Nova Scotia

Report says best use of Owls Head land would be recreation, conservation

A valuation report prepared for the company that wants to buy hundreds of hectares of Crown land in Little Harbour, N.S., to build up to three golf courses and other developments says it would be difficult to get the zoning changed to allow for major development.

Developer wants to buy Crown land from the province to build up to 3 golf courses

This picture shows Little Harbour, N.S., in the upper left, private land in the foreground, and the Owls Head park reserve in the upper right. (Nova Scotia Nature Trust)

A valuation report prepared for the company that wants to buy hundreds of hectares of Crown land in Little Harbour, N.S., to build up to three golf courses and other developments says the "highest and best use" for the land is "recreational or conservation purposes."

The report, and other information, is contained in an access-to-information request recently released to one of the parties suing the Nova Scotia government in hopes of stopping the potential land sale.

Jamie Simpson, the lawyer representing the two parties — former provincial biologist Bob Bancroft and the Eastern Shore Forest Watch Association — said they were pleased to receive the valuation report and documents containing more concrete information about the proposal.

Lighthouse Links, a company owned by Beckwith and Kitty Gilbert, has a letter of offer from the provincial government to buy the land that has been commonly known as Owls Head provincial park. The Gilberts own a large amount of land adjacent to the Crown land.

The lawyer for Lighthouse Links has not responded to several questions from CBC News.

Owls Head provincial park, located in Little Harbour, N.S., was delisted from the Parks and Protected Areas Plan in March 2019. (CBC)

Although Owls Head isn't actually a provincial park, it was included in the province's Parks and Protected Areas Plan, in which it was designated as pending protected status. In 2019, the government removed the land from the pending protection list without notice, which allowed it to entertain the offer of purchase.

The plan, which CBC News first reported on in December, has sparked outrage and pitted neighbours against neighbours.

Mixed reactions to project

Some people in the community of Little Harbour and other parts of the Eastern Shore welcome the idea of the potential economic development golf courses could bring to the area, while others have noted Owls Head is some of the last publicly-owned coastal Crown land and home to a globally-rare ecosystem that would be destroyed by the kind of alterations required to build golf courses.

The valuation report obtained by Simpson's client notes the majority of the land is zoned regional parkland, "which precludes most development."

"The use of the subject property for anything other than what is currently enabled under its zoning would require significant policy changes at the highest levels of municipal planning authority. Requests for amendments to policy at this level carry no guarantee that they will even be considered by council, and no opportunity for appeal to the UARB if denied.

"Such changes would be highly unlikely."

Chris Miller, a conservation biologist and executive director of the Nova Scotia branch of the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society, called on the province to protect Owls Head. (Submitted by Chris Miller)

But the letter of offer from the province makes clear the proposal from Lighthouse Links would require such changes.

Along with up to three golf courses, it calls for a "club house, single family homes and short term accommodations, enhanced seasonal and recreational activities (including hiking, kayaking, and boating)," and possibly more.

Chris Miller, a conservation biologist and executive director of the Nova Scotia branch of the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society, said the conclusion in the valuation report basically describes "exactly what a provincial park is."

"It's just yet another example of a red flag that should have stopped this whole process then and there," he said.

Miller said he has no confidence public feedback will be fairly weighed if the government has to make a decision on a sale. He called on the province to stop the process and protect the land.

A road sign in opposition to the creation of a golf course on Crown land known as Owls Head provincial park reserve in Little Harbour. (Robert Short/CBC)

"There's just too much involved in this that's wrong," he said.

In February, in the face of mounting community pressure to stop the plan, the lawyer for Lighthouse Links issued a statement to CBC News saying the Gilberts were hitting pause on their plan so they could "explore multiple options" for the property and consider public feedback. No clarification was given, however, about whether that pause was temporary or permanent.

One of the requirements in the letter of offer is that Lighthouse Links put together a public engagement plan, which must be signed off on by the Lands and Forestry Department. Should all the terms of the letter of offer be met, ultimately it would be up to the provincial cabinet to decide if the deal should be approved.

Simpson said the decision to leave the public consultation work to the proponent doesn't sit well with his clients, who are due back in court in late June.

Lands and Forestry Minister Iain Rankin says his department is unsure of what the Gilberts current intentions are for the project. (Craig Paisley/CBC)

"They feel that that responsibility should be the department's responsibility to conduct," he said.

Lands and Forestry Minister Iain Rankin said on Thursday that his department has still not heard anything from the Gilberts about their intentions for a public consultation plan or whether they remain interested in continuing with the project as outlined in the letter of offer.

"We don't have an official stop to their application," he said.

"We've asked for [more information], but we haven't received work back from that."

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