Scenic Strum Island being stripped for development
MAHONE BAY - The real estate listing describes Strum Island as "exquisite and highly visible."
There is no denying its visibility as the island, the innermost of those in Mahone Bay, is easily seen from either Maders Cove, Oakland or the Town of Mahone Bay itself.
How long it will remain "exquisite," however, has become an issue of concern to many residents of the area, who have noticed a number of changes being made to the site in the name of development.
One of those concerned is Gord Tate, a local conservationist who lives in Hubbards and is owner of Mahone Bay Kayaks.
Mr. Tate said that the clearing of trees started in some areas on Strum last spring, but more recently, a barge unloaded a number of pieces of heavy equipment which started moving topsoil on the island.
"What they're doing out there right now falls under the heading of site preparation," he said. "But in my mind, once you site prepare ? it, there isn't much left. [The island] is looking really, really bad and beleaguered."
He said he has contacted the municipal planning office, but as of last week no applications had been received for developing or building on the site. He was told, however, that what the developer was doing is legal.
"What they're doing they can do," he said. "It ties into the bylaws issue and how that needs to be changed."
Municipal Planning and Development Officer April Whynot-Lohnes confirmed that no development permit applications have been received from the owner of the island, and that none are required for site preparation.
"We don't deal with environmental situations," she explained.
Ms Whynot-Lohnes said the island is zoned RU-2, which allows for development for residential, recreational, agricultural and forestry purposes as of right.
It also allows for certain commercial, industrial and institutional uses that do not require approval through development agreement.
Mr. Tate said that although what is happening on Strum Island may be within the realms of the law, he believes it is setting a dangerous precedent.
"It's a portrait of the islands overall and the way it's going to go," he said.
He circulated a petition calling for an environmental assessment review, stating that the "islands of Mahone Bay are threatened by careless, thoughtless development. Their integrity must supersede whimsy, ego and greed."
"We had indications from the department of Fisheries and Oceans that this was going to turn into a full-grown assessment on the island," Mr. Tate said.
That review was to be made under the fisheries and navigable waters protection acts.
Applications made by the developer to construct six wharves on the island, one to service each lot, as well as the installation of an underwater electric cable to provide power to the island triggered the attempt for an environmental assessment, Mr. Tate explained.
"The coast guard ? exempted them from [the environmental assessment] for the cable," he said.
Also, the original plan for six docks was modified to one common wharf to service the entire island, negating the need for an assessment.
Clifford Burton of DFO confirmed that it is up to the coast guard to determine whether the underwater cable would be a hazard to navigation and anchorage. He said this department's primary concern is with the destruction of fish habitat.
Gord Tate, owner of Mahone Bay Kayaks, points out Strum Island on a map of Mahone Bay. Mr. Tate, who holds a degree in environmental science from Trent University, is one of a number of area residents concerned with the effect that the development of Strum and others islands will have on the environment. He feels the islands are being sacrificed by developers in order to make a quick buck. He said what concerns him the most is that what is happening is permanent. "It's never going to change once it's done," he said. "[Whether] it's Strum's, it's Covey's, it's Loye's, it's Backman's - anywhere out there." Robert Hirtle photo
"When people are building, it's an ongoing thing," he said. "Any time we're on patrol we're always looking for destruction of fish habitat."
He said a number of government departments at various levels are involved throughout the development process; however, the responsibility for carrying out an environmental assessment on the island ultimately falls on the provincial government.
Danny Shannon of the Nova Scotia Department of the Environment said his department was asked to comment on the creation of lots and the suitability to support septic systems, and that those lots have been approved.
"They went through the preliminary stages ? of determining whether they can support systems," he said.
He said that before site preparation can begin, the developer is required to do test pits on soil conditions, and that has been completed on the island.
"We haven't issued any approvals," he said. "We've provided comments on the municipality development office application with regard to sewage disposal."
He said no permits are required to strip soil for development purposes. However, every precaution must be taken to prevent siltation from entering a watercourse.
Mr. Shannon said responsibility for the waters in the ocean does not fall within his department, but is in federal jurisdiction.
"We only look after fresh-watercourses," he said. "There have been instances where, if they haven't acted, we act."
In the wake of hurricane Gustav last Wednesday, witnesses visiting the waters off Strum Island reported a band of muddy water on the east side of the island stretching nearly 200 metres offshore.
Mr. Shannon said he was unaware of the situation, and would be in contact with DFO officials to discuss the matter.
"There is concern if they're not developing [the island] properly," he said.
Bluenose Atlantic Coastal Action Program instituted "Island Watch" this summer, a program designed to monitor any "high impact" activities occurring in the environment at any of Mahone Bay's 365 islands.
The group issued a statement saying that their "mandate is to work with all community sectors, including developers.
"BACAP would especially welcome the opportunity to work with developers of the Mahone Bay islands to discuss the possibility of practicing more sustainable development measures which leave less of an impact on the delicate environment of island systems."
Land and Sea Realty in Mahone Bay is the realtor handling the sale of lots on the island. Sheila Sinnott, the firm's broker, was unavailable for comment.
However, according to that company's web site, Strum Island has been subdivided into six parcels, being advertised as "six little jewels," which range in price from $175,000 to $300,000 U.S. per lot, totalling $1.24 million U.S.
Lots will be serviced from a common well and cisterns, and each lot has been septic approved, which is also a concern of Mr. Tate.
"There's nothing but sand and gravel," he said. "Most of what's in there will percolate into the ocean."
Access to the island is available by boat from the site of the former Dynamite Wharf in Oakland, which is now a development in itself known as Heron Point.
The wharf, which at one time was a popular site for recreational sport fishing among locals, has been closed to public use.
It is adjacent to a section of the Oakland Road that was repaved by the provincial government this summer at a cost of over one million dollars.
Lighthouse Publishing September 18, 2002