Photos: Philip Moscovitch

The sign outside the St. Margaret’s Centre in Upper Tantallon is not usually the place for political messages. Hockey tournament dates, basketball registration, sure. But for last night’s public consultation on a proposed asphalt plant in the area, the sign was taking sides: “Stop the Tantallon asphalt plant” it read.

Inside, more than 200 people turned up for the first of two open houses held by the city on a proposal by Scotian Materials to put a mobile asphalt plant on a property in Head of St. Margaret’s Bay. The second session runs tonight.

Scotian operates a quarry on a 40-acre property just north of Highway 103, past Exit 5. The company is asking for an amendment to the land-use bylaw and municipal planning strategy that would allow it to operate a mobile asphalt plant there too – bringing it in and moving it out as needed.

And the community is not happy.

“The main reason we’re against it is they chose to put this in pristine wilderness. It’s not zoned for it for good reasons, and we don’t want the zoning to change,” said Nick Horne, vice-president of the residents’ association in Westwood Hills — the subdivision closest to the proposed plant location.

“It’s zoned MR2 and they can extract minerals from the ground. We never kicked up a stink about the quarry… But a permanent change to the zoning is perpetual.”

Although there was a lot of talk at the meeting about a zoning change, the application is for an exception that would allow the asphalt plant, not a change to the zoning of the property.

At the back of the room, Giant Steps Daycare co-owners Lisa Rondeau and Donna Buckland provided child-care during the meeting. Kids – several in “Stop the plant” T-shirts – played on yoga mats, while the women supervised. They operate three daycares in the area, and are worried about emissions and noise.

“We take our kids outdoors in the woods on long hikes and that kind of thing, and we want to maintain the beauty of Upper Tantallon,” said Buckland. “We’ll have to monitor air quality. We have to stay in when the UV is high. We have to stay in when it gets too cold. The last thing we want is to ever have to stay indoors because of pollution.”

“It’s not pristine”

The asphalt plant first caught the attention of the community back in June 2015. The previous summer, Scotian had submitted its application for a land-use bylaw amendment that would allow it to run a plant on-site whenever it wanted. City staff thought the proposal worth considering, and held a public forum on June 1, 2015. Over 500 people turned up, with many turned away at the door. The meeting got heated, with none of the 30-odd speakers in favour of the proposal.

This time round, the city opted for a different format — instead of an open forum, community members listened to a presentation from Scotian Materials president Robert MacPherson with no questions from the floor. MacPherson and other company reps were available to answer questions one-on-one. Across the hall, 14 city planners were available to hear concerns from residents, gather feedback forms, and oversee a couple of poster boards on which people could put post-its with their thoughts. One post-it with “Go for it!” was the only one in favour.

Scotian Materials president Robert MacPherson. Photo: Philip Moscovitch

Just after 6pm last night, MacPherson, stood in front of nearly 100 people and launched into his presentation addressing community concerns including air quality, property values, noise, and groundwater. It’s a presentation he would repeat at the top of each hour — six times over the course of the two meetings. By the second, he was already sighing and looking tired.

“One of the things we hear is that this is a pristine wilderness,” he said. “It’s not pristine.” He pointed to his own quarry, a dam operated by Nova Scotia Power, logging roads, and nearby clear-cutting on the Crown land that surrounds the Scotian site.

It’s that Crown land that is the source of a lot of community opposition — and the worry that the proposed twinning of 70 kilometres of Highway 103, from Exit 5 in Tantallon to Exit 12 in Bridgewater — could mean that the plant would be working flat-out. (It takes about 15,000 tonnes of aggregate to pave a kilometre of two-lane highway, and the proposed plant would produce 400 tonnes of asphalt per hour.)

Back in 2012, in response to the Buy Back the Mersey movement, the NDP government bought the old Bowater lands — a huge swathe of forest that includes land at the Head of St. Margaret’s Bay. The Scotian quarry is on private property, but surrounded by those lands, and residents worry about creeping industrialization.

Katherine Williams, an accountant who lives in Boutilier’s Point, said “it sets a precedent for other things to go back there.”

For his part, MacPherson said he thinks his company is too small to compete on the 103 project, and that what they’re eyeing is resurfacing work that comes from the province’s annual maintenance budget.

“If somehow the [103] contract comes out in a way that we can participate — maybe one of the larger contractors comes out and asks us to do some supply for them — we’re happy to do that,” MacPherson told me. “But we’re really targeted at the resurfacing. Because once you pave a road, every year there’s a provincial budget that says we’ve got to do maintenance and rehabilitation. The mobile plant lets us chase that around.”

But the company’s application to the city for the plant says, “This site is well positioned to accommodate a growing market in the area including the recently announced Ingramport interchange and future plans for twinning Highway 103.”

Development and resistance

Nick Horne. Photo: Philip Moscovitch

Kelly Bush listened carefully to MacPherson’s presentation. She’s the chair of the Highland Park Residents’ Association in Hammonds Plains. A real estate adviser for the federal government, Bush was not impressed. She admitted that she needs to do more research about asphalt plant emissions, but says she doesn’t feel anyone has made a case for how the plant would benefit the community.

“I still don’t see any reasons why we would approve this, quite honestly. This is good for the business, maybe good for the province and good for the municipality if they can get cheaper jobs done. But is having a change to the land-use bylaw going to open the door to other industrial business? My gut says no. My community says no… I don’t know how it’s good for the community I live in.”

Following the presentation, Bush was one of the few to head over to the side of the room where MacPherson and others were available to answer questions. She raised concerns about emissions with Ed Wark, who tells me he works for Scotian Materials, but who also works with the PR firm Colour. He told Bush the main emission from the asphalt plant is steam, but that didn’t seem to allay her concerns.

Halifax planning applications program manager Carl Purvis said the format of the meeting allowed planners “to get more feedback and better feedback from a larger number of people” than your typical open-mic forum. But some participants felt frustrated that they couldn’t ask questions in public. The second of MacPherson’s three presentations ended with residents shouting their frustration about not being allowed to ask questions.

Realtor Colleen Doucet, who lives in Westwood Hills, was angry about the situation. “They want to divide us all and put us in little groups,” she said. “They don’t want us to rally.” Others said they don’t feel comfortable addressing MacPherson one-on-one, though they would talk to the planners.

MacPherson said he isn’t surprised by the level of opposition his proposal has raised. He’s seen it before in other communities, and he knew coming in that “people in the St. Margaret’s Bay area are very well known to be actively involved in planning. They take it seriously.”

With rapid development in the Tantallon area over the last 15 years — subdivisions, new strip malls, big retailers — there’s been a lot of discussion and argument over what’s good for the community. But rarely have people been as worked up as they are over this asphalt plant.

“The community’s galvanized!” Horne said. “You’ve got to look back to pre-2012 and the Buy Back the Mersey movement. You’ve got to look back to how involved the community was with that and how they pressed and pressed and pressed for the Mersey to be bought back, because that was our back yard. That’s where the community recreates. And they’re still just as impassioned about those lands for recreation as they were back then.”

For his part, MacPherson said, “I’m not here to convince anyone of anything. All I ask is that people make up their opinion based on evidence and facts. If they’re against it, I respect that. Everyone has their own reasons for being for or against things or indifferent. I’m in the business. I’m a big boy. Some things go your way, some things don’t. I’m willing to live with whatever the result is, but I’d find it hard to live with it if it’s based on misinformation and not a fair assessment of what I proposed. If it’s based on a factual assessment, I can live with that and I’ll move on. That’s business. That’s the game I’m in.”

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

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  1. Mr. MacPherson was interviewed on the Rick Howe show on May 25/16. Rick specifically asked if he was positioning for twinning of the 100 series highways. No mention of the term ‘P3’ had been made throughout the interview till Mr. MacPherson volunteered:

    “As far as the P3 specific project, that’s a project if we are lucky enough to be able to participate in it we’d be very pleased…” (37:22 into the 9am show)

  2. Every year this happens in Halifax harbour :
    ” Irving Oil Commercial GP applied, through its representative, for a licence to use the “PENN NO. 92”, a barge registered in the United States of America, to work with the tug “COHO”, to transport approximately 82,000 barrels of asphalt, in one voyage, from Saint John, New Brunswick to Eastern Passage, Nova Scotia,……”

    The barge carries over 11,000 tons of asphalt to the storage tanks owned by Toronto based McAsphalt Limited. The tanks are next to the backyards of a dozen single family dwellings. The McAsphalt Limited office is in a trailer and accessed from Autoport Avenue.
    I presume the people who live no closer than 1.5 miles from the Scotian mobile asphalt site believe in decisions being based on facts; stuff such as science and evidence. The again, perhaps emotion takes over and science and facts are tossed aside in favour of fear and alternative facts.