A wood turtle. Photo: Wikipedia/Ltshears Credit: Wikipedia/Ltshears

Turtles, traffic, and groundwater are all provincial issues, according to municipal staff, so councillors approved a controversial mobile home park proposal in Elmsdale following a public hearing Monday night.

Halifax regional council’s North West Community Council held the virtual public hearing on a proposal for a 525-unit mobile home park on Old Truro Road in Elmsdale. The site is located at the end of the road, past Hescott Street, and requires an extension, built to provincial standards and then granted to the province.

The property is about 1,700 acres, but the development is limited to the 1,000 or so acres closest to the road. It will happen in phases over 25 years, starting within five years.

The developer, Cygnet Properties Ltd., owned by James Taylor, first applied for a development agreement to build the mobile home park in 2014.

Since then, the municipality has been working through issues around the availability of well water, traffic, and, more recently, wood turtles.

In December, the community council deferred this public hearing and vote pending a supplementary staff report in response to a letter from Donna Hurlburt, the provincial manager of biodiversity and species at risk.

In that letter, attached to the staff report here, Hurlburt told the municipality that the site is within the core habitat of the wood turtle, a “threatened” species according to the provincial and federal governments. A threatened species, by the provincial government’s definition, is “a species likely to become endangered if limiting factors are not reversed.”

Wood turtles have been observed in this area, and have been reproducing there.

“It is significant habitually used habitat that supports the persistence and recovery of the species in NS,” Hurlburt wrote.

There are other animals in the area, too, according to Hurlburt — Eastern Wood Pewee birds, Monarch butterflies, two to five bat species, and more.

“These observations indicate that no work should proceed without consideration of a NS Species at Risk permit. No permit is currently held, nor has a permit application been submitted with respect to this project,” Hurlburt wrote.

Municipal planner Shayne Vipond told councillors on Monday he’s spoken to provincial officials and come to the conclusion that it’s up to them to sort out the turtle issue with the developer.

“They have the legal responsibility for the wood turtles. The municipality does not,” Vipond said.

Some of the speakers during Monday’s public hearing urged councillors to take action anyway.

Paul Turbitt, president of the Nova Scotia Association of Turtle Patrollers, told councillors that Nova Scotia’s Endangered Species Act does not allow for the destruction of wood turtles’ habitat. He urged the community council to deny the proposal. He gave an example of another turtle habitat lost to development in HRM. Turtles were displaced from Kingswood, he said.

“We have no turtles there today, so we have lost tomorrow’s turtles forever. They’re gone,” he said. “Let us turn this situation around and begin by preserving an area where we know this endangered species lives in HRM and ensuring that we have wood turtles in HRM tomorrow, and for the future.”

Karen McKendry, wilderness outreach coordinator with the Ecology Action Centre, gave a presentation to councillors about wood turtles.

“One of the main threats to wood turtles is residential and commercial development in their habitat,” McKendry said.

McKendry said the staff report is wrong in saying the area is “likely” to contain a wood turtle habitat. Rather, it does contain one, and the provincial and federal governments know this and have laws against disturbing such habitats.

“The proposed development would destroy, disturb and interfere with wood turtle critical or core habitat, so I believe the developer has provided evidence that they plan to break federal and provincial law, and so HRM should in fact find that … the developer is not in compliance.”

As for the issues around traffic and water, there have been multiple studies on both issues, and Vipond is satisfied.

“We’ve had a really close look at all of the elements that make up this proposal,” Vipond said. “And at this point, based on that, we believe that it satisfies the intent of the municipal planning strategy and it should be recommended.”

Nearby residents were most concerned about water. Eight of them talked about dried up wells every summer, and people drilling second wells trying to find some water under their properties. One resident, Karen Rudman, called the water table “terrible,” and said she didn’t need a study to tell her that.

Vipond said there have already been two studies of the water table, and there’s another provincial one coming. The studies said there was enough water to supply the 525 new mobile homes, and according to Vipond, it will be up to the province to monitor whether that remains the case.

The residents, mostly of Old Truro Road or Hescott Street, were also concerned about traffic, with only one way in and out of the neighbourhood. The roads in the area are provincial, and with a new interchange and connector almost complete nearby, that level of government is satisfied there won’t be issues with traffic.

Speaking on behalf of the developer, Jennifer Tsang of Sunrose Consulting told councillors to ignore the public pleas to stop the proposal.

“I realize that you feel like you’re in a difficult decision,” Tsang said during her opening comments.

“Your relief comes in the knowledge that your decision is legally required to be based on the MPS policies, rather than on what you hear tonight or your own personal opinion. The question before you is not, ‘Does this development belong in this location?’ That’s not the question. The question before you is, ‘Does this development reasonably carry out the intent of the MPS?’ The reason for public consultation is not to ask people if they want the development in their neighbourhood. The reason for public consultation is to hear residents’ comments and concerns and try to address them as best as possible.”

Tsang argued that her client would win on appeal at the Utility and Review Board, something that happened recently with another proposal, but shouldn’t have to appeal the decision.

“It would be unfair to vote against this and thereby put yet another burden on the developer to appeal it after an already-agonizing nine-year process,” Tsang said.

Tsang also argued the mobile home park, which will use manufactured homes similar to those in a Timberlea neighbourhood called Foxwood Village, will provide affordable housing for the area.

Foxwood Village in Timberlea. Photo: foxwoodvillage.ca Credit: foxwoodvillage.ca

“The housing crisis is beyond desperate. This development will offer high-quality homes at a starting price point of $200,000,” Tsang said.

“These are not the trailers of yesteryear. These are manufactured homes that meet the national building code, with the same finishes that you see in new homes today.”

Coun. Cathy Deagle-Gammon, representative for the area, said it’s “clear” the proposal meets the standards of the municipal planning strategy and it provides affordable housing. But she wasn’t convinced.

“I know that there’s no justified, technical reason to vote against this at this point in time,” Deagle-Gammon said.

“I guess the big worry I have is still around the water, it’s still around the transportation, and I just have this vision of three or four years down the road, and people saying, ‘Yes, you gave us affordable housing but there’s no schools, we’ve got water problems, there’s no recreation, there’s no transit, there’s no medical, we’re concerned around the RCMP presence,’ that there’s all those things that are still going to be concerns that people have. And our answer will be, ‘It was the responsibility of the province to address those.’”

The motion to approve the development agreement passed by a vote of 3-2, with Deagle-Gammon and Deputy Mayor Tim Outhit voting no. Councillors Paul Russell, Lisa Blackburn and Pam Lovelace voted yes.

The developer is required to sign the development agreement within 240 days. It will have to apply for municipal permits before building each phase of the project, adhering to the city’s Mobile Home Park Bylaw. It will also have to satisfy the provincial government’s requirements for the turtles, traffic and groundwater.

Zane Woodford is the Halifax Examiner’s municipal reporter. He covers Halifax City Hall and contributes to our ongoing PRICED OUT housing series. Twitter @zwoodford

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  1. Seems that HRM gets the property tax revenue while current residents get traffic and water worries while East Hants, right across the river gets nothing but the headaches of dealing with more congestion. The proponent for the developer added much disdain for everyone by telling councillors that they had to approve this to comply with the MPS.