Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Paradise Lost: The Evisceration of Blue Mountain - Birch Cove Lakes Regional Park

Blue Mountain - Birch Cove Lakes is a a paradise: a piece of wilderness the size of the Halifax peninsula, just 10 km from the downtown core. A mere bus ride away, it contains a series of lakes that form a complete canoe loop, and local non-profits are working to develop a trail system in the area. You can literally step into the forest behind the Kent in Bayers Lake, and lose yourself in wilderness. It's like a small piece of Kejimkujik in our backyard, and one of the many things that make Halifax a great place to live.

Most cities would give their right arm for a jewel like this: a near-urban wilderness tract that offers amazing outdoor recreational opportunities. As Tim Bousquet said in his 2009 article about the area, "It's hard to believe this place exists."

Unfortunately, this place may not exist as is much longer. Private landowners/developers are pushing to open up a significant portion of the Birch Cove Lakes to development, and the HRM is currently consulting on a facilitator's report that would allow them to do just that.

Blue Mountain and a portion of the Birch Cove Lakes are already protected as a provincial wilderness area, designated in 2009 and expanded in 2015. However, much of the remaining land is in private hands, some of it in prime lakefront or wilderness areas.

In the 2006 Regional Plan (updated in 2014), the HRM made clear its desire to create a Regional Park in Blue Mountain - Birch Cove Lakes, identified park boundaries, with the intention that private land would be acquired for inclusion in the park. Private lands within the proposed park boundaries were designated "urban reserve", meaning they were not to be developed until at least 2031.

The facilitator's report is the result of a multi-year negotiation process between the HRM and developers in an attempt to determine the boundaries of the proposed regional park, and in particular, how much private land will be purchased and added to the park. Unfortunately and unusually, the facilitator seems to have come down pretty much entirely on the side of the developers. Her conclusions would use the park boundaries as proposed by the developers, which would open up most of the remaining lakes to development, defeating one of the main purposes in creating the park in the first place. It also seems to contemplate major infrastructure to make the park more "accessible" to the public, which seems inconsistent with much of the park's status as a wilderness area. Most alarmingly, it seems to propose opening up those private lands for immediate development, which is contrary to the Regional Plan.

While the report talks a great deal about "cost" and "economic feasibility" of the park, it makes little or no reference to ecological integrity, or to water quality, biodiversity or wilderness protection, which are the primary reasons for establishing the park in the first place. It ignores the huge public benefit that a park like this provides. It also glosses over the cost to the HRM of opening up these lands for development, and the benefit to the developer of the creation of a regional park on their doorstep. It ignores the fact that HRM already has enough land available for development to meet demand for the next 28 to 35 years. There is no need to open these particular lands up for development.

Blue Mountain Birch Cove Lakes is already under development pressure, and HRM already lost recreational opportunities when a popular mountain biking and hiking area was cleared to allow for further expansion of Bayers Lake.

However, the long fight to protect Blue Mountain - Birch Cove Lakes is not over. There is a public presentation on the facilitator's report on Monday, June 20, 2016, at 7:00 p.m. at the Future Inns Aspin/Birch Room, 30 Fairfax Drive, Halifax, Nova Scotia. And we have until  3:00 p.m. on Monday, July 4, 2016 to submit your comments to the Municipal Clerk's office by fax, 902-490-4208; or by e-mail, clerks@halifax.ca.

I also urge people to contact the Mayor, and their regional councillor, to let them know that both the process and the proposal are deeply flawed, and that they need to stand up for Blue Mountain - Birch Cove Lakes, and a regional park that protects the entire area for now and for future generations. This is a once in a lifetime opportunity to protect a jewel that most cities only dream of. Let's not let it slip through our grasp.

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