July 24, 2021

Advocates concerned about unsafe coastal development in Nova Scotia

Region of Queens Municipality is planning on amending its bylaws

Since Danielle Robertson’s childhood in Hunts Point, N.S., she’s seen the South Shore community change — over time, the coastline has moved landward, including during Hurricane Dorian, when the ocean reached across the community’s road. 

But the change Robertson is most worried about is a new, multi-unit development alongside Hunts Point’s beach, close to sea level. 

“I would have thought that possibly they wouldn’t approve this type of development knowing the concerns that we have in Queens County with flooding,” she said. “We’re one of the worst places in Canada for sea level rise.”

These concerns aren’t confined to Hunts Point; advocates say Robertson’s concerns are representative of a broader pattern across Nova Scotia, as a pandemic-fuelled building boom, combined with delays in implementing legislation designed to prevent unsafe coastal development, have intensified a rush to develop the coast.

“It’s disappointing, because as soon as people found [the Coastal Protection Act] wasn’t in force now, stuff started popping up that should not be happening,” said Nancy Anningson, coastal adaptation senior co-ordinator at the Ecology Action Centre in Halifax.

Legislation meant to deal with ‘huge challenge’

The Coastal Protection Act, which passed in 2019, is meant to set provincewide rules on how close people can build to the water, as well as provide protection for sensitive coastal ecosystems.

John Somers, the executive lead on the legislation, said developing regulations is a complex process, not least because the risks vary across the province.

“We’ve got a huge challenge on our hands. We’ve got 13,000-plus kilometres of very diverse, convoluted shoreline,” said Somers. That means the regulations will include a tool to tailor the building rules to the erosion threat in a given area.

Responding to these technical challenges takes time, Somers said.

“One of the reasons we’re thinking hard about what we’re doing and taking great care with these regulations, which are very specific, is that it’s never been done before, the way we’re actually working on this act,” he said.

Development increasing during pandemic

n the meantime, advocates say unsafe coastal development is taking place despite — and in some cases because of — the incoming rules.

“What happens is people try to beat the act,” said Anningson. “Right now we have developments popping up all around the city of Halifax and all around the coastline of the province that are not safe.”

Anningson said since January, in particular, she’s been “bombarded” with calls from residents concerned about coastal developments in their communities. 

“Until that act comes into force and we can effectively enforce it, people are putting themselves at risk, developers are putting people at risk, and people are making some terribly risky decisions,” she said.

To respond to the escalating risks, Anningson is planning a public education campaign to warn people about the risks of building too close to the water.

“I’ve been diplomatically talking for a couple of years and it’s not working. So it’s time to start saying, ‘Your bank’s not going to help you, your insurance company is not going to help you, you’re on your own,'” she said.

“It’s time for people to educate themselves and to stop making stupid and dangerous decisions.”

Shoreline developments popping up

Municipal officials say the coastal protection act will help them communicate risks to their residents.

In the Region of Queens Municipality, which has required a 15-metre setback from the high-water mark since 2009, Mayor Darlene Norman said there’s been a recent increase in the amount of development along the shoreline in the area.

“Little places that used to be turnoff places, they now all have these rental accommodations on them,” she said.

“If they maintain that 50-foot [15-metre] setback and they have their permission from [the Department of Environment] regarding septic and they can infill out to their survey line, with permission from the province, then we cannot say, ‘We think you’re in danger of losing your structure some year.'”

To respond to increasing climate change risks, the municipality is planning on adding a requirement for a 2.8-metre vertical elevation above the water to its bylaws.  

Norman said provincewide legislation — which has been, in one form or another, two decades in the making — will bolster municipal rules, by making it so that residents can’t challenge bylaws on the basis that they don’t exist in other municipalities. 

“A provincewide coastal plan certainly makes life fair for everyone in Nova Scotia,” Norman said. “What would be helpful from the province to do … is get their nose to the grindstone and get this coastal protection act done.”

A ‘much deeper’ problem

As for the development in Hunts Point, Norman said they can’t deny a development that follows municipal bylaws just because it may be at risk in future decades or because it’s unpopular in the community.

The property owner, who declined to be interviewed, said the development was in accordance with bylaws, and had been adjusted to respect his neighbours’ sightlines. 

But Robertson said the unpopularity of the development isn’t the problem.

“I’d be a liar if I said that doesn’t hurt that the view is going to be obstructed. But it’s much deeper than that,” she said.

Instead, Robertson said it’s concerning that, as the province waits for legislation to be finalized, it was up to residents to warn their neighbours about the risks of coastal climate change. 

“I have a decent relationship with my neighbour, the people working on the property are associates of mine, my children know his children, I don’t want to put myself in this situation,” she said. 

“It’s a terrible situation because people are left to try to stop it because there’s no regulations in place to stop it.”