Nova Scotia

New bill will force owners to build farther back from Nova Scotia coastlines

The new Coastal Protection Act being introduced in the Nova Scotia legislature will force property owners to set new buildings back farther from the province's vulnerable shorelines.

Bill aimed at preventing more erosion of coastline and subsequent damage to coastal buildings

A strip of eroding Nova Scotia coastline is shown in this undated handout photo. Nova Scotia has introduced legislation to help protect its coastal communities from rising sea levels. (Saint Mary's University/Canadian Press)

The new Coastal Protection Act being introduced in the Nova Scotia Legislature will force property owners to set new buildings back farther from the province's vulnerable shorelines.

"Climate change means rising sea levels, greater risk of flooding and coastal erosion. We need to protect the natural ecosystems that help defend our coasts, and this legislation will help us do that," Environment Minister Margaret Miller said Tuesday.

She warned the act is not designed to help out in instances where structures are already threatened by rising sea waters.

"It's not about funding breakwaters or retaining walls. Instead, this legislation deals with future construction," Miller said.

"It's meant to prevent today's problems from happening to tomorrow's homes, businesses and cottages. We can't change the past but we can ensure that new construction is built in safer places, where it's not at high risk of flooding or coastal erosion." 

Environment Minister Margaret Miller said the new coastal protection legislation will keep properties and the coastline from being damaged from future construction. (CBC)

The new regulations will help protect salt marshes, dunes and other coastal features that filter water and allow the coast to naturally adapt to the impact of climate change, she said.

It's expected the legislation, which will be applied provincewide, will be in place within 12-18 months.

There are currently about 60,000 properties hugging Nova Scotia's 13,000 kilometres of coastline and about 70 per cent of the province's population lives within 20 kilometres of the coast.

More work needs to be done on mapping affected areas to determine what kinds of setbacks need to be put in place, said John Somers of the Environment Department.

"The act focuses on straddling the high watermark to allow for the dynamic movement of the coast ... so there's a lot of detail to sort out there," he said.

"And by the way, in [Halifax Regional Municipality], they already have a setback throughout all of HRM including in downtown. There is a minimum vertical setback of 3.8 metres above mean sea level, so it's a fairly common approach to regulating land development near the coast."

The Ecology Action Centre's Nancy Anningson said the new regulations will help prevent putting people at risk in dangerous places that will be negatively impacted by coastal climate change. (CBC)

The new rules will not affect minor renovations, such as building a deck or sunroom on a cottage, Miller said.

The Ecology Action Centre is fully supportive of the new regulations, said Nancy Anningson, its senior coastal adaptation co-ordinator.

She said while some municipalities already have rules in place about building close to shorelines, "it's very varied, it's a little bit like the Wild West across Nova Scotia."

And not all the restrictions currently in place will be effective in preventing damage to buildings and coastlines as sea levels rise.

One development that probably would not go ahead under the new bill would be Queen's Marque, a two-hectare complex under construction along Halifax's waterfront next to the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic, Anningson said.

"The tricky thing about something like this is, this is forward-looking legislation and it's happening now, which we are elated about. Had it happened several years back, we probably wouldn't be building it, that would be my assumption."

Coastline construction in Nova Scotia will be affected by new legislation that looks at rising sea levels and the protection of the province's eroding shoreline. (Robert Short/CBC)

There are other municipal "loopholes" that will be addressed by the regulations, she added.

"If you didn't know, when you bought that lot and built your dream home, you're immediately at risk. We need to stop that from happening."

The regulations are expected to address what kind of sea level rise is expected and how much adjacent land is going to be impacted.

"It's tricky. I mean, there is a certain degree of uncertainty in all of this. And, you know, it's you're trying to define a coastal protection zone and literally the sand is shifting, the coast changed as it adapts," Anningson said.

"There are margins, there are kind of low, intermediate and high margins when people are trying to predict sea level rise. If we're really talking about protecting for the future, then I think we need to go on the high end of that. This is our opportunity to say let's be safe."

With files from Jean Laroche