The Halifax municipality has declared five acres of parkland as surplus in order to sell it to the province for a new school in Clayton Park, but councillors say they felt forced into the decision.
The mainly wooded land sits south of Park West School and runs along the popular Mainland North Trail. Most councillors voted in favour of selling the parkland on Tuesday, with councillors Pamela Lovelace and Kathryn Morse voting against the move.
The Nova Scotia government plans to build a three-storey, pre-primary to Grade 8 school on the site to help with overcrowding at Park West and other schools nearby, according to a staff report.
But Lovelace said the council shouldn't have to choose between green space and education.
"You know, we've got a tap on the shoulder from the province that says 'Hey, we need your land because we didn't adequately and appropriately plan for the future of schooling for this community,'" Lovelace said during council.
She said the province knows where development growth is planned in the city and should have anticipated the need for more schools in Clayton Park years ago.
The latest numbers for Park West show the pre-primary to Grade 8 school had an enrolment of 902 students as of this fall. While the Halifax Regional Centre for Education said the capacity of the school is 920, that includes both the main building of 620 students and a 12-classroom portable housing 300 students.
After the province first asked for the land in 2020, the municipality consulted with the community through a survey. About 69 per cent of respondents were against the sale, which was echoed by more than 250 people who signed a petition to council this week.
"This is a very passionate file that … has its challenges between supporters of the parkland and those who want to support the location of a school," area Coun. Iona Stoddard said.
Coun. Shawn Cleary said while it's not an ideal situation, there are still multiple parks close by like Belchers Marsh about 250 metres away.
"It's a forest essentially," Cleary said. "I don't think the community is losing much here — in fact they're gaining way more than they're losing in terms of the handful of trees that will come down."
However, Coun. Patty Cuttell said forests are also important to absorb storm water and capture greenhouse gasses.
"We shouldn't be in this position of having this like trade-off between one or another of … these necessary items," Cuttell said.
The province did have a list of 10 possible sites, but staff told council on Tuesday that they were told there wasn't a good second choice.
Coun. Kathryn Morse disagreed, saying the school selection process is unclear and there are aging schools nearby that could be redeveloped.
"The whole process of deciding on schools is not transparent, so it ends up … that we get kind of railroaded into this decision," Morse said.
Land will be sold at market value
Other councillors raised concerns that if they didn't sell, the province could expropriate the land anyway — so the move gives the city some control.
Staff told council that they will now work toward a sale agreement with the province. The land will be sold at market value, and all proceeds can only be used for park and recreation projects.
Michael Wile, manager of acquisitions, disposals and industrial land for Halifax, said they will look to include parking and a dedicated drop-off lane for the new school in the agreement, as well as buffer areas and new paths. There will also be a clause in the sale agreement which ensures the city can buy back the land once it's no longer needed for a school.
Wile said construction will likely start as soon as possible once the sale is finalized.
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