Developer Gets Zone Amendment for Big Pond RV Park

Cape Breton Regional Municipal Council voted on Wednesday morning to approve a zoning by-law amendment to allow developer Chris Skidmore to establish a 211-site RV Park in Big Pond Centre.

Chris Skidmore

Chris Skidmore

The vote was 7-6 with Councilors Clarence Prince, Earlene MacMullin, Steve Gillespie, George MacDonald, Darren Bruckschwaiger, Jim MacLeod and Mayor Cecil Clarke voting to accept planning staff’s recommendation to approve the first phase of a larger development which would see 541 RV sites and 60 camping sites developed on both sides of Highway 4. The first phase is to be situated entirely on the Bras d’Or Lakes side of the highway. Councilors Esmond “Blue” Marshall, Eldon MacDonald, Ray Paruch, Ivan Doncaster, Amanda McDougall and Kendra Coombes voted against the amendment.

As CBRM director of planning Malcolm Gillis explained, this is simply the first step in what will doubtless be a long process. First of all, the public now has 14 days in which to appeal council’s decision to the Utilities and Review Board (UARB).

Even if the decision is not appealed, Skidmore’s next step is to get the necessary provincial approvals — including a permit for onsite sewage disposal, assurance from the Environment Department that “water to be extracted” for the park “is at public water supply standard” and Department of Transport and Infrastructure Renewal (TIR) approval for highway access. Gillis said the TIR is on record saying they will expect a traffic study by an engineer specializing in traffic management. The municipality, he said, would not issue Skidmore a building permit until all these ducks are in a row. (He did not mention ducks, that’s me paraphrasing.)

District 3 Councilor Esmond “Blue” Marshall, whose district includes Eskasoni First Nation and whose call for consultation with First Nations postponed the vote from last week’s regional council meeting, didn’t actually speak on the motion Wednesday. But Mayor Cecil Clarke explained at the outset that in addition to consulting Membertou Chief Terry Paul and Eskasoni Chief Leroy Denny, he’d been in touch with a representative of Kwilmu’kw Maw-klusuaqn (KMKNO), the Mi’kmaq Rights Initiative, who said the group has already sent a letter to Environment Minister Iain Rankin expressing concerns about the project.

Clarke also said that he, Halifax Mayor Mike Savage and Colchester County Councilor Geoff Stewart, the current president of the Union of Nova Scotia Municipalities (UNSM), had been invited to meet with Nova Scotia Mi’kmaq chiefs to develop a “pro-active” approach to municipal consultations with First Nations.


Silent or vocal majority?

All the other councilors spoke yesterday and almost all acknowledged the process had been a difficult one, given the very vocal opposition to the project by many Big Pond residents.

Generally speaking, those who voted “yes” to the by-law amendment cited their limited jurisdiction as a municipal council — a jurisdiction that doesn’t encompass environmental concerns or Aboriginal consultation, two of the biggest issues raised by opponents of the project.

Those who voted against the amendment argued they had to listen to the voice of the people, which they interpreted as overwhelmingly against the development. District 8 Councilor Amanda McDougall said the notion, expressed by Skidmore during a public hearing on the matter, that a “silent majority” of CBRM residents supported him was difficult to act on (silent majorities being, by definition, very hard to hear).

But District 10 Councilor Darren Bruckschwaiger and District 9 Councilor George MacDonald and District 2 Councilor Earlene MacMullin all suggested they’d heard, privately, from many people in favor of the development.


A job for our Charter?

Personally, I’m still struck by how much council is constrained by its own Municipal Planning Strategy. Regional solicitor Demetri Kachafanas, asked to deliver his legal opinion on the matter, said that should council deny the zoning amendment and the decision be appealed to the UARB, the board would simply look at the planning strategy and rule on whether or not the development met its requirements.

Artist's rendering of Ceilidh on the Lakes RV Park club house. (. (Ceilidh on the Lakes RV Campground/Facebook)

Artist’s rendering of Ceilidh on the Lakes RV Park club house. (. (Ceilidh on the Lakes RV Campground/Facebook)

Deputy Mayor Eldon MacDonald suggested (quite crossly, in fact) that anyone who had not attended the meetings during which the Municipal Planning Strategy was discussed (I guess this means both the initial discussions in 2004, for which I have an airtight alibi, and the amendments in 2017, for which I do not) couldn’t criticize it now. I take his point that the time to be involved was obviously when the last amendments were proposed and approved, but sometimes it takes a case like the RV Park to show you what might be considered shortfalls in your planning strategy. Perhaps the right to at least consider the environment is something we could bake into our CBRM Charter?

The big question I’m left with at the end of this whole process is: does the opinion of the public matter or not?

At the outset of Wednesday’s meeting, Gillis told council that under the Municipal Government Act, its only responsibility was to hold a public hearing on the proposed by-law change, which it had most dutifully done.

But as mentioned, Kachafanas said that the UARB, were it to review council’s decision, would consider the proposed development only in terms of the Municipal Planning Strategy. What residents did or didn’t want wouldn’t matter.

So what, exactly, is the purpose of the public hearing? That’s something I’m going to have to get back to you on.




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Note: This story has been updated to include the actual details of the Council vote.