Nova Scotia

Infilling could hurt Halifax's Northwest Arm, advocates say

Residents, officials and advocates gathered for a meeting on a tour boat in Halifax Wednesday night to draw attention to a practice they fear could harm the ecology of a busy body of water.

Owners of $3M Birchdale Avenue home applied to fill in 1,672-square-metre water lot

The Ecology Action Centre says a registered architect used publicly available information, site photos and a proposed infill survey completed by surveyors to create this approximate rendering of the proposal to infill a property on the Northwest Arm. (Submitted by the Ecology Action Centre)

Residents, officials and advocates gathered for a meeting on a tour boat in Halifax Wednesday night to draw attention to a practice they fear could harm the ecology of a busy body of water.

In Halifax, pre-Confederation water lots allow property owners to infill out into the water, a practice that has raised concerns in the past.

But in June, an application by a property owner to infill a water lot on the Northwest Arm prompted a surge of interest in the issue, and calls for a moratorium on infilling across the board.

On Wednesday, advocates said that they hoped to encourage government action by drawing attention to the issue.

Nancy Anningson, with the Ecology Action Centre, says there is plenty of inappropriate coastal development happening across Nova Scotia. (CBC)

"These water lots, these areas of the seabed that extend out from private properties, were sort of carried over in Confederation and were left a little bit unguarded," said Nancy Anningson, coastal adaptation senior co-ordinator with the Ecology Action Centre. "So, over time, people have gotten into the practice of infilling them and using them to make land.

"What we're trying to do is to show government that there's a problem here and that it needs to be a lot less easy for people to do this."

Infilling 45 metres from shoreline

The application that first prompted concerns is at a property assessed at approximately $3 million, at 1454 Birchdale Ave. in Halifax. It was purchased by the Metlege family in May. 

In June, Andrew Metlege, who could not be reached for comment, submitted an application to fill in a 1,672-square-metre water lot, which the application said would "protect the shoreline, reclaim land lost to erosion, and maximize the use of the property."

This map, part of an application to Transport Canada, was prepared for Andrew Metlege. (Transport Canada)

But community members are concerned the proposal, which would extend 45 metres out from the shoreline, would also impact habitat, affect the navigability of the arm, and damage the coastline.

Retired civil servant Ted Potter, who worked with the Department of Fisheries and Oceans as a regional manager for environmental assessment and major projects and fisheries management, said local fishers have told him how valuable and productive the Northwest Arm is for lobster.

Infilling projects like the one proposed would limit the value of that habitat, he said. 

"You lose it for all life stages of the lobster that are occupying that area," he said.

Worries about limited space for boats

Community members also said the project could impact water quality and wave dynamics, as well as limit the space available to people who use the Northwest Arm for sailing, kayaking and paddling.

Those impacts are exacerbated, advocates say, by the fact that nearly a third of the Northwest Arm's surface could be lost, if all water lots were filled in. 

People listened to speakers while touring on the Harbour Queen. (CBC)

Halifax regional council introduced changes in recent decades to discourage infilling. Those included making it impossible to build on water lots, other than docks and boathouses, or to use water lots to increase the lot coverage of buildings on abutting land.

But the responsibility for the approval of infilling projects ultimately falls to Transport Canada. 

Several organizations, including regional council, have written to Transport Canada to ask for a moratorium on infilling applications. 

A property owner on the Northwest Arm has submitted an application to infill a pre-confederation water lot. That's prompted concerns not just about this proposal, but about the future development of water lots in the area. 9:29

In a response to a question on whether a moratorium is something Transport Minister Omar Alghabra would consider, the department released a statement.

"Recently, many concerns have been raised regarding infilling waterlots," and that "in determining whether to issue an approval, Transport Canada reviews each application closely for potential impacts on navigation and considers any comments received from interested persons."

A public comment period for the proposal ended on July 22.

Before he retired, Ted Potter worked with the Department of Fisheries and Oceans as a regional manager for environmental assessment and major projects and fisheries management. He says infilling would affect the habitat of lobsters. (CBC)

Halifax MP Andy Fillmore, who was at the event on Wednesday, said he has been in contact with other federal ministers, including the Minister of Fisheries and Oceans and the Environment Minister. He said both will be considering the application — the environment minister to decide whether an environmental impact assessment is required, which will be determined by Aug. 27, and DFO to assess impact on habitat.

While infilling applications have historically been given the go-ahead by the federal government, Fillmore said he hopes that legislation introduced in recent years can be applied to the current proposal. 

In the meantime, advocates say there is an urgent need for action on infilling — and not just because the Northwest Arm application gave an expected start date of mid-September.

A map compiled by the Ecology Action Centre, showing all the areas of the Northwest Arm that could be infilled. A red dot marks the current proposal (CBC)

In light of this week's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report, which specifically mentions the risks associated with sea level rise,  Anningson said the importance of protecting coastal ecosystems is clearer than ever. 

Unfortunately, she said, given the kind of coastal development occurring across the province, it cannot be assumed people have heard that message or that they'll refrain from future infilling applications.

"In my job, I am up to my eyeballs in reports from all around Nova Scotia of people doing completely inappropriate coastal development right now," she said.

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