Bill Brooks stands on the deck of the new St. Margaret’s Bay Community Enterprise Centre and points past two parking lots, a vet clinic and a small strip mall across the road — to the spot where Joe Arab proposes building a 112-unit development.

Bill Brooks’ view from the St. Margaret’s Bay Community Enterprise Centre. Photo: Philip Moscovitch

“It’s going to go over there,” he says. “Behind there. I mean, Joe Arab says it’s only going to be 3.5 stories — the half is the gable roof — and you won’t see much from the road. It’s a good spot for it. It’s better than more sprawl.”

Brooks is talking about Arab’s proposal to build a residential complex larger than any other in Saint Margaret’s Bay. It would see two apartment buildings — one with 46 units and a second with 48 — built on the site in Tantallon, along with 18 townhouses and some commercial space. The apartments would be rentals, while the townhouses — six buildings with three units each — would be condos. The site lies behind existing buildings, running down to the narrow, shallow cove at the head of the bay.

After retiring, Brooks and his wife Elaine bought a house in St. Margaret’s Bay in 2005. Elaine was the director of Montreal’s Sacred Heart School, while Bill taught down the road at Lower Canada College.

“If everything is ecologically correct, I think it’s just perfect for this area,” says Elaine, who is coming off a shift for the Seniors Association of St. Margaret’s Bay — supporters of the project. She points out that people living in the new buildings will be able to walk to shops and services along this stretch of road, locally known as the Crossroads. “Foot traffic is good,” she says. “Look at Monkland Avenue in NDG [in west-end Montreal] or Agricola Street. We need that here.”

Seniors have a particular interest in the development. The local Seniors Association has consulted with Arab, who has said it will be designed with accessibility in mind, and that the units will be affordable and “definitely not high end.”

But not everyone in the bay is convinced this project is what the area needs. Some say it’s too big — far exceeding the maximum of 12 units laid out in the municipal land use by-law for the area. Others point to concerns about wetlands, wells, and wastewater.

Water, Water

A small stream runs through the proposed development site. Photo: Philip Moscovitch

Drew McQuinn is one of those with concerns. He’s the admin of the Facebook group Voice St. Margaret’s Bay, which has over 200 members. McQuinn, who works in banking, lives in Timberlea. But his family has a cottage close to the proposed development. He is most worried about the impact the complex will have on nearby wells, wetland destruction and runoff, and sewage treatment.

Like others worried about the project, McQuinn starts off by saying he’s not against development in the area. “This is about encouraging development that’s to the benefit of the community, is sustainable, and doesn’t affect the neighbours’ water sources.”

Arab says he is confident the site has more than enough water to accommodate the development without affecting nearby residents. He says a report from the consulting firm he commissioned shows that test wells drilled last year indicate “there is enough water right now to service the whole development.” He adds, “We’ll know what the effect is after phase one,” which would see about half the rental units built.

McQuinn is not so sure. He points to a hydrogeology report commissioned with funding from the St. Margaret’s Bay Stewardship Association.

The report’s summary notes adjacent properties had volume problems with their dug wells after the construction of another nearby development. It also raises questions about the methodology used to test the available groundwater, and how much of it is already used by nearby organizations like Acadian Maple Products, a funeral home, and a United Church. “To our knowledge,” the report says, “the calculations have not adequately accounted for these surrounding commercial water uses or adequately considered the impacts on existing surrounding residential wells and wetlands.”

A summary of the report, along with other documents, including letters of concern to the city and provincial environment, are posted to the Facebook group. But the report, documents, and letters are anonymous. (One is from “a volunteer and professional area resident” another from “Member, Former Tantallon Bylaw Review Committee,” and a third from “a civil engineer specializing in geotechnical engineering in practice for 39 years.” There is no way of knowing whether or not these are all the same person.)

Asked about the anonymity, McQuinn says the original letters and reports are signed, and that the people involved “have done a service for the community, but have asked that their names not be put on social media… We’ll have to let the data speak for themselves.”

Water doesn’t just flow into the units, it has to flow out of them and get treated too. There are no sewage plant details yet, but Arab says he is considering “a septic treatment plant where once the water is treated, it can be used for outdoor uses like watering your garden or washing your car.” He says, “I’m also looking at a system for using the water to flush toilets. It would have two plumbing systems in the buildings.”

McQuinn worries “about smell in the summertime” — and the possibility of effluent, because the head of the bay “is a low-flush area. The water does recycle but slowly. This is where people swim and boat and fish.”

Nick Horne, chair of the St. Margaret’s Bay Stewardship Association, has questions too. “We want to know more about the sewage treatment plant and how it would affect the bay. We have low tide for 12 hours a day, and this is one of the portions of St. Margaret’s Bay that’s nearly landlocked.”

Peter Lund, the former municipal councillor for the area, is a hydrogeologist. He was hired by Arab to do the initial well survey — going out to neighbouring properties, documenting the existing wells, and finding out if property owners have had any trouble with them. While he understands concerns about the wastewater treatment plant (he calls the one at a large commercial property in the area “hugely problematic”), Lund says he trusts the groundwater assessment.

Seniors and affordable housing

Lund says he is “very much in favour of the development” because it will allow more people to stay in the area as they age.

(Asked for his opinion on this development specifically and more generally on the challenge of seniors wanting to stay in the bay, current councillor Matt Whitman sent an email saying, “No opinion. Thx.”)

The bay has a severe lack of affordable rental units says a long-time local realtor, who asked not to be named. He says opinions in the area are so polarized, he worries about the impact of people perceiving him as taking a stand one way or the other. “Whenever you put an affordable property on the rental market here, it’s a stampede,” he says. “You barely need to advertise.”

Lund points to himself as an example. He lived in St. Margaret’s Bay for years, and is still heavily involved in the community — head of the local Lions Club, part of a local amateur theatre troupe, and a member of the Five Bridges Wilderness Heritage Trust. But he’s been living in an apartment in Dartmouth for the last four years.

He says the demand for seniors-friendly housing is high. It’s a concern he used to hear as a councillor, and one he says he still hears when he is in the area.

Lund says, “I’ve hammered this into Joe Arab from day one. Please don’t make it expensive and cater to the people who have moved into St. Margaret’s Bay with money. Cater to the people who are in the community already and want to stay here. You need a development for people who grew up in the bay and want to stay in the bay so they don’t have to move to Clayton Park.”

Clayton Park comes up a lot in this conversation — both from proponents of the project and those who are skeptical. It’s got lots of condos, and is not too far away.

“Seniors are saying they need a place to go,” says Horne, of the Stewardship Association. “They’ve worked for decades and have a retirement income that can support their community. If these seniors move to Clayton Park and we lose them, St. Margaret’s Bay will suffer.” But unlike the Seniors Association, Horne says he’s not married to this proposal as the only possible solution.

Doug Poulton has been a fixture in community affairs for decades, and has butted heads with the Stewardship Association on a number of occasions. He’s a realtor, one of the founders of the St. Margaret’s Bay Seniors Association, and a former president of the local chamber of commerce. He also ran for council twice, losing to Lund in 2008 by 38 votes.

He says he is “very passionate” about the project and has also “taken a lot of heat” for his support.

Poulton and his wife, Sandra, moved here 32 years ago from Mississauga. “You’ve heard of Glen Haven? I call it Glen Heaven,” he says, when asked where he lives. “I see [the development] as an alternative for anyone who wants to stay in the bay or move back. You and I both know that once you get into the bay you don’t want to leave.”

A question of character

Another, more fundamental issue lies beyond the specifics of water, sewage, and rental accommodations: the question of the character of the area, and differing visions on what it should be.

Twenty years ago, the Crossroads had a couple of mini-malls, some stand-alone businesses and a gas station. A couple of kilometres down the Hammonds Plains Road, the Hubley Centre featured a Sobeys and other businesses laid out in a strip mall. It was also clear the number of businesses was going to expand with growth on the way. (The local monthly paper, The Masthead News, bills itself as serving “the fastest growing area of Nova Scotia!”)

Opponents of untrammelled growth would often point to Sackville as the nightmare scenario. Over the years, new developments have come along, and some have faced opposition: a Superstore, a commercial development anchored by Canadian Tire and Lawtons, a series of commercial buildings with a drive-through.

Each has faced some opposition and underwent changes during the design process. The Superstore put in gables over the doors instead of building a plain rectangular box. The development with the Canadian Tire features low-impact lighting. An osprey nest by the road was protected.

Those most pro-growth saw project opponents as frustrating development in the area. People with concerns about development saw themselves as fighting constant, piece-meal battles. There was a need for clarity.

Back in 2008, the Stewardship Association held a public conference for residents, asking what kind of change and development they’d like to see in the bay. It was followed by a series of consultations and visioning sessions, culminating in the city’s adoption of the current municipal planning strategy for the area. The strategy governs development in what’s called the Tantallon Crossroads Coastal Village Designation, and says “the community envisions the area as a centre with a mix of commercial, residential, and community uses, forming a continuous streetscape of facades that encourage walking and socializing.”

The land where Arab’s proposed development sits is in a sub-designation called Village Centre. It allows “multiple unit dwellings with a small footprint and a limited number of units.” (The land use by-law puts that number at 12.) The proposal would require a development agreement allowing it to exceed that number.

Last fall, the municipality tried to hold a public information session at Tantallon Elementary — in a room with a capacity of 100. The meeting had to be cancelled when hundreds more showed up. Now, the city plans to hold a series of three open houses on April 18 at the much larger St. Margaret’s Centre.

Shayne Vipond, a senior planner with the city, says “We don’t have the benefit of development on adjacent lines to guide us, because this is the first through the gate. You’ve only got low-rise single units and cottages, so we have to look to some of the other criteria to help us — and we’re going to be paying close attention to the community to see what they feel is appropriate.”

In addition to chairing the Stewardship Association, Horne, a mechanic who lives in the nearby Westwood Hills subdivision, also sits on the city’s North West Planning Advisory Committee, which makes recommendations on proposed development agreements to the North West Community Council. Tantallon falls within its area.

“The Stewardship Association supports the village plan, which the community — not all that long ago — worked so hard to build,” says Horne. “There were two or three years of back-and-forth, and deep consultations the association was involved in, and that was a lot of hard work.” Horne says the Stewardship Association doesn’t have an opinion on the project yet. “We’re currently very engaged on the subject, but we’re not forming an opinion until after we’ve seen the proponent’s presentation.”

But a letter from the association dated October 15, 2017, says the group “rejects the current proposal because it is not even close to the Village Plan.”

Asked about the impact of his proposal, Arab says, “This is a tough one. I don’t think I’m changing the character of the area. If you look at Sobeys, the strip mall, Canadian Tire, the TD Bank, my commercial development is small. It’s 7,000 square feet per floor, two floors. The multi-unit building in the back you would hardly see from the street.”

Those who favour the project worry that it’s this or nothing. If Arab’s project is turned down, Poulton fears “we’ll never see another project like this, and it will send a message to other developers.”

But Arab himself isn’t that categorical. He says if he doesn’t develop the land, someone else will. “The city is growing.” And as for the plan he’s put forward, it calls for 18 townhouse units, but Arab says he’s not committed to that number. He talks about having “possibly 18 town-homes, depending on how many I can sell. We’re not there yet.”

McQuinn also agrees the community needs multi-unit rental properties. Just not in this form. He says, “This community does want development and does want more rentals. But it’s important to know this isn’t the be-all and end-all solution. There are other solutions out there.”

Philip Moscovitch is a freelance writer, audio producer, fiction writer, and editor of Write Magazine.

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  1. Fine reporting.
    It is unfortunate that Councillor Whitman couldn’t at least offer some key criteria he’d like to see incorporated into the proposed development (i.e. affordability, accessibility, water system integrity, etc.). His constituents deserve more than his terse, passive-aggressive response to your query. The democratic notion of elected representatives promoting the public good in word and deed seems to have taken a back seat to smoothing the way for private profit.
    It appears that Mr. Arab’s proposal could be shaped to accommodate local social and environmental concerns. But it will require clear and sustained leadership from HRM’s staff and council.

  2. John’s question about sidewalks is a good one. I asked several people and nobody knew if sidewalks are in the works. Theoretically, this should be a very walkable area, because you have a number of businesses and the St. Margaret’s Trail close by. But in reality, it’s a bit of a walking nightmare. If you want to get from the Superstore to the bookstore/cafe across the road, you need to walk through a gas station and parking lot, cross at the light, and then double back through another parking lot, only part of which has a sidewalk, to wind up in a spot almost directly across the road from where you started.

  3. Good article, Phil. It presents the situation in an easy-to-understand manner.

    It is interesting that there is so much anonymity. A sign of the times, with social media trolling being what it is these days.

    I am wondering though why the Stewardship Association has sent a letter rejecting the proposal if it doesn’t have an opinion on it yet. There is likely an explanation; it would be good to have it for clarity.

    1. The Stewardship voiced rejection due to the fact that the proposal was so far away from the 12 units stated in the Village Plan. It does not have a hard opposition to the land being developed, and was hoping to see the proposal reduced to a resonable size by the developer before the public consultation.
      The Stewardship Association stands on the Village Plan, and hopes to support this land being developed within the size and scope of the plan.

      Nick Horne,
      Chair, SMBSA

  4. Thank you for this article. Excellent reporting. Guiding principles for this development: 1. No harm to water supply and water quality 2. Build within the vision stated in the community bylaws and municipal plan.

  5. I want to hear the developers proposal and find out how open they are to making changes. The sewage treatment facility does not have to discharge into the bay, it can have a pump out option… these type of community sewage treatment facilities are now being placed in locations where no lakes or rivers exist. A co-located black-water and grey-water system is an interesting concept that has not been implemented often and the solution must be environmentally safe, effective and sustainable over the lifespan of this new community development. Potable water can also be acquired through a reverse osmosis facility draw from the bay, not just from ground water resources. Underground aquifers are still a bit of a mystery; it took millions of years to create them through natural processes… the aquifer replenishment rate is not a given over the long-term, how long will the groundwater resource be sustainable? There are always options when technology comes into play.

    But the density issue is one that needs to be addressed; the traffic study seems deficient, with only one access road off the PC Rd heading to the crossroads intersection. Another access road off the SMB Rd would seem a good idea. The height is an issue for some local residents adjacent to the project and their concerns are valid; is there a solution they can work out with the developer, perhaps or perhaps not. HRM planning staff should side with the community when developers exceed LUB policies… this too is not a given; but it is expected by local residents.

    In addition, where are the sidewalks in this plan? Sidewalks are a developer and HRM shared responsibility. Given the close proximity to the local retail outlets, walking should be a preferred option to driving. Especially in the winter when roadside walking on the shoulders is treacherous and would put seniors and vehicle traffic at high risk.

    The developer wants to make a profit and extra height makes the project more profitable; the key is whether there is still a good profit margin if a couple of floors are removed from the apartment structures. Development for our region must be done right.

    Matt Whitman is the HRM Councillor for our District and he will be expected to support the local community; but our concerns should be tempered with recognition that we should be seeking solutions and viable changes that will enable a valued development to proceed… we need a win-win solution.

    I am not saying we should ever roll over to unacceptable development proposals; but right-sized development is good for a community… meaningful discussion coupled with a willingness for acceptable compromise will be essential during the public engagement (consultation) process.

    1. There is not a lot of detail about the sewage treatment plant yet. I know there is some worry about accidental discharge given how close to the water it will be.