The Nature Conservancy of Canada and citizens' groups are pressing Halifax's council to consider a proposal to purchase 153 hectares of wilderness near the city from a development company.

The proposal would keep a large chunk of the Purcells Cove backlands as green space in perpetuity.  

"We're thrilled that this opportunity has been presented to us," said Kathleen Hall, co-chair of the Backlands Coalition of citizens groups. Her group has campaigned for years against any development on the Purcells Cove Backlands, and the site in question is the largest privately held section of the area from Williams Lake to Herring Cove.  

"If we were able to secure this as a wilderness park, then I think it's fair to say that the rest of the backlands could easily be saved from development," she said.   

Ecologically significant

The site, which is about eight kilometres from downtown Halifax, is a popular place for swimming, hiking, canoeing, skating and other outdoor uses. It covers Williams Lake and Colpitt Lake, and the nature conservancy considers it ecologically significant for breeding birds and plants such as the jackpine and crowberry. 

Craig Smith, the provincial program director at Nature Conservancy of Canada, said the conservancy approached Shaw Group — the development company that owns the land — in 2015. He said Shaw Group was willing to sell, so together they approached the city. 

"We have presented them with this idea and are currently awaiting their opinion on whether or not what we've proposed is a concept that is workable for the city of Halifax," he said.

Purcells Cove backlands

The Nature Conservancy of Canada considers the Purcells Cove Backlands to be ecologically significant for birds and certain plants. (Shaina Luck/CBC)

The bulk of the purchase cost would be borne by the conservancy and the city. Smith said to protect the land would require a purchase, but he said it was too early to discuss price. 

"Any model that's going to see permanent protection of this portion of the Purcell's Cove backland is going to involve a purchase of the site," he said.

"What we're going to try to figure out is just how that might be structured. The first thing to establish is whether there's significant enough value for all the partners to come to the table."

Well-used site

In April, Halifax regional council asked staff for a report on the feasibility of a three-way agreement. 

Melanie Dobson of the Williams Lake Conservation Company, a local environmental group, said she is hopeful the city will consider protecting the land. 

Dobson said her group has sampled water from the lakes for almost 40 years, and their records show the system is clean and healthy due to the filtration of water through multiple lakes. 

'We have a historical record here'

"We have samples going back for years, which is very nice — we have a historical record here," said Dobson, who works as a professor in department of biochemistry and molecular biology at Dalhousie University.

Dobson thought preserving the lakes would be a great benefit for Halifax residents. 

"We actually have the ospreys coming in. We have a stream running down to the ocean, to the [Northwest] Arm. So you have this mix of the marine environment close to ... a Canadian wilderness lake," she said.

"It's right here in the city, close to a major bus point where you can easily get here."

Unanimous vote

In 2012, local residents campaigned against the extension of water and sewer lines to the area, arguing it would increase development in the area. 

Clayton Developments, a company owned by the Shaw Group, had hoped to turn parts of the Purcells Cove Backlands into new housing.

City council voted unanimously not to extend the infrastructure.