- May 10, 2001

by: Joe Szostak

Prospect High Head

One of the most ecologically important sites in Nova Scotia is up for grabs. The coastal barren Prospect High Head was in the process of being designated a conservation area, but the deal fell through and now a key portion of the land is being sold to a real estate developer instead. The High Head has been described as Peggy's Cove without the tour buses. It's an ecologically sensitive area located about 23 kilometres southwest of Halifax and overlooks the Village of Prospect, a classic Nova Scotia fishing village. The area is one of only two coastal barrens in the province and home to the endangered harlequin duck."This area should never be developed," says Sam Rogers, a member of the Prospect Peninsula Residents Association, which represents the residents of the peninsula. "Once it's gone, it's gone forever."

Citizens throughout Halifax Regional Municipality and beyond have been lobbying hard to stop development on the High Head. "I haven't been able to get of the phone," says Gary Meade, councillor for St. Margaret's Bay - Prospect. "I've received more than 250 phone calls and hundreds of e-mails from as far away as British Columbia. The public outcry has been overwhelming."

In recent years, the High Head has become a favourite hiking and walking area for residents throughout Halifax Regional Municipality. An estimated6000 people a year use the trails. They are drawn by the spectacular vistas and miles of undisturbed coastline. But the High Head is a mixture of public and private lands. In May, the province donated its holdings to the Nature Conservancy of Canada, which procures land for conservation and public use. It looked like a 15-year effort by local residents to protect the High Head from development was finally getting somewhere. But the land deal now threatens to undermine the entire effort.

The 120-acre parcel of land is centrally located on the High Head and runs down to and along the coast. Alex Hartling, a surveyor living in Dartmouth, was acting as a middle man for the sale of the land owned by the Stevens family of Ottawa.

His negotiations with the Nature Conservancy came to an abrupt halt when Hartling decided to buy the land himself, presumably to flip it to another buyer. News of the sale set off the public furore. The municipal planning strategy developed for the Prospect area in the 1980sidentified the High Head as an ecologically sensitive and endangered area that should be targeted for preservation. Nova Scotia's minister of Natural Resources Ernie Fage told CBC news, "This particular area has been designated as one of the most important areas of the province to protect . .. "At the moment, however, this seems not to mean much. "All these years of planning and consultation don't seem to be worth the paper they're printed on, once money comes into the picture," says Mr. Rogers."This isn't just any piece of land," says Sue Browne, an environmental planner and Prospect resident. "It's an ecologically significant area with a variety of landscapes and habitats-- wetland, coastal forest, coastal barrens, granite, small rocky beaches. Private development will threaten the ecology and limit public access.""Because it's a barrens, there's no tree cover," says Gary Meade, "so any housing will stick out like a sore thumb." And the walking path that brings people to the barrens is in danger of becoming an access road.

The High Head has been used by the public for as long as anyone can remember. Many people simply assumed it was always crown land. Councillor Meade got one call from an 89-year-old grandmother who grew up in Prospect."She told me the High Head was always regarded as common land, something like the Commons in Halifax. It was a place where her father and grandfather and other villagers took their livestock to graze."Of course the problem of access and conservation of natural places is much bigger that just Prospect. "Open coastal land is disappearing at an alarming rate," says John Charles, a planner with HRM and a Prospect resident. Along the Prospect peninsula, public access to the ocean which was once plentiful is becoming scarce. Kelly's Point, for instance, just adjacent to the Village of Prospect, is being developed with monster houses owned mostly by part-time residents from out of the country. And all of St. Margaret's Bay is now privately owned, with the only public remaining being just 2.5 acres at Boutlier's Point."Nova Scotia has no legislation that protects public access or effectively regulates development along the coast," says Sue Browne. "With the Department of Fisheries and Oceans divesting government wharfs in small craft harbours, recreational boating access is diminishing.

At the same time, development of the coast is decreasing beach and coastal access."Setting aside areas for public use is crucial for the long term. "If we do this now, ten years down the road, when Nova Scotia's coastlines are quite developed, we will still have places for recreational use," says Ms Browne. Unfortunately, Nova Scotia's budget for land acquisition is barely $80,000 a year. That's not going to go far. But access is not the only concern. Changing our coastal ecology is going to impact our fisheries.

"The pattern of coastal development is changing radically from the past" says John Charles. "For nearly three centuries, settlements along the coast have been fishing communities such as Peggy's Cove, West Dover, East Dover, Prospect and Terrence Bay. These communities developed at the ends of peninsulas, and were separated from each other by miles of undisturbed coastline."Now however, says Mr. Charles, coastal development is slowly spreading along the shorelines of the municipality to the point that within a few years, our coastal ecology will have been permanently altered. "How are we going to deal with this? Will we wait for further losses in the fishery before we act? Or will we start to plan now for the future that is evolving?"

Back in Prospect, residents have developed their own plan. "We've got to draw the line somewhere, and this is it," says Sam Rogers. "No development on the High Head, period."

Readers who want to voice their opinion on this issue are encouraged to contact the following politicians:

Councillor Gary Meade
Phone: 902-826-3336
Fax: 902-826-3337
Bill Estabrooks, MLA
Phone: (902) 424-4134
Mayor Peter Kelly
Telephone: (902) 490-4010
Fax: (902) 490-4012
Hon John F. Hamm
Telephone: (902) 424-6600

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