Battle of Highway 101: how green will be the valley?
Battle of Highway 101: how green will be the valley?
During the first heady years of his administration, Nova Scotia Premier Robert Stanfield announced grand plans for a new, limited-access highway from Halifax to Yarmouth through the lush Annapolis Valley. Highway 101, he said at the time, would be his government’s top transportation priority after completion of the province’s section of the Trans-Canada Highway. In the late ’50s—as now— everyone agreed that a new road link was desperately needed to replace narrow, winding Route 1 which meandered through almost every valley town and hamlet on its lazy way to Yarmouth. But nearly two decades and two complete changes of government later, the road has sputtered only as far as Kingston, barely a quarter of the 200-mile distance to Yarmouth. While road crews have been busily bulldozing new highways through most of the rest of the province, completion of the valley route has been stalled by a bitter controversy over exactly what route the highway should take through the Anna-
polis Valley, one of Nova Scotia’s, indeed Canada’s, richest agricultural regions.
From the outset, the engineers and bureaucrats in the department of highways have favored a northern route along the valley floor that would, they argued, be the cheapest and most efficient way to get from point A to point B.
But, as critics were quick to point out, that route would cut a 300-foot-wide slice through 24 of the valley’s most productive farms. The highway would not only prevent farmers from using parts of their acreage, the critics charged, but it would also encourage new service-station, shopping-centre, and motel development that would eat up more valuable agricultural land. That, in turn, would lead to higher property assessments and force other farmers out of business. Because agriculture is the valley’s single most important industry, producing more than $5 million worth of farm products annually and supporting more than 40 agriculture-related manufacturing and processing firms, the choice of a highway route quickly became a highly charged emotional issue. The protesters—who at one time included members of virtually every affected municipal government and the Annapolis Valley affiliated boards of trade as well as farmers and environmental groups— even proposed an alternative highway along the slope of the valley’s South Mountain. Although more costly—$31.5 million versus $27.5 million for the northerly route—the southern alignment would leave farmland virtually untouched.
Each side dug in its heels early on and, until the election of John Buchanan’s Conservatives last fall, no government was willing to incur the wrath that would inevitably follow a final decision either way. The Tories had barely been in office four months, however, when they announced last January that the new highway would be built along the northern route. When the Highway 101 South Committee, an umbrella group representing the protesters, hinted that they might seek an injunction to halt the project, the government replied by threatening not to build any highway at all if they lost in court.
“Now there’s a lot more at stake than
I simply where the highway should go,” contends Bill Percy, an Annapolis guesthouse operator and author, who is co-chairman of the Highway 101 South Committee. “The government’s decision goes against a very clear-cut expression of public opinion and so the issue now is whether or not the democratic process is going to be allowed to prevail.”
The government counters that its decision was based on what one official called “the most complete location study ever undertaken for any highway in the province.” Conducted by the department of highways, the study compared the two routes on 25 different criteria ranging from cost to safety and concluded that the “negative aspects of the agricultural concerns” would be more than offset by gains for local business and industry because the northern route would run closer to the valley’s major population centres.
Hogwash, replies Percy, who argues that department officials simply tailored their report to support their original position. The real basis for the government’s decision, contends Tim Hennigar, the president of the Annapolis County Federation of Agriculture, is politics. “Politics still speaks louder than anything else in the province,” he says, “and I can’t see any other good reason to pick the route that would go right through farmland.”
Whatever the reason for the government’s hard line on the highway route, it now seems likely that the bulldozers will begin to rip through valley farms next spring unless the Highway 101 South Committee can convince a judge to stop the project. Although the committee has been putting off a legal battle in hopes that public pressure will change the government’s mind, Percy says they are prepared to go to court if necessary. He admits, though, that because of the exhausting battle over the highway, much of the original opposition has now melted away. Faced with the pressing need for a new transportation link of some kind to Halifax and Yarmouth and cowed by the government’s threats to stop all construction, most of the local municipalities have fallen into line behind the northern route. And many of the affected farmers have quietly begun to make deals with government land buyers. “That was the strategy of the department of highways from the beginning,” says Percy. “If you keep people on the hook long enough, eventually you’ll wear them down and they’ll give in.” Percy isn’t giving in. “This issue is just too important,” he says. “They say that our proposed route would cost $4 million more than the northern alignment. But how do you compare that with the cost if we let them destroy the traditional economy of the valley? Farming is what the valley is all about.” Stephen Kimber
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