Parks Canada has put up $2.1 million as the three levels of government enter the planning stage for a national urban park at Blue Mountain-Birch Cove Lakes.
Halifax West MP Lena Metlege Diab made the announcement Tuesday at the Maskwa Aquatic Club on behalf of federal Environment and Climate Change Minister Steven Guilbeault.
As the Halifax Examiner reported in March, the proposal for a national urban park in the area between the Bayers Lake Business Park and Hammonds Plains has moved from the pre-feasibility to the planning phase.
“This signifies that the Halifax candidate site has met Parks Canada’s requirements of the pre-feasibility phase of the national urban park process,” Metlege Diab said Tuesday.
Planning is the second of four phases in the development of a national urban park, with designation and implementation remaining.
“Entering the planning stage is an important and vital part and it is the exciting step forward,” Metlege Diab said.
“It’s the occasion to further refine and plan key park components, and that includes recommendations for governance models and park boundaries, as well as detailed planning for trails, public access, and infrastructure needs. In short, we’re going to start getting a picture of what this project will really look like.”
Public consultation is also part of the planning process. Metlege Diab said Parks Canada will work with the other levels of government and Indigenous organizations “on identifying priority actions for nature, access, and reconciliation; undertake public community and stakeholder engagement activities; and continue developing governing governance options.”
Funding goes to provincial, municipal governments
Parks Canada is providing $2.1 million to the provincial and municipal governments to support the planning stage.
The provincial government will receive $587,045. Part of that funding will go to the Nova Scotia Nature Trust, and will be used to conduct species at risk studies and trails planning.
Halifax Regional Municipality will receive nearly $1.6 million.
Mayor Mike Savage celebrated the move to the planning stage at Tuesday’s announcement.
“Through significant resource commitment and close cooperation with the province, the Nature Trust, and, increasingly, the federal government, this park is closer than at any other time,” Savage said.
In a report to Halifax regional council on Tuesday, municipal parks policy and planning manager Richard Harvey accounted for much of the federal funding.
HRM is using $452,000 to finish a trailhead off Brookline Drive to Black Duck Brook and Hobson Lake; $320,000 to add infrastructure to and trails from that trailhead; and $530,000 for more consulting work on conceptual park planning.
The municipality hired Stantec Consulting to complete a background study of the area, not just the lands owned by the province, HRM, and the Nature Trust. That report is complete, and Harvey said it will be posted online in the next few weeks.
HRM looking at more land
Council voted on Tuesday to continue the park planning process. The next stages of conceptual park planning for HRM include identifying more land that needs to be purchased to connect pieces of the park.
The planning process will focus only on the land already owned by the provincial and municipal governments and the Nature Trust. That’s 1,700 hectares of provincially-protected wilderness area, plus 130 hectares purchased by HRM in 2018 and 2019, and 230 hectares owned by the Nova Scotia Nature Trust.
“The planning stage will deal with the land that we currently have,” Metlege Diab said.
“That’s not to say that additional land cannot go into that, whether or not private land owners decide to voluntarily gift it, or whether there could be negotiations on whatever, but either way, it’s all an ongoing process.”
Savage indicated the municipality is still working on acquiring more parcels.
“When you don’t own the land, it’s a little bit tricky,” he said.
“There’s some complications, but we’re gonna get there and this is a further sort of sign of confidence in the process, which means a lot to us.”
Development concerns remain
Mary Ann McGrath, chair of Friends of Blue Mountain-Birch Cove Lakes, told reporters after Tuesday’s announcement that she’s happy to see the park proposal gaining momentum. McGrath said she expects it could move to the designation stage within a year. But there are still concerns.
“The biggest concerns for us are the rapid state of development around the edges, because we see this thing being walled off continually faster, and perhaps being walled off in places a little bit more access would’ve been more appropriate,” McGrath said.
The lands between the provincially-protected wilderness area and Highway 102 have been the big concern for HRM.
Annapolis Group, the owner of 390 hectares of land around Fox, Quarry, and Susies lakes, is suing the municipality for $119 million because council said no to development in 2016. The developer argues the vote amounted to effective expropriation of its land.
McGrath said Friends of Blue Mountain-Birch Cove Lakes has met with Annapolis.
“We hope that there will be a come to Jesus moment on somebody’s part at some point,” McGrath said.
Meanwhile, the Stevens Group wants to build 3,000 homes on its property between Highway 102 and Susies Lake.
Using provincial funding, HRM has commissioned a study of that land and the whole 300-hectare corridor between Highway 102 and the wilderness area. When that study is complete, council will decide whether to initiate a planning process to allow development there.
A highway runs through it
And then there’s the potential highway through the wilderness area. The provincial government owns land for Highway 113, which would connect Highway 103 to Highway 102. While it’s not planned to be built any time soon, the province is still holding onto the corridor.
At Tuesday’s announcement, provincial Environment Minister Timothy Halman didn’t rule out the highway, and said it could coexist with the national park.
“As you know, the environmental assessment of 2010 allowed for the coexistence of the two,” Halman said.
“Certainly the government’s heard a lot of different perspectives on this. No decisions have been made with respect to that. But I can assure you there’s ongoing conversations taking place on this, even this afternoon, we’ll be chatting with stakeholders about that.”
During council on Tuesday, Coun. Pam Lovelace suggested the land set aside for the highway could be better used.
“It would be wonderful trailhead and a wonderful trail corridor throughout the entire park,” Lovelace said.