Owls Head - Not the Place for a Golf Resort - The Maritime Explorer

Nova Scotia

Owls Head – Not the Place for a Golf Resort

A couple of posts ago I weighed in on what I described as the Peggy’s Cove Kerfuffle and after visiting the site, examining the plans and determining that there had been more than adequate consultation, concluded that those who opposed the changes were flat out wrong. In this post I am going to do the same thing with what has become known as the Owls Head Controversy and offer my considered opinion after examining all the facts. There have been many informed articles written about Owls Head including this one from fellow Travel Media Association of Canada member Zack Metcalfe. Virtually every article written has been strongly opposed to the plan which I’ll describe below and from the title of this post, mine will fall into the opposition camp as well.

Why then the need for yet one more post on Owls Head? Perhaps naively, I believe I do bring a slightly different perspective to the matter. As a lawyer I can comment on the case currently before the courts, particularly as one who has faced off with the Department of Justice many times  over the past forty-five years. As a concerned environmentalist who has visited every provincial park in Nova Scotia and almost all the Wilderness Areas as well, I can comment on what makes Owls Head different from all these other places. Finally, as far as I know, I will be the only golf journalist who has offered an opinion on whether or not Owls Head would make for a good location to build a golf resort. I love the game of golf and am almost in awe of how quickly Nova Scotia has rocketed to the top of the must play places in the world with the success of the Cabot Links courses in Inverness. I have written many posts on Nova Scotia golf courses including this one describing why Cabot Cliffs is the #1 course in Canada. If not for the success of Cabot Links, I do not believe this matter would ever have arisen in the first place.

So with that preamble, let me get started.

The Legal Background

Aerial Photo of Owls Head
Owls Head

In a nutshell, Owls Head is a promontory on the Eastern Shore of Nova Scotia near the communities of Little Harbour, Ship Harbour and DeBaie’s Cove. It is about a 40 minute drive from the outskirts of Dartmouth. For at least the last forty-five years most of Owls Head has been listed as a Provincial Park, albeit one with no facilities whatsoever. In March, 2019 by what is known as a Cabinet minute, Owls Head was delisted as a Provincial Park and thus reverted to the status of Crown land, which can be sold to third parties. For obvious reasons, protected areas like Provincial Parks cannot be sold. The governing statute here is the Provincial Parks Act which does give the power not only to create parks, but also under Sec. 8(c) terminate that status as well. Those powers are granted to the Governor in Council which is legalese for the provincial Cabinet. Thus the Minister of Lands and Forests who is in charge of the Act does not have the power to do this on his or her own. Also, I could find nothing in the Act or regulations that sets out a process to be followed in terminating the status of a Provincial Park.

Now here’s the rub. In order to officially create a Provincial Park, it needs to be designated as such by a pronouncement in the Royal Gazette and having a plan filed at the Registry of Deeds for the county in which the park is located. In the case of Owls Head and almost half of the 200 + Provincial Parks in Nova Scotia, this was never done. However, for all intents and purposes it was treated as if it had been designated and identified as a park in any number of documents including the 2013 document Our Parks and Protected Areas which set out a long term plan to forever preserve at least 12% of Nova Scotia’s land mass.

So how did Owls Head go from being explicitly treated as a Provincial Park to just another piece of Crown Land that can be sold to the highest bidder? I have had access to the public documents on file in this matter including the legal proceedings that have been started, but not yet adjudicated. Many of these documents including the FOIPOP response that led CBC reporter Michael Gorman to discover that Owls Head had been secretly delisted as a park, can be found at the Owls Head Resource Page established by the Eastern Shore Cooperator. Gorman also discovered that the delisting was only part of what was going on – the Province was in serious negotiations to sell Owls Head to an American owned company that planned to build a golf resort on it. That in turn provoked a public outcry that resulted in retired wildlife biologist Bob Bancroft and the Eastern Shore Forest Watch Association filing for judicial review of both the decision to delist and the decision to offer the land for sale.

The basis for judicial review is based upon an alleged lack of procedural fairness and a claim that the decision to delist and sell is fundamentally unreasonable. I should note that Mr. Bancroft has already been successful in taking on the Province when it is derelict in its duties. In Bancroft et al. v. Nova Scotia Lands and Forests et al. Justice Christa Brothers upbraided the Province for failing to enforce the Endangered Species Act. She commenced her decision by stating: When government is entrusted, through legislation, with duties and responsibilities, but fails to discharge them, there must be recourse.

Counsel for Mr. Bancroft and other environmental groups involved in that case was Jamie Simpson who is also counsel in the Owls Head case. Frankly, I thought the decision in the first case was a bit of a surprise as our courts are not known for their judicial activism. That gives me reason to be hopeful of the outcome on the current case. I will not go into the merits of the Owls Head judicial review other than to say I think the proponents have a very strong case.

I can however state with certainty that the removal of the protection provided by Provincial Park status is just plain wrong. When the idea was first raised it should have been shot down as a complete none starter. As it stands, the company wanting to build a golf course at Owls Head already owns enough land to build one so let them fill their boots and proceed without the necessity of destroying the rest of Owls Head.

History of Owls Head P.P.

A few years before I moved to Nova Scotia in the early 1970’s I became aware of a controversy surrounding a proposed national park on the Eastern Shore. Essentially the people who lived there were overwhelmingly opposed to it which baffled me at the time – I mean who doesn’t want a national park? In retrospect, the idea for a national park was a good idea that would no doubt have brought many tourists and their dollars to this economically deprived coastline. The compromise was the establishment of a series of Provincial Parks at various points along the Eastern Shore including Tor Bay, Taylor Head and Clam Harbour, all of which are very popular and well used. Owls Head seems have been the ugly duckling of the group, never having received the funds necessary to even create roads and hiking trails to facilitate public access, let alone campgrounds or picnic sites. It is probably this lack of attention that led both the Department of Lands and Forests and the putative golf course developers to think that delisting Owls Head would not be controversial.

Owl’s Head Topography

Without any means of public access other than by water, few people will ever get the chance to see the very things that the developers maintain will be such an asset to their project – the majestic coastline of Owls Head. What you see from one of the few roads that border the park are scenes like the above – stunted trees, rugged rock and actually pretty shitty scenery. However, beauty is in the eye of the beholder and biologists who have studied the area have concluded that Owls Head is a very unusual if not unique ecosystem that warrants preservation. In reality, it is much more like one of our designated Wilderness Areas than a Provincial Park. The Nova Scotia Nature Trust wants to incorporate Owls Head into its 100 Wild Islands project which stretches from Taylor Head to Clam Harbour and aims to preserve one of the wildest and most pristine coastlines in much the same way as Parks Canada hoped to do back in the 1970’s. I have kayaked and camped on these islands and in terms of competing visions, my vote goes to the Nature Trust model. If the only way I can experience the coastline of Owls Head is by water, then I and I expect many others are just fine with that.

I am not one of those who thinks that golf courses are inherently bad things, quite the opposite. With improvements in irrigation, hybrid grasses and alternative fertilization techniques, golf courses can co-exist with a natural environment and in some cases even enhance it. Anyone who has played an Audubon Cooperative Sanctuary Program course will know that. I cringe whenever someone automatically decries the construction of a new golf course as ‘destroying the landscape’. However, the plans for Owls Head actually do seem to call for the destruction of the landscape. Instead of trucking in the thousands of tons of sand needed to underlie the fairways and greens, the proposal now seems to be to create the sand onsite by grinding up the bare rock that covers most of Owls Head.

Local Support

Support for Owls Head
Golf Course Good – MPA Bad

One of the things that always needs to be taken into account when evaluating a proposed project like Owls Head is the level of local support or opposition. In the case of Owls Head I can say, after visiting the three small villages closest to it, that local support is overwhelming. I saw at least a hundred signs welcoming the development and only two in opposition. The people in this part of the Eastern Shore have very strong opinions and that includes opposition to designating approximately 2,000 sq. kms. of ocean along the Eastern Shore as a Marine Protected Area. They want nothing to do with what they perceive as a threat to their livelihoods. On the other hand, they seem to have no qualms about grinding up the land to create a golf resort. This is one of the most economically challenged areas of Nova Scotia and anyone who promises jobs is a white hat and anyone who threatens them is a black hat.

The person who put this up on their shed in Little Harbour must be a brave soul to go against the clear wishes of his fellow villagers.

Save Owl’s Head

So that begs the question – what right do people who don’t live in the area have to tell the people who do live there what they can or cannot do? Well, if the development company was content to limit their plans to the private land they already own then the answer would be none. The proposal would still have to clear a number of regulatory hurdles, but that would be between themselves and the bureaucrats. However, Owls Head belongs to me and every other Nova Scotian as much as it belongs to the people adjacent to it. When the snow is right, Alison and I go cross-country skiing at nearby Jerry Lawrence Provincial Park as do many others. However, if all the skiers banded together and petitioned the government to terminate its status as a park and sell it to us so we could open it as for profit ski resort, there would be hell to pay. The acceptance of such a request would set a terrible precedent and that’s exactly what is happening at Owls Head.

Is a Golf Resort Feasible at Owls Head?

Here’s why I don’t feel bad about going against the wishes of the locals who want this development to proceed. I think if it did they would be in for a terrible disappointment as the the arguments that this will be the next Cabot Links, don’t hold water in my opinion. Here’s why;

  1. The people behind Cabot Links had already had proven their ability to build a world class resort at Bandon Dunes, Oregon. That’s why Ben Cowan-Dewar approached them in the first place. The people behind Owls Head have no such experience.
  2. I have been to both Cabot Links and Bandon Dunes and the Owls Head topography is not remotely similar to either of those places. There may be some nice seaside locations, but there is not enough elevation change to make for a truly great golf course.
  3. The weather at Cabot Links is far better than that at Owls Head. The Gulf of St. Lawrence makes western Cape Breton one of the sunniest and warmest coastlines in Atlantic Canada. The Eastern Shore, as beautiful as it is, has the cooling (some might say chilling) effect of the Atlantic Ocean which produces fog, rain and frequent gales. I know because I got caught in one a few years back in a kayak and really feared for my life.
  4. Both Cabot Links and Bandon Dunes have nearby towns with existing infrastructure and potential work force. This is not the case at Owls Head where the nearest grocery store is miles away in Jeddore.

Sadly, while Cabot Links has been a great success, other recent golf course developments in remote areas have not. Plans for courses designed by Jack Nicklaus and Nick Faldo have essentially gone nowhere and resulted in financial recriminations that are the subject of current litigation.

So to sum up, I oppose Owls Head for the following reasons:

  1. Legally, the removal of Owls Head from protected status is questionable at best.
  2. Reducing the amount of protected land sets a terrible precedent.
  3. Owls Head has merit on its own as a wild place and should not be sacrificed.
  4. Owls Head is just not the place for a golf resort.

I hope this helps shed some light on this controversy.

For my next post I’m going to head to Sheffield Mills in the Annapolis Valley for the annual Eagle Watch. Please join me.