Fathoming St. Mary’s: Visioning workshops get underway

By Alec Bruce, Local Journalism Initiative reporter    
July 22 2020

From Trafalgar to Port Bickerton and everywhere between, in places that have been settled for hundreds of years, St. Mary’s residents are faced with a new question: What do they want to be in the future?

It’s been 15 years since the last time the district attempted to chart its social and economic future in a full-scale, municipality-wide exercise in strategic thinking back in 2006. Now, as a panel of urban planners from Halifax-based Fathom Studio arrives to host two “visioning workshops” at the St. Mary’s RecPlex in Sherbrooke on Thursday, July 23 – one for the business community at 4:00 pm, followed by one for the general public at 6:30 pm – Chief Administrative Officer Marvin MacDonald thinks the moment is right.

“This will give us more teeth,” he says of the Nova Scotia government’s measure, introduced in 2018, requiring municipalities across the province to modernize their municipal planning strategies and land use bylaws as soon as possible. For St. Mary’s, the deadline is next year. “We’ll have more authority and clarity over certain types of development in certain areas. It’s timely that the province is mandating it. But we’ve been looking at updating our plan, on our own, for a long time.”

MacDonald says there’s some urgency. COVID-19 has howled at the door of the district’s opportunities since mandatory social distancing and self-isolation regulations became the law of the land four months ago. And while those protocols have relaxed somewhat in recent weeks, the threat of ‘second waves’ and a ‘resurgent contagion’ still haunts communities across the province.

Even apart from the pandemic, the district of roughly 2,000 inhabitants scattered across an equal number of square kilometres has faced other existential questions about its social and economic future in recent years and months. Should it become a safe haven for only those types of economic development that explicitly reject natural resource extraction and exploitation, such as eco-tourism? Should it fling open the gates and welcome, for example, gold mining along the St. Mary’s River? Can it somehow accommodate both in balanced and prudent measure?

Under these circumstances, determining at least some probable shape for St. Mary’s future now seems a priority.

Certainly, Cherry Hill resident and soapery entrepreneur Leigh MacFarlane – who moved to St. Mary’s permanently in 2013, but who also emphasizes she’s been coming here her whole life “ever since I was a baby” – is clear. “I think we have a tremendous opportunity to make sure that the zoning is in place to protect our environment,” she says.  “That means no gold mine or any extractive industries of any kind. My hope for this exercise and what will come out of it is a very clear view of what it is we need to have here in order to attract people to live and work here. What we have here is sanctuary; something that is very precious; something that people are seeking. We shouldn’t allow it to be destroyed.”

Bill Carpan, a Stillwater resident and avid recreational fisherman, agrees. “My priorities would be that we come here because it is so environmentally interesting,” he says. “It’s salmon fishing and hunting and things like that. We used to get a lot of tourism when there were a lot of salmon. The Margaree (River) example shows us what we should be doing. We should be stocking the (St. Mary’s) River and we should be doing all these things to encourage tourism the way the Margaree has. Everything’s working great there. They have new restaurants.”

Others in the district are not quite as sure. Lobster fisher Hughie MacDonald, who sets traps between Sonora and Port Bickerton every year, has expressed an interest in seeing both types of economic activity. In an interview in April, he said he thought the California-based Whale Sanctuary Project – which will establish an international refuge for a handful of belugas as early as 2022 – will be “good for Sherbrooke Village and good for tourism when it’s all set up and going.” At the same time, he observed, “I hope they do something with Cochrane Hill and (Atlantic Gold’s proposed) gold mine there. It’ll make some employment.”

All of which, and more, gives the Halifax architecture and planning firm hired to manage the municipal planning strategy and land use bylaw process – after winning a public competition for the work earlier this year – much to think about this week. “So far, what I’ve heard is that some of the weaknesses in St. Mary’s are actually some of its strengths,” says Rob LeBlanc, Fathom’s President and CEO. “The remoteness of the municipality is actually an opportunity for nature-based tourism. I’ve heard that natural resources are an opportunity, but they’re a threat as well.”

At the same time, he says, there are some issues nearly everybody can get behind. “I’ve heard a lot about Internet access being a problem. I’ve heard a lot about the lack of some fundamental businesses there – lodging and retail and that sort of thing. This process is, essentially, a compass for the municipality. We’re trying to tease out from residents what they think will make the municipality unique in the future. What do they think are their strengths and weaknesses? What would make the municipality a better place to live and work?”

LeBlanc hopes he’ll get a clearer sense of these things following the public workshops this week, after which, he says, the pace quickens. “We move over the next couple of weeks into the analysis and interview phase. In fact, we are doing interviews all this week with government and businesses and adjacent municipalities – all the things that are required under the provincial Act – and then we’ll start drafting both the municipal plan, which is the broader policy document, and the land use by law, which contains the zoning regulations that everybody has to follow because they are enforceable.”

Marvin MacDonald, for one, likes the sound of that. It promises clarity and coherence in cloudy and uncertain times. “What you always have to keep in mind is on certain types of development, like minerals and forestry, provincial legislation overrules municipal legislation. But, at least, this process gives us the mandate to have far more and better control over development in our own municipality.”

For more information about the visioning workshops, contact Hannah MacDonald, Development Project Coordinator, Municipality of the District of St. Mary’s. Office: (902) 522 2607; Fax: (902) 522 2309.