A plan to fast-track housing development in an ecologically diverse area teeming with old-growth trees and animal habitats is raising concerns for conservationists who’ve been fighting for years to protect the unspoiled land west of Halifax.
The Nova Scotia government announced the Sandy Lake-Sackville River area last month as one of nine locations where development will be accelerated as the province deals with a booming population, skyrocketing real estate prices and a limited housing stock.
But as the province races to build 6,000 private housing units in the area west of the lake near Bedford, a coalition of 27 community groups has been trying to expand a small protected park on the east side and push developers out.
“I encourage the public to go walk the west side of [Sandy Lake]. They’ll just shake their heads that people would actually build there,” said Walter Regan, president of the Sackville Rivers Association, one of the groups that make up the coalition.
Regan’s group wants to see Sandy Lake Park, a 404-hectare property owned by the Halifax Regional Municipality, nearly doubled in size in order to protect forests, wetlands and animal habitats.
Coalition questions sustainability of plan
He said wild Atlantic salmon, mainland moose, old-growth trees and more could be at risk if development happens anywhere in the proposed 728-hectare park, which would encompass the land chosen for development.
Regan has criticized the fast-track process, saying there has been a lack of community consultation.
“You might be able to speed stuff up, but are you going to do it in a sustainable manner? Ten years in the future, we are going to look back and say, ‘We didn’t need those 6,000 units. We should have listened to the people telling us that wildlife and endangered plants and animals would have been worth saving,'” he said.
In addition to concerns about development destroying forests and decreasing water quality, Regan said he is worried about increased car traffic to the area and the disruption of animal migration.
He estimates 13,000 people could move to the area, resulting in more than 4,000 cars driving daily along Hammonds Plains Road, an already busy thoroughfare that stretches west from Bedford to a number of suburban communities.
Environmental studies to be considered: task force
The Sandy Lake-Sackville River site was put forward by the task force on housing, a panel made up of municipal and provincial officials.
Panel chairman Geoff MacLellan, a former provincial Liberal cabinet minister, said HRM environmental studies on the Sandy Lake area will be considered when creating a development plan.
“We have to find that balance between protecting critical ecological areas and finding locations for development that are needed during the housing crisis. So there is a fine line, and it’s our duty to make sure that we follow that fine line,” he said.
MacLellan defended the expedited timeline.
“We’re not looking to run roughshod over public consultation and council process, but there are opportunities to streamline some of these processes to shave months and sometimes years off the process,” he said.
“That’s what we’re tasked to do.”
In February 2021, the Sandy Lake-Sackville River Regional Park Coalition unsuccessfully appealed to Halifax regional council’s environment committee to expand Sandy Lake Park.
Coun. Tim Outhit, whose district of Bedford-Wentworth includes the park, said he is in favour of an expansion, but not to the proposed 728 hectares.
Outhit said developers should pay 50 per cent of costs to improve Hammonds Plains Road in order to handle increased traffic.
The municipality recently commissioned Bedford-based McCallum Environmental to conduct an environmental assessment on the area to possibly propose a conservation boundary to the province and the developers. The study is ongoing.
But Regan said any proposed boundary not within the 728 hectares would be “frivolous” when it comes to conservation.
“We’ve got to have housing with the environment, not housing versus the environment,” he said.
In 2018, Halifax Regional Municipality’s Green Network Plan — a land management and community design strategy — identified three wildlife corridors in the areas surrounding Sandy Lake, meaning the area is important for animal migration and habitat.
‘The wrong way to go’
Karen McKendry of the Ecology Action Centre, a member of the Sandy Lake-Sackville River coalition, said the vision for Sandy Lake Park has always been expansion since it was established in 1971.
“We know that there are these two possible futures for it: development or expansion. The announcement that it’s going to be fast-tracked, we definitely think is the wrong way to go,” said McKendry, a wilderness outreach co-ordinator with the Halifax environmental organization.
McKendry said people should visit the park and swim off its beach to understand its importance.
“It’s one of our really special lakes because unlike many other lakes in Halifax and Dartmouth, it’s a deep, clear lake,” she said.
“If you put housing in the headwaters of the lake, you’re probably going to ruin it.”