Does my City Councillor support the Birch Cove Lakes?

Tomorrow, the Birch Cove Lakes will be debated at Halifax Regional Council. And, if I was a betting man, I’d say every single councillor will speak glowingly in favour of the regional park.

The public has been tremendously supportive of protecting the Birch Cove Lakes; the premier natural area at the doorstep of the city, filled with lakes and forests and interesting places to explore.

In 2006, the municipal government promised to acquire lands at the Birch Cove Lakes for a regional park and wrote this commitment into the citywide HRM regional plan, which is pretty much the blueprint to guide development in the city over the next 25 years or so.

Unfortunately, the City has made terrible progress over the past ten years actually acquiring lands for the regional park. Not one hectare has been acquired for the park and a facilitated process that was supposed to lead to a joint agreement between the City and the developers has essentially failed.

Regardless, at Regional Council tomorrow, I fully expect to hear lots and lots of discussion about how wonderful the Birch Cove Lakes are and how important the regional park is to the residents of the City.  This sort of talk has been common over those past ten years, those same ten years when no land was actually acquired for the regional park.

When it comes to the Birch Cove Lakes, the City is long on planning but short on implementation.  All talk, no action.

Now, to be fair, there are some excellent Councillors at Regional Council who totally understand the Birch Cove Lakes and why this area must be protected as a regional park. They get it and are working hard to ensure that the regional park happens.

I’ve spoken with many of these Councillors and they are committed to finding a solution and helping to create the conditions for the City to successfully negotiate a land acquisition for the park.

Unfortunately, not all City Councillors are as committed.  Some will say all the right things, but when it comes to the key decisions and standing up for what’s best for the park, they may not follow up talk with action.

So, when Birch Cove Lakes is discussed at Regional Council tomorrow, how might a concerned citizen tell if their particular councillor is truly working hard to create winning conditions for the Birch Cove Lakes regional park versus only talking about it.  Well, there’s an easy answer to that. And it involves “secondary planning”.

Whereas every councillor will likely indicate their support for the regional park, not every councillor will say NO to “secondary planning”.  That’s the giveaway. The same way that even the best poker players will have some sort of tell that always shows when they are bluffing, if a particular councillor says they love the park but they also support secondary planning, well that’s the key piece of information you need.

The much maligned facilitated process – the one that failed to reach a joint agreement between the city and the developers, and placed tremendous obstacles in the way of full public participation – provides no basis whatsoever for proceeding to Secondary Planning. To the contrary, that process failed, full stop. So why would the city even consider acting on one of its key recommendations? Who would do that? And why?

The City is only talking about the Birch Cove Lakes tomorrow because one Councillor – Reg Rankin – has put forward a proposed motion to force debate about the Birch Cove Lakes.  I’ve written previously about how this is inappropriate because the 1500 public submissions have not yet been presented to Regional Council and by proceeding with the debate anyways makes a mockery of a process that’s already on very shaky ground with public credibility anyways.  Wait for the public letters. Read them carefully. Take the necessary time to make the best decisions.

The motion by Councillor Rankin references a mystery map – Map 3A from the city – and appears to suggest that what’s outside of that boundary should be approved for secondary planning.  Map 3A has never been made public, but is likely smaller than the regional park map contained within the HRM regional plan, since it was presented as part of the failed negotiated process, presumably as one of the city negotiating positions.

So, Rankin’s motion (if approved) would essentially give the green light to secondary planning on some of the lands within the current preferred park boundary for the Birch Cove Lakes, if Map 3A has a smaller park boundary than the park boundary shown in the HRM regional plan. Additionally, it would weaken the City’s strongest negotiating position with the developers, which is to acquire lands inside the regional park boundary in exchange for granting development approvals outside the boundary, in a manner that’s consistent with the HRM regional plan. There are other concerns with “adjacency” and what that means for development pressures on lands currently zoned as Urban Reserve, within the regional park boundary. It would, essentially, be a fatal wound for the City in these negotiations, a wound from which they may not recover.

Hopefully, the majority of councillors will truly support the regional park tomorrow. We shall see.

~Chris Miller