Michelle Dolbec has one of those storybook too-good-to-be true stories about why she moved to Nova Scotia. She was living in Ottawa, then got married and took a sailing trip with her husband. “We sailed into St. Margaret’s Bay on our honeymoon, and decided we wanted to stay here,” she told a group of people gathered at a public meeting in Tantallon on Wednesday evening.

Today Dolbec, who works for Environment Canada, lives at the head of the bay. “We’re the kind of people you want here,” she said. “We’re middle class and have young children who we hope will go to university and stay here. And we pay a lot in tax on our waterfront property.”

Dolbec was speaking at an open house held by the city to discuss a controversial development proposed for Tantallon, at the head of St. Margaret’s Bay. It would see the construction of 112 units — two apartment buildings and 18 town homes, plus a commercial development — on a piece of land a couple of properties over from Dolbec’s home on the Peggy’s Cove Road.

“If I had seen a four-storey apartment building there, I don’t think we would have stayed,” Dolbec said.

What she finds particularly frustrating is that she and her husband didn’t buy their property blind. They realized nearby development was likely and checked the land use bylaw. It sets the maximum number of units allowable on an individual property at 12. “I can live with that. I can. I really can,” Dolbec said.  “We would be great neighbours to a 12-unit development.”

Last fall, HRM had to cancel a public meeting on the development — put forward by developer Joe Arab, and delivered by WM Fares — after hundreds of people tried to pack a space designed to fit only 100. The meeting was rescheduled to the much larger St. Margaret’s Centre, and held in three separate sessions throughout the day. The first two were attended by just over 90 people each, while attendance at the evening session was about 75.

The evening opened with HRM senior planner Shayne Vipond patiently explaining that a development agreement allowing a large multi-use project does not run counter to the land use bylaw. He offered several variations on this statement: “There is a lot of confusion in the community that the land can only be developed in accord with the land use bylaw, but that’s not the case. It can proceed by development agreement.”

Architect Jacob JeBailey. Photo: Philip Moscovitch

Architect Jacob JeBailey, with WM Fares (he’s also been involved with the long-running Willow Tree project), noted that even though on the application for a development agreement the project is called “Tantallon Aged Living,” the residences are open to anyone. But the main target demographic is seniors. JeBailey offered an overview of the project — types of siding, rooflines, gazebo, pathways, community gardens, underground parking — and said he was interested in knowing what other design elements the community would like to see incorporated.

Nobody offered any input.

After wrapping up his presentation, JeBailey got a polite round of applause, which took him by surprise. “Thanks,” he said quietly. “That’s the first time I’ve ever had applause.”

The fact that nobody in the room suggested improvements to the design (though one person did later wonder about the specifics of the community gardens) spoke less to its broad acceptance than to the irrelevance of design questions in face of the overarching concerns of the majority in the room.

One after another, speakers got up to raise questions about the development. Vipond asked them to state their names and community of residence for the record — and in a peculiarly Nova Scotian way, many also added whether or not they had moved here from elsewhere. The first speaker opened with, “I’m Frank Mosher. I’m a CFA. Been here 43 years,” and was followed by a couple of dozen others, many opening in a similar vein. “I’m a CFA too…”

Over the course of the evening, only two speakers spoke strongly in favour — Fred Dolbel, who volunteers with the Seniors Association of St. Margaret’s Bay, and former councillor Peter Lund, an enthusiastic proponent who did some early work for the developer, surveying wells on neighbouring properties. “I like the village concept,” Lund said. “You need livability and walkability within the village. This is a real opportunity to have a livable, walkable community.”

Images of the development lined one wall of the room, along with maps of the site, but over the nearly three-hour-long meeting nobody went up to look at them closely.

Many who spoke in opposition to the project — like Nick Horne, chair of the St. Margaret’s Bay Stewardship Association, and Geoff Le Boutillier, one of the association’s founders — reiterated support for the vision of the area laid out in the village plan, and said the variance requested — 112 units instead of 12 — was simply too great.

Le Boutillier pointed out that the plan came about after lengthy consultations with residents and with the city. “The spirit of the village plan must be respected and can’t be thrown out because of a development agreement. I would encourage planners not to throw out all that hard work,” he said.

But the vast majority of concerns were over groundwater and wastewater. What kind of sewage facility was going to be on site? If it’s located above the regular high-tide mark, but within an area that could be submerged after a storm surge, what would the effects on the bay be? How much monitoring of the groundwater wells has been done? What are the risks that neighbouring dug wells will run dry? How will the nearby wetlands be affected?

Unfortunately, these were all questions that had to remain unanswered. Vipond reiterated several times that any septic system would have to be approved by the province, and that in order for the development to proceed, a study would have to be done demonstrating there is enough groundwater.

But the fact that nobody with expertise in these areas was available to answer questions led to some frustration. One man raising concerns about sewage treatment said, “It would be helpful to have someone from the [provincial] Department of Environment here. If they were to say, ‘We can assure you no effluent would go into the bay,’ that would alleviate a lot of concerns.”

Vipond agreed, and as the evening neared a close, reiterated that the city cannot evaluate wastewater proposals. “We don’t make decisions on that. Ask your councillor if he can speak to the province, by all means. You could ask if the province would be willing to have a discussion with the community about this. But the province would have to agree. We cannot compel them, sir. That’s what I’m trying to get across to you,” he said.

“We have all kinds of development requests, and it would be very helpful to us if we had representatives of the Department of Environment present to speak to these issues,” continued Vipond. “But we do not have them. I’m not trying to throw them under the bus here, but that’s the reality.”

David Wimberly. Photo: Philip Moscovitch Credit: Philip Moscovitch

David Wimberly held a copy of Coastal Wetlands of the World, co-edited by former long-time bay resident Petra Mudie. In an email to the city earlier this week, Mudie raised concerns about the proximity of the sewage treatment plant to the water, calling it “a disaster waiting to happen, given the rising sea level.”

Wearing a Halifax volunteer recognition pin on his lapel Wimberly, a flute-maker and longtime environmental activist, calls the project “a very bad precedent. It will mean our village plan will have no relevance whatsoever.”

Wimberly is involved with Transition Bay — a group that seeks to find ways to build community during the period of transition to a fossil-free economy. To him, this kind of development represents a failure of imagination, with the consultation process focused too narrowly.

Drew McQuinn. Photo: Philip Moscovitch

As the meeting winds down, Drew McQuinn stands behind a table set up in the lobby of the St. Margaret’s Centre. He is the administrator of the Facebook group Voice St. Margaret’s Bay, which hosts discussion on the project. Earlier in the day, after the first two information sessions, members were raising the usual concerns about sewage, nearby wells, the affordability of the units, and just what was meant by “Aged Living.”

The soft-spoken McQuinn has been splitting his time between the table — it has information sheets and a petition against the proposal in its current form — and the meeting. Like many, McQuinn is frustrated that the format of the meeting didn’t allow key issues to be addressed. He recognizes that Vipond did his best to answer questions about technical subjects like water — but Vipond’s not an expert.

“Everybody was made to feel open and welcome to voice their opinion, which was really important,” McQuinn said. “All parties involved, especially the seniors and those living around this [proposed development] have very valid concerns. I guess the question now is how do we merge all those requests into a vision that makes sense for the community.”

Although the project has had a polarizing effect, the meeting was orderly, quiet — even subdued. No shouting, no interrupting, barely even any testiness. But that may be because so many in the room seemed to feel troubled by the process, while recognizing none of that was the fault of the organizers in the room.

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

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  1. Re HRM Case 20929, there are too many unanswered questions… often heard was: “We will be looking into that aspect” or “NSE and/or HRM will ensure that the development must meet required design specifications”; without actual facts being presented, it is difficult to see why the developer or HRM would expect the local residents to give significant or even scant support for the Tantallon project.

    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. There is absolutely no support for any kind of treated sewage being discharged into the Bay, where nutrient levels are already so high as to be a grave concern.

    Traffic study seems somewhat deficient, with only one access road off the Peggys Cove Rd. Another access road off the St Margarets Bay Rd would seem a good idea. Also, 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. No mention of bike lanes either. A crosswalk study needs to be done, busy Peggy’s Cove Rd needs to be crossed to get to the local Superstore and other retail facilities.

    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.

    There is usually an engineered solution for runoff but we have grave concerns that the groundwater will not sustain the whole development plan. They are planning to only build the commercial facility and one of the apartment buildings during the first phase, but they have not provided data to back up their belief that the groundwater resources can adequately and safely sustain even the phase one implementation. We need real facts that deal with realistic demand rates coupled with proven groundwater supply and recovery rates fro0m the wells onsite… A realistic test needs to be carried out over an extended period of time. Drill the desired wells and then prove their concept is functional before any major construction and footings are even contemplated to take place. We need real time proof of concept.

    Because the developer says they are going to implement a grey water solution; we need to be certain that make up water during drought periods is factored in. Neighbour’s wells need to be monitored throughout the test period and definitive data gathered. A separate well that is not drawn down as a source should be located a defined distance from all active wells and monitored as well. The data loggers should be active 24/7 and gathering data throughout the testing period. All data gathered in raw and analyzed format should be made available to the public along with the formulas used to determine the maximum usage requirements of the various phases of the development plan. This proposed monitoring concept should be consider the bare minimum to be implemented and probably could be enhanced after professional consultation and it must be done well in advance of the next public engagement for this project. Once the structures are built, it will be too late to make changes if adequate freshwater proves to be unavailable from groundwater resources.

    All in all just too little real fact were put forward at the event; the local residents already know about the concepts, now we need the facts to back up the viability of those proposed development concepts.

    1. I assume all the current residents have their wells tested on a regular basis.
      I know it is a crazy assumption as too many rural Nova Scotians do not test their well, including a group of residents who bought what were then expensive homes in Fall River area and used a drilled well as their supply until too many homes were built and the water supply from deep wells turned brown.
      In such circumstances enough people complain and after a while the 3 levels of government put up the money to connect the homes to Halifax Water and charge a token amount for connecting the homes.

      1. True if there was a freshwater resource supply problem; but no such problem exists today that affects a large part of the local community. There is no desire to have Tantallon connected to Halifax Water’s supply anytime soon and most if not all the residents in the Tantallon area do not want the proposed project to be developed if it will cause a dramatic drop in freshwater availability for existing residents, or the proposed development. That’s why a functional groundwater availability test should occur to prove or disprove the developer’s assumption that adequate freshwater can be sourced from groundwater resources. Once the project has been built, it will be too late if a freshwater problem occurs. That token connect fee to Halifax Water comes with a monthly charge and the ever popular Ditch Tax… who would not want that, eh?

  2. There are several vary good reasons why this land was not yet developed. Primarily, it’s just not good land. Mostly swamp. Anyone who is from there knows that.

    1. There is history of a proposed development on this land by local developers. They looked closely at the ecology of the area and tried to work around the wetlands, sensitive to the neighboring residents, on a much smaller scale than this current proposal. It was deemed unviable. Water was a issue back then. It remains an issue. To your point JP, there is a reason why this land has not been developed before now, let alone at a scale unprecedented in the area.
      They too were interested in creating more residential options at the Crossroads, but not at the expense of existing residents and the ecology of the bay.
      Let’s continue to look at other options for this and other areas at the Crossroads where all can feel we’ve made progress in our community.