Nova Scotia

Residents decry beachside development by former Halifax mayor Peter Kelly

People who live in and near Eagle Head, N.S., say construction and excavation work being done on a property owned by Peter Kelly is threatening the beach ecosystem and public access.

Project a threat to ecosystem, wildlife and public beach access, say Eagle Head residents

A 'No trespassing' sign on a stake has been placed in the sand next to the dunes. An enormous wall of sand looms behind it.
The property owners, former Halifax mayor Peter Kelly and Diana Girouard, have erected signs at the edge of the dunes indicating the property is private. (Robert Short/CBC)

There's a little pathway just above the beach in Eagle Head, N.S., that trails along the grassy dunes between a pond and the breathtaking bay.

Residents of the community near Liverpool say people have used that footpath since at least the 1700s — to transport oxen from one side of the bay to the other, for kids to get to school, and more recently, just to take a quiet walk and take in the rhythms of nature.

Today, huge boulders block the path from the road that leads to it. Signs tell people to keep out, and label it private property.

The footpath was recently broadened into a dirt road to allow construction vehicles and machines to travel in and out. On the other side of the boulders, the dirt road now leads to an enormous wall of sand that's been dug out of a pit on the other side of the wall, presumably for the foundation of a house. 

Boulders are placed across a dirt road.
Boulders placed on the dirt road prevent vehicles from getting to the construction site. (Robert Short/CBC)

Peter Leslie, whose ancestors were among the earliest settler families to live in Eagle Head, is one of many residents who have raised the alarm about the development and its impact on the wetland, wildlife and public access to the beach area.

"This is a piece of land that we had always assumed couldn't be built on because it's primarily wetland and there's very little access to it — the access is extremely narrow. So we always thought it was safe."

A man stands in front of a pond as protesters hold signs behind him.
Peter Leslie grew up in Eagle Head and says the community always assumed the property could not be developed because it's a wetland. (Robert Short/CBC)

The two-hectare property on Eagle Head Road sold for $175,000 last August to former Halifax mayor Peter Kelly and Diana Girouard. The property listing declares the beach "one of the best-kept secrets in Queens County," and the property a "sanctuary for the soul" where "peacefulness pervades, punctuated only by birdsong and the soothing sounds of the ocean."

That peaceful quietude has changed since the construction gear moved in.

Efforts by CBC News to reach Kelly for comment have been unsuccessful. 

Concerns about wildlife, wetlands

The residents have a number of concerns about the development, which they say began mid-June. They say the sand that was dug out of the pit was dumped on the dunes, smothering some of the the delicate seagrass underneath and possibly birds that may have been nesting there.

Talla Corkum, a resident of Eagle Head, said seagrass is what helps keep the dunes together, and its removal will expedite erosion that has already claimed more than 20 metres of dunes in the past 20 or so years.

The area is home to roseate terns, an endangered species in Nova Scotia, and was historically habitat for the endangered piping plover. Snapping turtles, a vulnerable species, also live in the area. Corkum said residents recently saw a "completely lethargic" snapping turtle in the yard of a nearby house.

A woman stands near a beach as protesters hold signs in the background.
Talla Corkum lives in Eagle Head, N.S., and is one of many residents questioning how the development was allowed to take place. (Robert Short/CBC)

"It just had no drive. And I don't know if it was just completely confused, scared," Corkum said. "And if you've ever seen a snapping turtle, it will snap at you, without a doubt. There is no question that if you try to get close to it, it will try to fight back."

Community members are also concerned because material was dumped into a pond in order to create the dirt road that leads to the development site.

On Monday, the Environment Department fined the property owners $697.50 for altering a watercourse without departmental approval. The day before, a company was fined $1,157.50 for knowingly altering a watercourse without permission. The department has ordered the company to remove the material from the pond by July 8.

A drone photo shows the development site nestled between a pond at the top and the public beach at the bottom.
A drone photo of the development site shows a pit surrounded by sand and gravel, with a pond at the top of the photo and the beach at the bottom. (Submitted)

Corkum said she's glad the fines were issued, but she doesn't think they will prevent further damage.

"I don't think that it will deter them in the slightest."

Municipal permit granted

Municipal spokesperson Heather Cook said a development permit was issued for the site, and the development is complying with all municipal requirements.

Mayor Darlene Norman said once a building permit is issued, inspectors will attend the site to ensure it meets the regulations.

Norman said she has been contacted by several residents expressing concern. She declined to share her own opinion about the situation, but said as mayor, she feels provincial protection for coastlines cannot come soon enough.

"Yesterday would have been wonderful."

A pit and mounds of sand are seen through the trees, with a pond in the foreground and a beach in the background.
The development site is between a pond and a public beach. (Robert Short/CBC)

The Coastal Protection Act, aimed at protecting ecosystems while ensuring new homes and businesses are safer from sea level rise, coastal flooding and erosion, was passed in 2019. But the act is not enforceable because the associated regulations have not yet been approved. The Environment Department says the regulations should come into effect next year.

If the Coastal Protection Act had been in place, the development on Eagle Head Road would not have been approved, Norman said, both because the land is not high enough above sea level and because the soil at the site is of a type that erodes.

Norman said locals tend to have in-depth knowledge of the ecosystem of beaches, understanding the impact of storms and erosion. They also know the social history, including the tradition of public access.

"I believe the community, but we also have to represent the interests of everyone within Queens County. And, you know, we cannot refuse to grant permits because the community says, 'But we know.' So we follow rules as dictated to us," she said.

"You want to support the people that want to come here and build, and you want to support a community, and you want to do what's right and you want to stay legal. And it's just sometimes it's almost impossible to do everything."

A lawn sign shows Peter Kelly's face with the hashtag Shame on it, and the words Protect Eagle Head Beach, this is so wrong.
A sign on a lawn in Eagle Head protests the development next to the beach. The sign bears an image of Peter Kelly. (Robert Short/CBC)

Will Balser, the coastal adaptation co-ordinator for the Ecology Action Centre, said disputes such as the one taking place at Eagle Head are becoming increasingly common in Nova Scotia, especially in more ecologically sensitive areas such as wetlands or areas subject to erosion.

"We've run out of a lot of the desirable lots that are up on a hill or protected by natural cliffs and rocks. Now it's the swampy lots that are left."

Balser said over 80 per cent of Nova Scotia's coastline is privately owned, and that number is increasing. As the interest in developing coastal property grows, community access is becoming a bigger issue.

"We've lost a lot of our natural access points or former access points to the shoreline. So it's really restricting not just local property owners, but anyone who comes to the province or comes to the beach."

Province investigating

The Public Works Department is investigating whether the rock wall along the public road to the beach has been altered.

Natural Resources and Renewables investigated reports of damage to a beaver dam, but determined it was not caused by construction activities. The department is not conducting any further wildlife habitat investigations, but is awaiting information from Bird Studies Canada to ensure there are no piping plovers at the site.

Staff also determined that the owner is not stopping people from using the public part of the beach.

Seaweed covers the sand at a beach.
The beach in Eagle Head is strewn with seaweed up to the dunes. (Robert Short/CBC)

In the meantime, people have begun protesting at the beach, holding signs that say, "The Dunes are Doomed" and "See Government Inaction in Action."

"We want transparency. We want accountability. We want to know why we are losing this area," said Corkum.

"We're going to make our voices heard, continue to let them know that action is necessary and hope that there is something that we can find within it that is going to stop it."

Peter Kelly was recently fired as chief administrative officer of the City of Charlottetown after two of his former deputies claimed they were fired when they came forward with concerns about the city's administration and finances.

Kelly's home in Brackley Beach on Prince Edward Island was recently for sale, with a listing price of $739,000.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Frances Willick is a journalist with CBC Nova Scotia. Please contact her with feedback, story ideas or tips at frances.willick@cbc.ca

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