To RV, Or Not To RV?

Chris Skidmore

Chris Skidmore

Do you know what struck me most forcibly, watching the CBRM’s public hearings on the proposed Ceilidh on the Lakes RV Park for Big Pond yesterday afternoon?

That if developer Chris Skidmore (who, God love him, looked like he was in the dock at his own trial when he spoke yesterday) had an ounce of sense, he could have made this work.

Not in its current form, mind you — not as an RV park that, even in its first phase, would have more sites (211) than the Ben Eoin Campground (207) — but in a more ecological and environmentally friendly form. He actually mentioned treehouse camping, which is permitted in the Cape Breton Highlands National Park, so he’s almost there, it’s just that he somehow envisions the kind of people who are attracted to treehouse camping also wanting splash pads, mini golf, swimming pools and ATV tracks.

Rita MacDonald

Rita MacDonald

The reason I think it could have worked is because of what two of the speakers yesterday had to say. One was Rita MacDonald, a young woman who is helping her uncle, Roy MacInnis, develop an organic market garden on his farm next to the proposed park site. The other was Halina Stopyra, a Toronto artist who moved to Big Pond with her partner (and bought Rita MacNeil’s old house) with plans to open an art gallery and offer art workshops. What do organic market gardens and art galleries need? Customers. The kind that a recreational development of the appropriate nature and scale could attract.

If Skidmore had spent more time talking to the neighbors and less time getting letters of support from the board of Business Cape Breton (BCB)* and a couple of people in Eskasoni (whom District 3 Councilor Blue Marshall made a point of noting were neither the Chief nor the Council) he might actually have devised a development that would respect the environment and capitalize on the UNESCO Biosphere status of the Bras d’Or Lakes (which CBRM planner Karen Neville went to rather incredible lengths to downplay during her pro-RV Park presentation). He could have conceived of a development that would work in Big Pond, the way Rita’s Tea Room does, even though, in terms of daily traffic during the tourist season, it is way more disruptive than the Ben Eoin Campground currently is. (That last is based on purely anecdotal evidence.) Who knows? Residents, who now seem to want nothing but endless peace and quiet, might even have remembered they once hosted one of the best outdoor concerts on the island.

Halina Stopyra

Halina Stopyra

On the other hand, I don’t know if Skidmore has the necessary experience to develop that type of recreational facility. In fact, I don’t know if Skidmore has the necessary experience to develop any type of recreational facility and sadly, nobody took the opportunity to ask him during Tuesday’s hearing. His LinkedIn profile says he’s been a managing partner at Calgary-based SCB Developments for three years, during which time he has “raised capital and procured land for development, evaluating potential and performing due diligence.” SCB Developments doesn’t seem to have any sort of web presence. He is also, apparently, a real estate consultant with Landstar Development, a Winnipeg-based real estate development firm that seems pretty firmly focused on commercial and residential projects. Ceilidh on the Lakes, an RV park he proposes to develop and operate, seems like quite a departure for him. I would have liked to hear more about that.

And while Skidmore claims to be oversubscribed for the first phase of the development, the stats for campground occupancy in Nova Scotia — cited yesterday by a number of opponents — don’t seem to suggest a need for any additional sites, let alone 541 RV sites and 60 camping sites:

Click to enlarge.

 

Just saying ‘No’

Whatever the business case for Ceilidh on the Lakes, the overwhelming response to it from the people at yesterday’s hearing — held because Skidmore’s development requires a change to a CBRM zoning by-law — was negative.

All but one of the roughly 24 citizens who spoke during yesterday’s hearing opposed the plan as did most people who took the time to send written submissions (judging by those so far available online, there are more to come). CBRM Mayor Cecil Clarke, who chaired the meeting, also acknowledged receipt of two petitions bearing the names of 1,179 people opposed to the project.

Opponents include Chief Wilbert Marshall of Potlotek First Nation, who hadn’t originally been on the speakers’ list and who made it clear his Band had not been consulted about the development. He told council if they didn’t vote no to this proposal it would damage the CBRM’s relations with First Nations People

As mentioned, one lone supporter, Terry MacPherson , took a turn at the podium yesterday, which could not have been easy. Especially when you consider that he had been president of the Big Pond Community Council until yesterday morning, when he resigned, a fact that had been announced earlier by acting secretary Ann MacIntyre as she presented a letter stating the Big Pond Community Council was implacably opposed to the development.

Terry MacPherson

Terry MacPherson

I do have to wonder how many people support the plan but don’t dare say so — Skidmore claimed to represent the “silent majority” of citizens (from Big Pond and beyond) who are in favor of the project but who are apparently shy about writing letters or attending meetings (although Skidmore did submit three supportive Facebook posts). I have no way of verifying whether he does, in fact, represent a silent majority of interested parties. It’s a pretty easy claim to make — as is the claim that he will put $4.5 million into the first phase of the development and create 25 to 30 full-time jobs. In an RV Park. In Cape Breton.

Skidmore actually had remarkably little to say during the hearing, although there was really no need for him to speak as Neville presented the case for the park on his behalf. (Skidmore, by his own admission, has spent the last three years developing his relationships with CBRM Planning staff as well as employees at the Provincial Departments of the Environment and Transportation — again, I would argue, time he probably should have spent developing relationships with his neighbors.)

Senior planner Malcolm Gillis and Neville both kept stressing that this was only the first step for Skidmore and that there are many more provincial and federal hoops he must jump through before he can even think about breaking ground, but I found this to be really disingenuous. Yes, it’s the first step — but it’s an approval and wouldn’t an approval make the provincial and federal governments that much more likely to continue issuing approvals?

The arguments against the RV Park included noise, potential damage to local wells and potential damage to Lochmore Harbour — an estuary which CBU marine ecologist, Dr Bruce Hatcher, who also spoke at the hearing, has studied extensively and says serves as a kind of nursery for lake life. (He did not say “nursery for lake life,” of course, I just said that because I spent an entire afternoon watching a municipal land-use hearing on my computer and am no longer in my right mind). Basically, he said that many creatures that will spend their lives in the lake spend their juvenile lives in the relative shelter of the estuary, which is separated from the broader lake by a barrier.

Water playground.

Water playground.

Traffic came up a couple of times and I have to say, having spent my summers in a bungalow on the wrong side of Route 4 (i.e. on the side across from the Bras d’Or Lakes), that resonated with me. As children, we were raised in full Jesus terror of the highway. Luckily, we had a path and a culvert we could use to get to the beach, walking under the highway — frequently up to our ankles in freezing cold brook water —  instead of crossing over it. To this day, I will stand at the end of the driveway and wait until there is nothing but empty tarmac as far as the eye can see in either direction before I cross the highway — and I cross it at a quick march. So the idea of children dashing from one side of Route 4 to the other to get to the floating docks and splash around on the muddy bottom of the Lochmore estuary worries me.

The meeting was a very good example of its kind — Mayor Clarke was unfailingly cheerful and welcoming to everyone who spoke and kept things moving along relatively briskly. (I mean, as briskly as a public hearing on a by-law amendment can ever move along). The speakers were informed and passionate but things never got heated and the audience was polite.

CBRM staff have recommended that council approve only the first phase of the development, which would see 211 RV sites installed on the lake side of Route 4. Staff also recommended there be requirements in terms of buffer zones and vegetation and “limitations” on the types of activities that could be conducted within a certain distance of the lake.

Council will be asked to approve the zoning amendment and allow the first phase of the development during its regular monthly meeting next week.

 

 

*Excerpt from BCB letter in support of project:

It is quite often said, “Build It and They Will Come.” Well, they are coming and we should start building what is feasible and what provides an economic opportunity for growth.

In other words, “Build It, They are Coming” or “Don’t Build it and They Will Come Anyway.” Thanks, BCB, it’s always enlightening.

 

 

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