Developing coastal policy in Nova Scotia

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A friend of mine here in Yarmouth County, whose yard backs up on a salt marsh, says that two or three times a year now, the water rises to levels that he used to see only once every 10 years. This is in keeping with reports from around the world, dramatized recently by the government of the Maldives -- a low-lying island nation in the Indian Ocean threatened with extinction by rising seas -- holding a cabinet meeting underwater with scuba gear.

Meanwhile, some places are already abandoning, or preparing to abandon, low-lying areas and taking or considering other measures. In New Brunswick, for example, some houses are being hauled to higher ground at Pointe-du-Chêne, near Shediac. But other places are still building in blithe ignorance, defying warnings that they're courting trouble.

Where does Nova Scotia stand? It varies, but mostly in the blithe ignorance category, according to Jennifer Graham, coastal co-ordinator for the Ecology Action Centre. The EAC and others have been trying to raise the alarm with various initiatives. These include the anxious Insurance Bureau of Canada, fretting about who's going to pay when danger is ignored.

I caught a presentation by Graham last week in West Pubnico to the local chapter of the French-speaking business council, Le Conseil de développement économique de la Nouvelle-Ecosse.

She has slides. One shows an approved seashore lot in Queens County, with an approved septic field. The next frame shows the same property under water. The story degenerates from there. In most places, roads, houses and subdivisions are still being built in low coastal areas, even on beaches and marshes, as storms become stronger and more frequent, driving tides higher, and eroding and flooding more.

What about provincial laws and regulations? Non-existent, but there's something cooking. An elaborate "state of the coast" report is ready to go to cabinet. Then there'll have to be public hearings and stakeholder negotiations, with the end result being a new coastal strategy. Some, however, worry that the whole thing is still in drift mode where it's been for years.

Justin Huston, the civil servant who chairs the coastal project, is hardly reassuring as he points out the enormous complexity of the process: no less than 15 provincial departments involved, and the final plan would bring in several federal departments and agencies plus the municipalities.

The gist of it need not be complicated at all, however, says Lester Berrigan, a Bridgewater surveyor who does a lot of coastal work: The province should simply "establish a minimum height elevation above the ordinary high-water mark for the location of footings or foundation floors."

In fact, HRM does this now for most of the municipality, and has horizontal setbacks as well. It did this in 2006 as part of its planning. Although only the Halifax Harbour area is completely mapped for planning purposes, the controls for the rest of HRM's long coast were established as a "precautionary principle" until mapping catches up, says HRM planner John Charles. However, projects underway before 2006 were "grandfathered in" and there's still building going on in questionable locations.

With the municipalities still in charge, HRM, Barrington, Kings and Lunenburg are the most advanced, says Berrigan. Guysborough, Queens, Shelburne and Digby counties are the "easiest to develop -- no land use bylaws, no standards for roads, no conceptual approval for subdivision plans." He adds that he's seen "roads designed through wetlands, building sites on cobblestone beaches, and areas of sand dunes approved for building sites which have flooded during recent hurricanes."

Beyond elevations and setbacks, there are other issues. Charles O'Reilly, who recently retired as chief of tidal analysis for the Canadian Hydrographic Service, says the issue of legal liability and compensation for future damage is huge, and that a policy must be in place as quickly as possible to let people know if they're building in harm's way, which they mostly now do not.

In addition to coastal development, the state-of-the-coast report will also deal with public access to shorelines, sensitive coastal areas, coastal water quality and other points.

Jennifer Graham, however, complains that all this process will do is create a new strategy that will set goals and make recommendations. "It will not get at the loopholes, apathy and plain old sleazy practices that are chewing up the coast bit by bit. Starting to take action on these issues would show a commitment to actually tackling the problem and not just putting another strategy into place."

Ralph Surette is a veteran freelance journalist living in Yarmouth County. This article was reprinted with permission from The Chronicle Herald.

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