Possible sale of Crown-owned coastal area in Nova Scotia raises concern

Calls are mounting for the Nova Scotia government to reconsider a potential sale of a section of "spectacularly rugged" Crown-owned land along the province's Eastern Shore to private developers. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO-Nova Scotia Nature Trust

Calls are mounting for the Nova Scotia government to reconsider the potential sale of a section of spectacularly rugged Crown-owned land along the province’s Eastern Shore to private developers.

The 285-hectare area of coastal barrens and wetlands known as Owls Head was quietly removed from a government list of lands awaiting legal protection last March.

The move only came to light last month after CBC reported on documents obtained through an access-to-information request. Those documents indicate the government is considering a proposal from a private developer who wants the land to build as many as three golf courses near Little Harbour, N.S.

“This sets a terrible precedent,” said Chris Miller, the executive director of the Nova Scotia branch of the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society.

“The government has secretly delisted an area that has been promised (for protection) for a long time. If they can do it for this site, they can do it for others, and it undermines the entire protected area system in Nova Scotia.”

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In fact, the area has been awaiting provincial protection after being proposed for designation in Nova Scotia’s 2013 Parks and Protected Areas Plan.

Miller said the Owls Head coastal headlands are significant because they are located near a chain of hundreds of islands that are in a “wild and natural condition.” The conservation biologist said the area contains rare coastal ecosystems and habitat for species at risk, such as the piping plover.

Miller said if the land is sold, it would also represent a missed opportunity in a province where little coastal land is in public hands.

“We are ‘Canada’s Ocean Playground,’ yet only five per cent of our coastline is public and protected,” he said. “So for every piece of public land on the coast, it’s important it remain in public ownership.”

The point was also made by the Halifax-based Ecology Action Centre, which says there is a strong scientific and social case to protect the property.

“The chance to preserve nature and public access on the coast is an exceptional opportunity and should not be foregone in favour of private development that could be done elsewhere,” the centre said in a recent statement. “We will continue to try to stop any further efforts to remove Owls Head from the roster of areas slated for legal protection.”

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Environment Minister Gordon Wilson has said any sale would have to go through an environmental assessment process, although he didn’t get into specifics when asked about the current situation with the Owls Head land.

He said the delisting, which occurred before he was minister, only allows for a formal proposal from the proponent, which hasn’t been submitted yet.

“So until you actually know what the proposal is, it’s very early days to make some kind of assumption on what that (environmental) process might look like,” Wilson said in an interview. “So the more the environmental impact potentially, the more regulatory oversight we would have.”

However, Wilson did say any proposal would likely need municipal development approvals, as well as approvals for water course alterations and wetlands development. He also said the sale of any piece of Crown land would require consultations with First Nations.

Despite government assurances, a Facebook group aimed at saving Owls Head has drawn support from 1,700 people. Barbara Markovits, of the Eastern Shore Forest Watch Association, is helping to organize a public information session Sunday at the Ship Harbour community hall.

Markovits said it is important to remind people in the immediate area of the land’s ecological value and the fact that it had been slated for protection. “The residents have been treating it as a park … and we have always believed it is ours,” she said.

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The Nova Scotia Nature Trust, which looks to protect ecologically significant lands, had been working together to conserve the islands and coastal headlands that make up the archipelago along the Eastern Shore.

The group was caught off guard by the province’s secret delisting, executive director Bonnie Sutherland said.

“If you ask most Nova Scotians what they care about most in terms of natural areas, they’ll say the coast. It’s kind of what defines us,” she said, adding that it’s surprising Owls Head “would not be seen as a really important area for protection.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 22, 2020.

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