“The forest is gone,” says Kelly, a resident of Port Wallace in Dartmouth.
Kelly asked that we don’t use their real name so that they can maintain good communication with those involved in the development of the massive new subdivision in the area – Clayton Developments and provincial regulators who visit the site to monitor the effects of the tree-clearing and landscape reshaping.
“They have a machine that just goes row by row,” Kelly tells the Halifax Examiner. “It grabs a big tree, cuts it at the bottom, flips it, and then it goes in a machine that removes all the branches and spits it back out. It takes ten seconds. I timed it.”
“It took only two weeks to clear the whole area,” Kelly says. “It was amazing to watch it.”
“I try not to get emotional about the forest,” Kelly adds. “I knew it was coming. I had 10 years to prepare for it.”
But that doesn’t mean Kelly is happy about the 545-acre, 4,900-unit Port Wallace project, and how it is being handled.
‘Politics and profit’ in the development process
Port Wallace is one of nine “special planning areas” — six of them partially or fully owned by Clayton Developments — in Halifax Regional Municipality (HRM), which were designated by Nova Scotia’s Municipal Affairs and Housing Minister John Lohr in March 2022, on the recommendation of the five-member Executive Panel on Housing that Lohr appointed in December 2021.
The Progressive Conservative government of Premier Tim Houston granted Lohr this special authority over these special planning areas when it passed the Housing in the Halifax Regional Municipality Act in November 2021, on which the Examiner’s Zane Woodford has reported extensively.
Related: Early tree clearing approved for Dartmouth development site as opponents say they’ve found species at risk
Related: Halifax police arrest four people defending Eisner Cove wetland from development
Related: Dartmouth residents raise concerns about development next to wetland
In July this year, Lohr exercised the rights afforded him by the new Act, and approved an application from Clayton Developments for “early tree removal and earthworks.”
But it wasn’t until three months later, after the clearing had been done and a Development Agreement was signed by Mayor Mike Savage and Port Wallace Holdings president Jason Brunt and filed with the Registry of Deeds, that HRM held a “final round of public consultation” on the draft planning documents for Port Wallace. HRM gave the public three weeks, from October 4 to 26, to submit comments on the project.
Kelly took the opportunity to provide detailed feedback to HRM and express a wide range of concerns about the project. They asked how the municipality and developers intend to keep people who will be living in the subdivision, some of them very close to Barry’s Run, out of the waterway and surrounding wetlands that are contaminated with historic tailings laced with arsenic from Nova Scotia’s most contaminated site at Montague Gold mines, upstream from the development.
Related series: The Port Wallace gamble: The real estate boom meets Nova Scotia’s toxic mine legacy. Part 1. Part 2. Part 3. Part 4.
Kelly noted that Ram’s-Head Lady Slipper has been identified in the Barry’s Run ecosystem, and asked, “Are there any restrictions involved with the preservation or protection of these endangered species?”
Kelly also denounced the secrecy surrounding the meetings of the Executive Panel on Housing that will be receiving the public comments from HRM planners, which will eventually land on the desk not of HRM Council but of the provincial Minister of Municipal Affairs and Housing.
Kelly’s feedback to HRM concluded:
This has been a tremendously demoralizing process and experience. To observe how the provincial government and private developers can take over a well-established economic development process and bypass HRM council has been eye-opening and quite sad. It brings to light how politics and profits influence all aspects of the development process and how public consultation / committees / feedback can easily be ignored.
Gaps in the studies
Another person with questions she thinks should be asked about the Port Wallace development is Linda Campbell, professor and senior research fellow in Environmental Science at Saint Mary’s University, or SMU.
In an interview at SMU, Campbell tells the Examiner the studies of the historic mine tailings issue at Montague Gold Mines, and the mobility of the contamination downstream in Barry’s Run and in Lake Charles were “good reports,” and says it is helpful that the documents are available on the HRM planning web page for Port Wallace.
Campbell points to two 2020 studies commissioned by the provincial Crown corporation, Nova Scotia Lands (that the Houston government recently amalgamated with Develop Nova Scotia to create Build Nova Scotia), which is in charge of cleaning up Nova Scotia’s most contaminated site at Montague Gold mines, a clean-up that has yet to start.
One of the studies is a human health risk assessment of any contamination from mine tailings in sediment, surface water, and fish from Barry’s Run, a body of water that belongs to HRM. The second is a similar assessment from Lake Charles.
However, Campbell says, there are gaps in the studies.
She notes that the sampling for the reports was done over just three months in the fall, not during spring melt and runoff time, and the reports acknowledge that this could have been an issue.
“I would have liked to have seen the spring from, let’s say, April to June, as the sampling time, because that’s when the tailings are at their most mobile,” says Campbell. “The other gap in the reports is that they did not monitor the dust in the area. Dust is an important aspect of this. The tailings are exposed and when they’re dry the dust will carry and it will go everywhere.”
“Dust should be included,” in Campbell’s view. “I would like to know how are they going to monitor during the development period, and then post-development.”
Campbell thinks it is important to have a monitoring plan in place, and explains:
Once they deforest to make room for the urbanization the hydrology is going to change. How will the hydrology impact the mobility of the tailings without those trees there and the wetlands? And in both of the [human risk assessment] reports, they did note that it was very important to sequester the arsenic [from the mine tailings]. So if the wetlands [around Barry’s Run] are impacted, what happens next? How they will protect the wetlands is not mentioned. Wetlands are an important aspect for contaminant management and that’s not mentioned in the reports.
I’m coming from an ecosystem perspective to this … we need to look at the ecosystem, wetlands, deforestation and forests and how that dust [from the tailings] is managed long term. But right now, I’m not seeing that long-term thinking in this. And that worries me.
Doug Skinner also worries about the project. Skinner is a retired professional engineer and life-long resident of Dartmouth, who has lived in Port Wallace since 1964. He is particularly concerned about the risks the project poses for traffic and human safety.
In an email to the Examiner, Skinner writes:
The approval process for the Port Wallace Housing Developments has been inconsiderate of the existing community and future impacts, and it has been moved forward with inadequate response to critical factors such as traffic concerns. The CBCL Baseline report (2018) was flawed by overestimating existing roadway capacity and underestimating future traffic levels, yet it remains the cornerstone document for the planning, even though the size of the developments has increased 31% beyond that which CBCL considered. The flaws in the report have been noted since 2018 in numerous presentations to city planning, community council, citizen planning committee (now disbanded), city councillors, the housing task force, and provincial cabinet ministers.
Traffic chaos for which there is no long-term solution will result on all routes serving the existing community internally and externally, most significantly on Waverley Road/Braemar Drive, Caledonia Road/ Main Street, and Highway 107 (aka Forest Hills Parkway). The province leaves all responsibility for traffic concerns with city planners, and will base its approval on their recommendations. Where did due diligence go?
It is time that the quiet and apathetic community of Port Wallace raises more voices than the few of us, whose pleas for rational review of the size and character of this project have been ignored.
Lots of unanswered questions
The Halifax Examiner emailed questions to Municipal Affairs and Housing for clarifications on exactly what decisions or documents would be shaped or influenced by the comments submitted by the public via HRM to Minister Lohr. So far, there has been no reply.
Before that, the Examiner asked Municipal Affairs and Housing for individual answers to six detailed questions about potential risks of contamination from Barry’s Run into Lake Charles, whether risk management studies called for in earlier reports had been done, and why early clearing had been approved at Port Wallace. Spokesperson Heather Fairbairn’s reply:
As you know, Nova Scotia is facing a housing crisis and housing supply is particularly challenging in the Halifax area. As we’ve said previously, to support these efforts, the Minister of Municipal Affairs and Housing recently ordered amendments to the Regional Municipality Planning Strategy and Dartmouth land-use bylaw to enable some early site work within this special planning area (such as tree removal and soil work). The amendments and development agreement include requirements to ensure stormwater management plans, erosion and sedimentation control plans and other requirements are in place in advance of the developer’s work, as well the work is limited to a pre-determined area. Studies and monitoring work in the area are still ongoing at this time. Developers continue to work with HRM planning and projects are subject to any required permitting, fees and regulatory requirements.
The Examiner used a contact form on the Clayton Developments website to ask questions about how the company would ensure that people and pets who move into the subdivision do not go into Barry’s Run and come in contact with the contamination there, and whether studies and modelling have been done on how the deforestation and changed landscape will affect hydrology in the area. The only response so far is an acknowledgement that the submission was received.
Questions were also emailed to Tony Mancini, HRM councillor for Harbourview-Burnside-Dartmouth East, asking for his comments on the early clearing approval granted by Municipal Affairs and Housing Minister Lohr, and concerns about traffic and the possible risk of arsenic contamination from Barry’s Run making its way into Lake Charles. So far, there has been no reply.
Sam Austin, councillor for Dartmouth Centre replied promptly to three questions from the Examiner. One was about the Executive Housing Panel that does not publish detailed minutes of its meetings, a second on the belated invitation from HRM for public comment three months after clearing of about 30 acres at Port Wallace, and the third about the possible risks of contamination from Barry’s Run getting into the Shubenacadie Lake system through Lake Charles.
I have been opposed to the secret meetings of the panel from the get-go. There is no reason why the deliberations need to be a secret. The Province’s lack of transparency is appalling.
The lack of transparency and elimination of any opportunity for meaningful public feedback has been every bit as bad as I feared when the Province announced their intent to interfere. I haven’t followed Port Wallace closely … but in Southdale [another of the nine special planning areas that has met with intense public opposition] there has been next to no community voice. Planning for the future is occurring without any meaningful involvement and an online survey doesn’t paper over the fact that if these were HRM processes, there would be a lot more depth, public deliberation, and, ultimately, a decision made by elected councillors who are accountable to the community.
I don’t know enough about what’s going on at the Panel to comment on this, which really loops back to points 1 and 2.
Building for the climate emergency or later retrofits?
In 2021, Nova Scotia’s Efficiency One published a White Paper called “2050: Net-zero carbon in Nova Scotia,” which states that with the climate emergency:
It is important that new buildings are built to be net-zero energy ready, defined as a building that consumes as much energy as it produces if and when renewable energy generation is added.
In August the Examiner asked Municipal Affairs and Housing if all or any of the buildings in these new subdivisions will be “net-zero energy ready,” as recommended in the White Paper, and if so, what elements — heat pumps, solar panels, or EV charging stations — would be included.
Spokesperson Heather Fairbairn’s reply:
Working together, we can ensure sustainable development that will provide Nova Scotians with the homes they need and help protect our environment. Developers continue to work with HRM planning and must comply with municipal requirements and Nova Scotia’s laws and regulations. This includes the national codes in place for buildings and energy efficiency standards. As per the news release, our agreement with Clayton Developments will see the addition of new energy-efficient townhouses, fourplexes and multi-unit buildings in the Mount Hope/Southdale area of Dartmouth. You would have to speak with the developers for specifics about their projects.
Questions sent to Clayton Developments were not answered.
The Examiner asked Ralph Torrie, the main author of the 2021 Efficiency One White Paper, for his thoughts on subdivisions like that in Port Wallace and other special development areas in HRM during the climate emergency. Torrie’s reply:
We have to stop the hemorrhaging by continuing to build new housing that is still reliant on fossil fuels and is still contributing to the climate problem. You’re just building tomorrow’s retrofit requirements when you do that. It’s much more effective to get the house right when you build it than it is to have to go in, when we realize five or ten years down the road that we should have built them right in the first place. And using the federal building code as a cover is not the kind of leadership that we need right now from our provinces and from our cities. They need to be stepping up and insisting that new building, both residential and commercial, simply has to be off fossil fuel. That’s the bottom line.
It may well be the bottom line for the climate and the future, but perhaps not the bottom line that is driving Clayton Developments’ subdivisions in “special development areas” like Port Wallace.