Michael Gorman & the Judicial review into the Province’s decision to remove Owl’s Head from a protected areas list

“He [Premier Rankin] has argued that he sees a way for golf courses and environmental protection to work hand in hand. That’s a bit tricky in this case. For anybody who is familiar with this land and has been out to see it, it’s hard to imagine a golf development without the land being basically carpet-bombed to make it appropriate for that type of a development.”

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The Nova Scotia Supreme Court has started looking into why the Province removed Owl’s Head from a plan for parks and protected areas. The CBC’s Michael Gorman brings us an update.

Later today, the Nova Scotia Supreme Court will start looking into a matter that could prove tricky for Premier Iain Rankin. The Court’s conducting a judicial review into the province’s decision in 2019 to remove Owls Head from the Parks and Protected Areas list. Rankin was Lands and Forestry Minister at the time and was responsible for that decision, which happened quietly and without notice. It was only discovered after the CBC’s Michael Gorman filed a Freedom of Information Request. Michael’s back with us this morning to talk about the significance of the Supreme Court’s review. Good morning, Michael.

Michael Gorman: Good morning.

Portia Clark: First of all, for people that haven’t been paying close attention to the story, what is Owls Head, and where is it?

Michael Gorman: Owls Head is about 285 hectares of coastal Crown land on the province’s Eastern Shore. The name is a bit of a misnomer. It’s not actually in the community that’s called Owls Head; it’s in a community called Little Harbour. For people who are familiar with the Clam Harbour sandcastle competition, it’s not far beyond there. And this is land that for many, many years, a lot of people have thought was a provincial park because it’s referred to as “Owls Head Provincial Park,” but in fact, it’s not a provincial park; it doesn’t have the designation and protection that goes along with that.

Portia Clark: But it was on a list of potential parks and protected areas, was it? What happened when people heard it had taken off that list?

Michael Gorman: That’s right. It had been included in the province’s Parks and Protected Areas. When people found out that it was been delisted, a lot of people were very unhappy. It didn’t take long for a community group to kind of rise up around that, made up of both people from that area as well as concerned citizens across the province, who were very unhappy that this land might be sold to private developers and ultimately, it led to the court challenge that we will see play out today.

Portia Clark: And the developers want to turn this into several golf courses, Michael?

Michael Gorman: That’s right. The plan is to – if they can get the land from the province – they would merge it with a large holding that they own adjacent to it. They have about 140 hectares right beside Owls Head and what they’d like to do is merge all of this to build up to 3 golf courses, a housing development, and also tourist-related housing for anybody who would travel to the area to visit the golf course.

Portia Clark: And people will know what’s happened, for instance, with Cabot Cliffs in Cape Breton, the rejuvenation of that area. Some of that promise is being talked about for this area, too, some 200 jobs, potentially. Does that mean not everybody’s opposed to this be turned into golf courses?

Michael Gorman: That’s true, there are lots of people – particularly in Little Harbour and sounding areas – who would like to see this happen. About 800 people had signed a petition that was tabled in the House more than a year ago, now (tabled at Province House). To your point, they see what’s happened in Inverness and they want a piece of that. Little Harbour and those communities around there are beautiful but they’re very remote. And like a lot of remote, rural parts of the province, they’ve seen better days. They’ve lost businesses, they’ve lost people, and they see this as a chance to perhaps attract new investment and new visitors, and to your point, perhaps bring some jobs – although it’s unclear how many of those would be year-round versus seasonal, Portia – but they welcome the potential opportunity for that economic development.

Portia Clark: As we’ve said, this delisting happened quietly – without notice, without public consultation – so who asked for this judicial review, Michael?

Michael Gorman: The judicial review is being filed by two parties. Bob Bancroft, retired biologist, who a lot of CBC listeners would probably know, as well as an organization called the Eastern Shore Forest Watch Association.

Portia Clark: And the court, what will it be considering as it decides, or looks at, exactly how this happened?

Michael Gorman: The key question here is whether the government (in delisting Owls Head) followed proper procedures and acted in good faith.

The government has said all along that there will be a public consultation requirement as part of the Letter of Offer, before this land could trade hands. But Mr. Bancroft and the Forest Watch Association argue that the public should have been brought into the loop far sooner. And in fact, Portia, even though this property was delisted in 2019, there’s are strong argument to be made that the public still wouldn’t know about it if we hadn’t found about it through those documents.

Portia Clark: To your credit… Will there still be some public consultation around the ecological impact – the environmental impact – whatever the outcome of the judicial review?

Michael Gorman: Well, it’ll all depend on whether or not the developers are able to go forward with the process. Their Letter of Offer requires them to actually do the public consultation, although that process is subject to approval from Lands and Forestry before they can go out and do it. Ultimately, the result of all of that would go back to the Cabinet and they would be the ones left to make the final decision. But if Mr. Bancroft and the Forest Watch Association get their way, through this judicial review process, it could set the whole thing back and potentially undo the entire process.

Portia Clark: And so what could this mean for Premier Rankin, who (as you pointed out) as Environment Minister – or Lands and Forestry Minister I should say – made the decision to take this property off of the protected areas list?

Michael Gorman: It’s a tricky situation because back then when it happened (when he was Minister) he argued that the proper process was being followed, that the public would ultimately get its say and the ability to be consulted. And he has argued that he sees a way for golf courses and environmental protection to work hand in hand. That’s a bit tricky in this case. For anybody who is familiar with this land and has been out to see it, it’s hard to imagine a golf development without the land being basically carpet-bombed to make it appropriate for that type of a development. But that being said, he’s also left himself outs along the way. The ultimate out is, if this meets this to Cabinet, he’s kind of the boss at Cabinet, so he would have the final say. But to the broader point, Mr. Rankin came into office promoting himself as an environmentally minded politician. And there are people who are environmentally minded who don’t see a conjunction between golf course developments and protecting coastal Crown land. So depending on the outcome of the judicial review, he may be facing a very difficult decision somewhere down the road.

Portia Clark: Looking forward to your coverage of the judicial review, thanks for your time this morning, Michael.

Michael Gorman: You’re welcome.

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