Behave like Dave
Halifax Council, Annapolis Group directors:
will you leave a legacy behind or just empty chairs?
A long time ago I accompanied some staff from Nova Scotia Environment on a two-day trip in the Tobeatic Wilderness Area in southwesternNova Scotia. Our job was to check out a derelict cabin before demolition in the winter. We canoed, portaged, camped, and visited an island covered with lush old-growth forest. A satellite phone was our only link with civilization. “Dave”, one of our guides, cooked gourmet meals in a single frying pan (everything tastes great when you’re camping).
Dave’s job sometimes required him to spend weeks at a time alone in the forest and he loved it. I asked if he was concerned that someday he might be too infirm to go into protected areas, where ATV and wheelchair access is banned.
“No. I’ll be happy knowing that partly because of the work I’m doing, wild places will always be available to people’s children and grandchildren,” he said.
I trained my bullshit meter on him but there was no reading. Dave meant what he said. He could think beyond his own self-interest.
In late 2007, ’round about the same time Dave and I had our conversation, NSE announced it would convert more than 3,000 acres of Crown land between Highway 103 and the Bicentennial Highway, adjacent to the Bayers Lake Business Park, into a protected wilderness area like the Tobeatic.
There would be places there where you could neither see nor hear the city. And you and your backpack could reach the trail heads by public transit.
Even better, as the new release somewhat naively put it:
“Blue Mountain-Birch Cove Lakes Wilderness Area will complement Halifax Regional Municipality’s regional planning strategy, which includes creating a large park in that region.
“I’m very pleased with the province’s collaborative approach and support for HRM’s regional plan,” said Mayor Peter Kelly. “This will help us move forward with HRM’s plans for a regional park in the area.”
This was genius. The city would create a municipal park of about 1,350 acres that would be the necessary protective buffer around the wilderness area. But, being a municipal park, it would also provide a near-wilderness experience for people who don’t or can’t hike into the back country. In other words if — perish the thought — Dave found himself in a wheelchair someday, he and others could still enjoy a semi-wild area.
Many believe the project, if completed, would be the largest urban wilderness area in North America. Perhaps, but the real value is that this patch of paradise would be available to Haligonians and their neighbours no matter how big the city grows. Think of Calgary’s (smaller) Nose Hill park, which is 11 square kilometres of high plains, replete with wildlife and cheek by jowl with 12 communities.
Blue Mountain-Birch Coves Lakes Wilderness Area is a legacy project. If our descendants are going to have it, then key people have to raise their gaze and think bigger. Like Dave.
Sadly, 11 years later, park proponents have learned just how slowly municipal government can move. The province fulfilled its promise but successive city councils, apparently dazzled by the power and glory of the developers who own much of the needed parkland, couldn’t come to grips with their task.
By way of background, ownership is not the last word on what happens to a piece of land. For example, the city can “buy” your land at fair market value to widen a road. Usually, the landowner and city are able to negotiate a deal, which is what Halifax has been trying to do with landowners around the wilderness area. The last resort is expropriation, which forces a sale at the fair market value. It’s based on the idea of the greater good, which is why the province expropriated land for the Maritime Link power line.
So far, city staff have made one purchase — 80 hectares by Hobsons lake in January — from West Bedford Holdings.
That might have inspired other owners to sell but for one thing: a $120 million lawsuit by Annapolis Group, a private company with long history in Nova Scotia. It owns critical portions of the land the city needs and, ironically, claims the land is being effectively expropriated by the delaying in negotiating purchases.
The city says Annapolis “… acquired the majority of its lands in the area prior to 2006 in speculation of potential future serviced urban development. The Plaintiff acquired additional lands in 2014 from Armco Capital and the Sisters of Charity with the same intention.” (Emphasis added.)
Speculation is a common practice: you buy land at a low price and wait for the day it’s worth a lot more, e.g., when cities like Halifax expand.
The land in question is currently assessed at under $2 million, one-sixtieth of what Annapolis is suing for.
In response, the city says it is acting well within its rights. (And it still has the right to expropriate.)
Of course, both parties to this suit have to prove their cases in court, but that’s a problem. City staff have to round up at least 8,000 pages of documents demanded by Annapolis. At the last appearance in Supreme Court, the city was represented by outside counsel, which is expensive. This puts enormous pressure on city hall’s officials and councillors to give up or pay an outrageous price.
But why are we going through this? Do company directors cease being citizens once they’re behind boardroom doors? Maybe you can’t be a board member and my friend Dave at the same time.
Or, maybe you can accept the fact you speculated on some land and lost, which is part of being a developer. Then you can be a citizen for a moment and realize you are standing in the way of an historic project that will improve the lives of everybody in your community and their descendants — forever.
You can sit down with the city and negotiate a fair deal.
For the same reasons, if you’re a councillor, you can stop being afraid and direct staff to begin expropriation. The Utility and Review Board might have to adjudicate, but it’s a lot faster and cheaper than the court system. My guess is the two sides will quickly come to an agreement because, as the saying goes, nothing concentrates the mind like the prospect of a hanging.
Other landowners will follow suit and all concerned will be celebrated as legacy-builders.
Annapolis directors*: do the right thing and take your place in history.
Councillors**: grow a pair of ovaries and start the expropriation process. Leave a legacy when your council days are over instead of an empty chair.
*Annapolis directors: C. Robert Gillis, Director; David J. Hennigar, Director; Archibald Colin Hattie, Director; Jason A.O. Weston, Asst. Secretary; Murugesu Sooriyakumaran, VP-Planning & Engineering; April Greencorn, CFO & Corp. Secretary; Archibald Colin Hattie, President; David J. Hennigar, Chairman; Michael Laycock, VP – Development. **Councillors: Steve Streatch, District 1; David Hendsbee, District 2; Bill Karsten, District 3; Lorelei Nicoll, District 4; Sam Austin, District 5; Tony Mancini, District 6; Waye Mason, District 7; Lindell Smith, District 8; Shawn Cleary, District 9; Russell Walker, District 10; Steve Adams, District 11; Richard Zurawski, District 12; Matt Whitman, District 13; Lisa Blackburn, District 14; Steve Craig, District 15; Tim Outhit, District 16, Bedford; Mike Savage, Mayor.