Decision day for the Birch Cove Lakes

UPDATE: Birch Cove Lakes

It’s decision day for the Birch Cove Lakes on Tuesday.

That’s when Regional Council will vote on a motion that will decide if this area remains on track to become a regional park, or if it will be handed over for sprawling development. That’s the choice.

It all comes down to how the Mayor and the 16 city councilors vote on Tuesday.

As I’ve written previously, everyone on council is going to say how much they love the Birch Cove Lakes, but that doesn’t mean all of them will act in the best interests of the regional park. The “tell” is related to secondary planning.  If a councillor supports secondary planning for Birch Cove Lakes (which initiates the development process), they don’t support the regional park as envisioned in the HRM regional plan and supported by the public (1420 public submissions, nearly 100% in favour of the regional park). It’s as simple as that. So keep on eye on which way the councilors vote on secondary planning, not what they say about the Birch Cove Lakes.

Many councilors have already spoken in favour of protecting the Birch Cove Lakes, and some have already indicated that they won’t be voting for secondary planning. This is good.  It looks like the majority of councilors will support the park, but we shall see.

The local councillor for the area, Reg Rankin, has indicated he wants secondary planning, despite the wishes of his constituents (myself included) who strongly support the regional park and don’t want to see this precious area handed over to sprawl. Councillor Rankin introduced a motion (15.1) earlier this summer that called for secondary planning to begin using a boundary for the regional park that was much smaller than the one already approved in the HRM regional plan. Fortunately, the majority on council decided to wait to receive the full staff report and more time to read through the 1420 public submissions.

It’s not the easiest read, but the City Staff Report on Birch Cove Lakes (released this week) comes down strongly in favour of the regional park. It recommends AGAINST secondary planning, saying there is already enough developable land in the city to meet residential growth needs for the next 28 to 35 years. It then goes on to say that this 28 to 35 year figure is likely “significant underestimated” when redevelopment opportunities are factored in.

City staff also conclude that there will be fiscal implications for the Municipality if secondary planning is approved, stating “In this case, HRM’s operating and maintenance costs are estimated to increase without a corresponding increase in assessment or tax revenue as the total expected development in HRM will not increase, but will be spread over a larger area”. These are pretty straight forward arguments against secondary planning for the Birch Cove Lakes, irrespective of the regional park.

The City staff report proposes the following motion (14.1):

That Halifax Regional Council:

1) Receive the Facilitator’s report regarding negotiation of the proposed boundaries for the Blue Mountain/Birch Cove Lakes Regional Park in relation to the Highway 102 West Corridor and take no further action concerning the facilitation process or the report’s recommendations;

2) Refuse the request to initiate secondary planning for all Hwy 102 West Corridor lands at this time; and

3) Direct staff to explore opportunities and develop a program to acquire land to establish the proposed Blue Mountain – Birch Cove regional park, with a priority of providing public access to the provincially protected wilderness area, that includes, but is not limited to: a) Discussions with the Federal and Provincial governments; b) Discussions with all private land owners that own property located within the conceptual park boundary in Map 11 of the Regional Plan; c) Discussions with land conservation and community groups; and d) Reviewing the potential use of land use planning tools and conservation easements.

Staff is further directed to report back to Regional Council within 6 months.

This is a good motion. It officially ends the failed (and embarrassing) facilitation process. It turns down the request for secondary planning. And it directs city staff to continue to work on land acquisition opportunities for the regional park.

I’d like to see the City go one step further, and start budgeting for future land acquisitions by creating a special Birch Cove Lakes fund. If the City had done that back in 2006, and contributed say $1million per year toward that fund, there would now be $10million available to support the pending land acquisition. Parks are important infrastructure for residents of any city.

Clearly, in this case, there is tremendous public support for protecting the Birch Cove Lakes as a regional park. That sort of broad unanimity in Municipal planning is rare, so the city should take advantage of this opportunity.

I also like the recommendation contained in the staff motion that calls on the City to work with other levels of government. Arguably, the province has already done a lot with protecting the vast majority of the Blue Mountain – Birch Cove Lakes as a legally protected wilderness area (initially in 2009 and then again in 2015).  But there are stranded pieces of public lands in the regional centre owned by the provincial government where development may be appropriate that could help the city acquire privately owned lands on Susies, Quarry, and Fox Lakes. That should be explored.

Similarly, the Birch Cove Lakes are spectacular enough to be an urban national park. The federal government has just passed legislation to create “Urban National Parks” in Canada and established the very first one in Toronto at Rouge Park. That park establishment process came with an investment of $100 million from the federal government. Halifax clearly needs to reach out to the Federal government to demonstrate the model of urban national parks could work for Birch Cove Lakes and there is deep public support here for such a thing to occur. I think they may find a level of interest from Ottawa on this.

The city could also be doing a lot more. It is looking at redeveloping municipal lands at the Cogswell Interchange. Trading lands there (where development is appropriate) in exchange for acquiring lands on Susies, Quarry, and Fox Lakes would be a win-win.

But, right now for Birch Cove Lakes, the immediate threat needs to be stopped. That threat is secondary planning and on Tuesday Regional Council will decide if they align with the HRM regional plan, city staff, community groups, and (most importantly) the public at large, or if they will align with the developers and a councillor who’s seeking to advance secondary planning. We shall see.

~Chris Miller