HRM Draft Regional Plan: Feedback and Long-Term Conservation and Trail Concepts

Halifax’ municipal government is updating it’s Regional Plan, which will shape future growth and development of all HRM including the McIntosh watershed area. This post describes MRWA’s feedback to the HRM Draft Plan.

McIntosh Run Watershed, 2022, with current and Phase 2 trails. (click to enlarge)

Submit your own feedback by October 27. If you support MRWA’s approach please tell that to HRM too.

MRWA’s goals for conservation and trails

MRWA has two linked goals:

  • a well-managed watershed that, in 50 and more years, still has a healthy river, streams, lakes and wild lands;
  • public access to the river and valuable wildlands through low-impact, human-powered (and fun!) trails.

MRWA is not anti-growth or against change. Urban planning in a near-urban watershed requires considering the needs of the natural environment and all Haligonians, including future Haligonians, who all need fair access to housing, jobs and services. This means change and growth in communities in the watershed area.

MRWA views the Watershed as three separate natural greenspace areas: the Central Watershed, the Southern Watershed, and Long Lake Provincial Park. The ecological integrity of wetlands, streams, lakes and other areas of high ecological value should be maintained in the three areas, and the areas should be linked with wildlife corridors. LLPP is a provincial park, but new development is occurring and more is planned around the Central and Southern Watershed areas which are a mix of (mostly) Crown and private lands. This growth needs to be done carefully.

MRWA’s current singletrack trails are in the Central Watershed Area. Our long term vision is that the Southern Watershed area should also be managed as wildland greenspace and for trails that provide fun human-powered recreation from our backdoors, as well as an economic driver through trail tourism.

Understanding the HRM Draft Regional Plan

The Regional Plan sets out when and how future growth and development should take place throughout HRM. The current Regional Plan dates to 2014. A lot has changed since then, so HRM is reviewing and updating the Plan.

The Draft Plan is large and complicated, and HRM maps don’t show watersheds or even most streams and rivers. To understand the implications for the McIntosh watershed, we overlaid HRM’s map of proposed landuse on top of the map of wildlife corridors and areas of high ecological value. We also added the approximate McIntosh Watershed boundaries.

Areas of High Ecological Value and WIldlife Corridors in the McIntosh Run watershed area. (Cropped from HRM Draft Regional Plan, Map 6, October 2023).
Proposed Land Uses in the McIntosh Run watershed area, in the 2023 HRM Draft Regional Plan. (Cropped from HRM Draft Regional Plan, Map 2, October 2023).

General Comments to HRM on Draft Regional Plan

1. MRWA supports HRM’s broad intention for ‘complete communities’ and better transit in the Watershed. These are conservation and river health issues. We support adding housing by adding density; shopping and services that are close to home; and investments in transit, walking and cycling so private cars can be used but are optional for a practical high-quality life. Low-density car-focussed urban sprawl consumes natural landscapes and impacts waterways, especially in the McIntosh watershed where most new development require bedrock blasting. HRM’s proposal for rapid transit in the HCR corridor through Spryfield can’t come soon enough (shown on HRM’s Map 3). HCR and linked arterials need better, connected and continuous sidewalks and bikeways.

2. HRM has a critical need for fair access to housing. Adding people to the Watershed should be achieved through redevelopment and selectively adding density and moderate density new developments near existing transit-serviced arterial roads, not sprawl. We recognize that existing neighbourhoods will change as a consequence; fair planning means considering the needs of the natural environment and all Haligonians, including future Haligonians.

3. As more areas are urbanized, the Watershed has three wildland areas which should be maintained, treated as a linked ecological unit, connected with wildlife corridors, and have public access. These areas are Long Lake Provincial Park (LLPP), the Southern Watershed headwaters area, and the Central Watershed (AKA ‘Backlands’) (Figure 1).

4. Development plans for new neighbourhoods around the Central and Southern Watershed areas should:

  • provide for public access to these areas (future trailheads).
  • use HRM Park or other zoning designations to contribute to the conservation of the Central Watershed and Southern Watershed areas.
  • ensure that wildlife corridors between the three areas are functional.
  • avoid zones of high ecological value.
  • have increased buffer distances to lakes and streams from HRM’s current 20m minimum, which is an outdated, insufficient distance, especially here where bedrock is shallow and blasting is used.
  • consider and avoid the many small wetlands in the Watershed, which are often not mapped in the Province’s wetlands maps.
Overlay map of proposed land use, on wildlife corridors and areas of high ecological value. A-E refer to comments on specific issues (map shown is an overlay of Maps 2 and 6, HRM Draft Regional Plan, October 2023).

Location Specific Comments (Overlay Map)

Location A.

MRWA supports HRM’s plan to conserve a large part of the granite barrens in the Central Watershed area (‘Backlands’) as greenspace, allowing some development along PCR. This is an improvement from earlier rezoning proposals to allow sprawl deep toward Flat Lake.

Location B.

Settlement from HCR to the river’s edge would be permitted at Site B in the draft plan. A wide buffer to the river is needed to protect the river and ecological, cultural and recreational resources.

HRM’s proposed Urban Settlement here extends 1km from HCR to the river’s edge, crosses ecologically valuable areas, and covers the historic Old Military Road route which once connected Spryfield to York Redoubt.

Instead, MRWA requests a ~250m buffer from the river, that respects importance of conservation of both ecologically signficant and culturally significant areas. This would also provide public access to river’s edge for fishing and relaxation, and could also contain low-impact trails that connect to the existing McIntosh Run system using the same river crossing as the Old Military Road bridge abutments.

Location C.

Urban Settlement on extensive ecologically valuable lands in Sheehan Pond area, upstream of an already at-risk swimming lake, and on the major southern tributary to the McIntosh Run River.

The proposed Urban Settlement here extends far from HCR, reaching areas of high ecological value around Sheehan Pond, Three Corner Pond, and the connecting area to Long Pond.

MRWA requests that new the Urban Setttlement zone should be pulled back, and not extend to the ecologically significant areas around and between Three-Corner Pond, Sheehan Pond, and Long Pond. Not only are these areas important in their own right, but streams here feed Porcupine Creek which is the largest tributary on the south side of the McIntosh Run watershed, so impacts can extend downstream into the Central Watershed and the river itself. Long Pond, a swimming lake in this area, is already identified as at risk.

Location D.

Narrow area(s) are needed in the Settlement corridor along HCR, in order for wildlife connectivity to be effective.

The draft plan would allow a wide zone of Urban Settlement that is continuous along HCR in the area of B-C to D, an area which contains important corridors between the large intact wildland area in the southern watershed and the central watershed (‘backlands’). Although new Settlement can and should occur along HCR, there should be one or more areas in which the Settlement corridor is narrow enough to serve as a corridor. The area of Long Pond to Norawarren (particularly the Crown Lands area where MRWA trails are located) is one such area.

Location E

Urban Reserve area SE of Kidston Lake.

This is a large block that is designated Urban Reserve near Old Sambro Road and not far from Spryfield. It has potentially good transit and bike and walking connectivity and is near existing employment and service centres in Ragged Lake and Spryfield. However, it also contains a broad swath of land with high ecological value (Map 6) and is a green-space connection between Long Lake Provincial Park and the Crown land open space around Donovan Pond and Sheehan Pond, areas which also have high ecological value.

Instead of Urban Reserve, MRWA suggests that some but not all of this area be removed from future development pressure with an alternate designation that respects it’s ecological importance. The remaining lands in the block might be considered for Settlement designation and higher density zoning sooner.

More on MRWA’s Concept

Over the past 8 years, MRWA has developed the McIntosh Run trails, a highly successful nonmotorized backcountry trail system that serves local residents, HRM at large, and is a tourist draw. To learn more about the trails see here, and check the 2021 user survey.

MRWA’s concept shows the Central Watershed (aka Backlands) and Southern Watershed area as conservation/recreation areas, the existing McIntosh trails, and concepts for future trail loops in the Southern Watershed area.

Adding mapped, signed, high quality trails in the Southern Watershed too would create a world-class singletrack trail system. The ecologically important areas of the Watershed can be conserved as Halifax grows in the coming decades, and serve the growing population through community-developed healthy recreation and as an economic driver through tourism.

Concept trails in the Southern Watershed area mostly lie on public lands (Crown), with selected areas of private parcels that also contain areas high ecological value and should be preserved from urbanization for that purpose alone. Trails can connect to new neighbourhoods, and a front country, wide, greenway trail could be used to connect singletrack and to connect neighbourhoods to Spryfield area and beyond. The remainder of concept trails are similar to MRWA’s existing trails, which low-impact natural-tread singletrack trails for human-powered uses of hiking, running, mountain biking, snow-shoeing (photos of existing example trails included). Existing uses such as hunting can and should be continued.

McIntosh Run singletrack example, wooded area (Gutterball trail)

McIntosh Run singletrack trail example, granite barren area (Duck ‘n Run Trail)