A Halifax councillor is hoping to protect part of the Purcells Cove backlands from development before it’s sold off.
The three parcels for sale sit right next to the wilderness park recently created by the municipality and the Nature Conservancy of Canada (NCC). The municipality bought the land from a developer, Shaw Group, for $6.6 million, with Halifax spending $4 million and NCC raising the rest from private donors and the other levels of government.
After a four-year process, that sale was finalized in January, creating a 153-hectare (or 378-acre) park — twice the size of Point Pleasant Park.
In the meantime, the land next door is on the market.
Three parcels totalling 55 hectares (or 137 acres) have been for sale since Nov. 10, 2019 for $4.5 million, according to real estate website ViewPoint.
The ad touts the land, which includes shorelines on Colpitt and Williams lakes, as a development opportunity, opening with an all-caps “ATTENTION” to developers and investors. Two of the parcels are zoned for housing development, while the largest and closest to the park is partially zoned urban reserve — meaning it can’t be developed currently but could be in the future.
‘It’s just, we don’t know who’s going to buy it’
The prospect of development happening there at all is a concern for Kat Kitching, who regularly hikes the land. It’s a sort of hidden treasure for her just 15 minutes from downtown Halifax, accessed through the end of Drysdale Road.
“It’s somewhat of a secret place,” Kitching, an outdoor fitness instructor, said in an interview Friday.
“You can go there and be the only person in this woods and I think that’s a really special thing to be able to access so close to a medium city like Halifax.”
Aside from the seclusion, Kitching values the land for its biodiversity and the different kinds of wildlife and forest visible after just a short, easy hike. She said it’s a perfect trail for kids or anyone new to hiking.
“You don’t have to exert yourself extremely or walk for two hours to see all this stuff,” she said.
Kitching was surprised to encounter a real estate sign on the property last week.
“Normally one of these signs goes in front of a house and it was weird to see it in front of the forest,” she said.
The land has been privately owned as long as she’s used it, and Kitching knows the urban reserve zoning means her paradise won’t immediately be paved.
“It’s just, we don’t know who’s going to buy it,” Kitching said.
“Obviously the current owner has not been in a rush to develop it, but a sale brings uncertainty, I feel, and also a sale brings opportunity, I feel, to get this on the radar and have people think about what they want to see done with the land.”
Councillor wants to change the zoning
Coun. Shawn Cleary, whose Halifax West Armdale district includes about half the land up for sale, doesn’t like the thought of any development in the area either.
“I wasn’t really worried about it at first because they want such a ridiculous price for the land,” he said in an interview Friday.
“But in the last couple weeks I heard that they were willing to split up the properties which caused me a little more concern.”
That’s because the land that can be developed is close to or on Williams Lake.
“Williams Lake just really can’t take any more development,” Cleary said.
“It wouldn’t be too heavily developed, but any development in the area wouldn’t be appropriate.”
The north and northwest sides of the lake are fully developed, with the wilderness park on the southeast shore and the land for sale on the southwest shore.
Cleary said run-off from the existing development has started to cause salt to build up in the lake. He’s worried more development would put the health of the lake at risk.
“Given the fact that we just spent like $6 million between us and NCC on Shaw Wilderness Park, kind of a bad investment if we’re just going to destroy the lake,” Cleary said.
Kathryn Morse, Atlantic director of communications with the NCC, said the organization has had the land sale on its radar.
“We’re not concerned immediately about what’s happening there, it’s just depending on who purchases it and how it’s developed, it might lead to run-off into the lake, which is definitely a concern if it harms the water quality or the habitat,” Morse said in an interview Friday.
Morse said the NCC hasn’t talked to the landowner and isn’t considering purchasing the land to stave off development concerns.
Cleary wants to do away with the uncertainty. He’s drafted a motion that he hopes to bring to Halifax and West community council in late June for a staff report looking at rezoning all three land parcels as urban reserve.
Cleary characterizes the urban reserve zoning to mean, “This land could be developed, but not yet.”
Or as the Halifax Examiner put it in 2016:
Back in 2006, the city’s Regional Plan designated the area as “Urban Reserve,” meaning that no development would be allowed for the 25-year planning horizon of the plan. After that point, a future city council might reconsider zoning for the area, but there were no assurances that the backlands would ever be opened up to development.
It’s not perfect, Cleary concedes, but he thinks it’s the best option right now, and notes the city’s Green Network Plan recommends against development in the area as well.
Kitching would like to see the city go further.
“I guess that’s a first step,” Kitching said. “But I would like to see council go beyond that and rezone it as park land, which would devalue it for speculation purposes.”