveau said the community doesn’t need to worry about any of those houses, some of which are abandoned, while others are occupied only seasonally. NSTAT will buy properties for specific projects, like widening roads, but has no such plans in Prospect. But, Deveau said, the department has a budget to “purchase properties when the opportunity comes up.”
He added, “A lot of these things are noted as being hazards mentally by supervisors and managers, and when they do find an opportunity they will acquire them to remove hazards, clear intersections and so on… We don’t go around typically buying houses for the sake of tearing them down. We look at the safety of our motorists primarily, and this is a good example.”
The house was listed at $139,000, but Deveau couldn’t say how much the department paid for it. (The real estate website Viewpoint lists the sale price as $150,000.)
It’s true the visibility at the stop on Indian Point Road is not great, but it’s not much worse than the intersection of the Prospect Bay Road and Highway 333, where traffic speeds by much faster — or, for that matter, countless other intersections in the area.
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Charles doesn’t see the house as a hazard to road safety, and thinks its proximity to the road is a benefit. The speed limit in the village is 50, which he considers too high. On a recent sunny afternoon, Charles greeted a range of people passing in the middle of the road: joggers, cyclists, dog walkers, and a girl on a tricycle. With its position so close to the roadway, Charles says the house, along with a nearby large tree and rock wall, forms a natural “pinch point” with a traffic-calming effect.
“It’s not all that fancy — a couple of buildings on either side of the road — but man, cars slow down when they hit that area. In traffic calming we know narrowness and unpredictability of movement cause you to naturally slow down. But if you don’t have the pinch points, drivers won’t slow down,” he said. Charles noted that there are a number of projects on the Halifax peninsula designed to slow drown traffic through bump-outs and chicanes, and said it doesn’t make sense to remove a building already helping to provide a traffic calming effect.
But Deveau doesn’t think the comparison to traffic-calming measures in the city is a fair one. “There is a difference between an engineered traffic-calming measure and expecting motorists to slow down because of hazardous situation,” he said. “If you are stopped at a stop sign and can’t see cars coming from a reasonable distance, you can’t assume cars on the main road will slow down because there might be a car at the stop sign… A measure engineered for traffic calming usually does so in a way that doesn’t introduce risks to motorists.”
There was no consultation with the community ahead of the purchase, although, Charles notes, the Municipal Planning Strategy for District 4, which includes Prospect Village, says, “It shall be the intention of Council to encourage the Department of Transportation and Communications to include community participation in decisions regarding future road and safety improvements.”
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When word got out that the house had been sold, rumours began circulating. One of them was that the province was planning to tear the house down and replace it with a parking lot, to alleviate pressure from vehicles parked by people hiking in the Dr. Bill Freedman Nature Reserve.
Perhaps to quell the rumours, NSTAT area manager Gary Rafuse met with members of the community on May 19. (Rafuse did not return the Examiner’s calls.) Asked about the meeting, Allison Lawlor, president of the Prospect Peninsula Residents Association, said in an email, “We had a good meeting with Gary and we’re working with him on the future of the property.”
Cuttell, the local councillor, was at the meeting. “TAT had no specific plan for the property, but their normal process would be to demolish the house,” she said. “The house pre-exists where the right-of-way is now, but at this point the province has bought it and intends to demolish it, so that’s where we are at now. That’s the starting point.”
Cuttell has a master’s degree in planning, and serves on the city’s Heritage Advisory Committee. She said she was also involved in the Morris House project, which involved saving a 250-year-old house in Halifax and moving it to a new location. She wonders if something similar might be possible in Prospect Village.
Everyone agrees the house, which has been unoccupied for several years, is in rough shape — especially after Hurricane Dorian stripped off some of its siding. Even its real estate listing doesn’t shy away from that fact. The listing calls the building “an older home… that you would completely renovate or start from scratch.”
Charles is no stranger to saving derelict houses. When he bought his place more than 40 years ago, he pulled off the beaverboard to find “about 40 layers of wallpaper, then oilcloth that had been painted, then lath from old lobster traps, and then the whole cavity was stuffed with seaweed. You could also see the ratholes. A lot of people at that point would have told me to just tear the place down, because it’s not worth it.”
Prospect Village recently lost its community hall, when the property — along with the adjacent deconsecrated Our Lady of Mount Carmel church — was sold to a private buyer in 2019. The land was rezoned as residential, and the hall demolished. According to the Prospect Old Church Association Website, the new owner plans to build “a carriage house” with a garage and upstairs apartment.
The old church hall was used for all kinds of community activities: fundraising dinners, community dances, Christmas parties, and more. The local residents’ association held its meetings there too. Cuttell wonders if a better outcome for the NSTAT property than demolition would be repurposing it to replace the church hall. “I know the loss of that space is being felt,” she said.
“Can we have the house assessed?” Cuttell asks. “Is it structural damage or just aesthetic damage? If the house is sound, there might be an opportunity to move it to another part of the property so it’s not in the right-of-way and rehabilitate it.”
She said the meeting with Rafuse was “encouraging” and that the department seemed “open to exploring ideas and taking an assessment of what the community thinks.”
While Cuttell agrees with Deveau that a house set close to the road is far from an ideal traffic-calming measure, she does note that residents are worried traffic through the area will speed up without the house there. (An email to a resident from the office of Premier Iain Rankin, who is also the local MLA, says that since the road is not being widened, no increase in speed is expected.) And she’s not particularly optimistic about NSTAT addressing the issue. “The province does not do speed bumps or traffic calming. They are not set up to do these things and it’s not a priority,” she said. Still, she added, she hopes “that TAT — especially given their new name [“active transportation” was added to the department’s title] — might look at what they can do to mitigate that in a away that’s purpose-built.”
Charles admits the house at 1533 Prospect Bay Road is “not a heritage building.” But, he says, there has been a house on that property since at least 1865, and losing it would harm the character of the village.
“It’s a fishing village. There weren’t a lot of grand houses down here to begin with. It’s the association of the buildings with the land. Houses here are built on rocks. It’s all granite, and everybody built their house in a particular way and got by. With the placement of the building, it almost forms a gateway to the community. It’s not a very fancy gateway, but it works.”