On Coastal Policy

Op-Ed in Chronicle-Herald, Saturday June 23, 2012

by Jennifer Graham, coastal co-ordinator, Ecology Action Centre.

Coast is clear, or should be, of unsuitable development

Summertime in Nova Scotia. The many Nova Scotians who love the coast rush there to see what’s new at the water’s edge. I have visited a lot of our coast lately, and I know others will be seeing what I did.

I am amazed by the coastal lots being developed or for sale right now. This spring alone I saw tiny, almost-in-the water lots for sale in places ranging from Purcell’s Cove to Lunenburg. Some of these lots were clearly mostly beach. Or water. Sometimes it’s easy to forget you can’t actually build on an ocean view.

Those who unwittingly buy and build on low-lying, regularly flooded, or highly unstable coastal property are in for unpleasant and expensive problems, with flooding, septic malfunctions, erosion and storm surge damage. We, the taxpayers ultimately pay the rising costs of uninsured property damage and repairing and maintaining nearby infrastructure like roads and electric poles.

And our dynamic, stunning, irreplaceable coast, pays the highest price of all: altered, fragmented, damaged and unable to do all the things a healthy coast does, like provide food and shelter for shorebirds, remove pollutants from water, or provide a barrier against storm damage.

There are plenty of lovely waterfront properties that are high enough, or large enough, or geologically stable enough that they can be profitably and safely developed. Why are people still selling unsuitable lots, despite the harm they cause and the growing risks?

Plain and simple, people sell sketchy coastal property because they can. It is perfectly legal in Nova Scotia to sell lots for development that are currently located in a coastal hazard zone. As for the future, a recent report by the National Round Table on the Environment and the Economy forecasts that sea-level rise and storm surge-related flooding will cost Atlantic Canada between $1 billion and $8 billion annually in the near future.

The ongoing sale and development of hazardous coastal properties occurs because Nova Scotia has not classified any part of its 13,000-kilometre shore as a “coastal zone.” Unless municipalities have designed certain areas as a “coastal hazard zone” or “an ecologically significant zone,” coastal properties are treated exactly like any other parcel of land; although we all know many parts of the coast are prone to flooding, erosion and ongoing change.

The province has been working on a coastal strategy for over five years now. It should be released sometime soon. Those developing the strategy have heard very clearly from the public that the coast, our most precious asset, is fundamental to our collective identity, and that it needs our help and protection. So why is unsuitable coastal development still being encouraged?

The provincial government seems to think that putting fair, consistent and effective rules in place to protect buyers, communities, taxpayers and our amazing coast would be too hard to do, would stall economic development in coastal communities, and would cost too much in a time of heavy cutbacks. So, after five years, the upcoming strategy will likely include more vague commitments to future actions, as did the recently released provincial aquaculture strategy.

The province needs to recognize, as most other coastal jurisdictions already have, that fair and consistent rules don’t have to be complicated and can save money by reducing the current muddle of fragmented regulations and departmental clutter, as well as by eliminating the longer-term costs of unsuitable development.

We need a systematic approach to repair a broken system. Individuals can’t do it by themselves, nor can communities or municipal governments. The reputable investors who want to create safe, minimal-impact developments, economic and recreation opportunities along our spectacular coast can’t fix things by themselves either.

The coast needs our help. The provincial government has to step up and recognize the coast as a significant and special place. It also needs to establish fair, consistent criteria for where new development can safely take place in the coastal zone, and where it cannot. I think calling this new approach the “Nova Scotia Coastal Zone Act” highlights just how significant a healthy coast is to this province’s present and future.

The good news is there is a lot of public support for coastal management. In last fall’s public consultations on a draft coastal strategy, many submissions stressed the need for provincial coastal development regulations. People are ready for change. Let’s call the province on its “head in the sand” approach before the sand washes away, and we’re left gazing bleakly at the wasted opportunity of our once amazing coastline.


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