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, 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 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.
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.