Golf developers who already established two 18-hole golf courses, are now eyeing another location along the western coastline of Cape Breton Island, for the second time.

Cabot Cape Breton, which operates the Cabot Links and Cabot Cliffs golf courses in Inverness, is proposing an 18-hole golf course within the boundaries of the 218-hectare West Mabou Beach Provincial Park.

Cabot’s golf resort in Inverness also offers a 10-hole executive course, three on-site restaurants, and a 72-room lodge, along with 19 upscale golf villas.

Beth MacLellan, Cabot Golf’s Director of Marketing, told The Reporter the company is “proud of what we have accomplished in Inverness, and we want to work with the community of Mabou to create another global tourism destination.”

Based on their experience with Cabot Links and Cabot Cliffs, MacLellan said a development like this “can be transformational; creating hundreds of jobs, growth opportunities for local businesses, infrastructure enhancements, and support for community causes and organizations.”

MacLellan said western Cape Breton is “growing and has become a magnet for visitors and private sector investment,” and the company wants to “build on this momentum.”

MacLellan said Cabot Golf is currently engaged in conversations with Mabou residents to share its vision for an 18-hole golf course in the region and gather feedback, noting the company is “listening and proceeding in a thoughtful, ecological and sustainable manner.”

Cabot Golf has created a vision document for reference, MacLellan said, noting discussions have resulted in good questions and feedback to inform their next steps.

While they are still developing formal plans and applications for land use, MacLellan confirmed there is no intention to construct anything beyond a small office, or club house.

When asked why Cabot was looking to put a golf course inside the boundaries of a provincial park, MacLellan replied they’re considering West Mabou for its proximity to Inverness and its geography, which is ideal for a traditional links course.

MacLellan said it is common for golf courses to be located within the boundaries of both provincial and national parks, including Highlands Links in Cape Breton Highlands National Park, Green Gables Golf Club in Cavendish National Park, and the Banff Springs Golf Course in Banff National Park. She said other examples include New Brunswick’s Herring Cove Golf Course and Mactaquac Golf Course, which are both located entirely within provincial parks.

Back in 2018, Cabot, which is led by Ben Cowan-Dewar, issued an expression-of-interest to acquire the site located within West Mabou Beach Provincial Park, however the Department of Natural Resources and Renewables (DNRR) indicated the environmental information they had was outdated and would need to be reassessed.

Adèle Poirier, the DNRR’s communications director, told The Reporter via email that in 2018 the department did a “desktop assessment” that entailed reviewing existing information about the park, and conducted a field assessment.

Poirier noted that the province has not received an application from the company, and if an application is made, she said the department will give it due process and fair consideration.

According to the proposal, Cabot is looking to apply for a Crown land lease with the provincial government to lease one-third of the property; which would require special permission from the DNRR.

The proposal being put forward in Mabou by Cowan-Dewar does not include plans for on-site accommodations or accompanying restaurant infrastructure, like there is at their resort 20 kilometres in Inverness.

Former premier Rodney MacDonald, who says he is a community liaison for the company, met with the West Mabou Development Association, the Mabou and District Development Association, the Mabou Athletic Commission, Strathspey Performing Arts Centre, and the Mabou Gaelic and Historical Society, to outline Cabot’s vision of the project.

A key piece of correspondence MacDonald brought to the meeting was the fact that Cabot planned to invest in Mabou with an annual stipend of $125,000, and each group would receive annual funding in the range of $12,500 to $50,000.

In a subsequent Letter to the Editor, MacDonald said Cabot Golf has been very intentional in their approach by listening to community feedback and letting that inform their approach.

The former Inverness MLA said a portion of land located within the West Mabou Beach Provincial Park is classified as a natural environment park; a place that, under the law, incorporates natural landscapes in combination with outstanding recreational resources.

Based on the experience in Inverness, MacDonald said the company has “proven that a low-impact, traditional links course can protect and enhance the natural environment” with sustainable management practices and environmental mitigations backed by science.

Approval of a land lease is contingent on a robust plan and assessment by experts across government, and MacDonald said approval won’t be granted unless Cabot Golf can demonstrate it has identified social, economic, and environmental considerations, and provided sufficient plans and mitigations.

Like other Letters to the Editor in support of the project, MacDonald noted that residents, groups, and businesses are being offered a “once in a lifetime opportunity.”

But there are residents and groups opposed to the proposal.

In a written statement, the Ecology Action Centre stated protected areas should remain protected, and Cabot could choose from the remaining 86 per cent of the province’s privately owned coastline.

The EAC said Nova Scotia has a goal of protecting 20 per cent of its lands and water by 2030 and allowing this development in an already protected area will make reaching these targets impossible, and threatens the legitimacy and effectiveness of the land conservation system.

The co-chair of the Margaree Environmental Association (MEA) says he doesn’t believe half of the West Mabou Beach Provincial Park should be allocated for a new 18-hole golf course.

Neal Livingston said the MEA has been dealing with a number of issues related to Cabot Cape Breton for about the past decade because “members of the public, in the Inverness area, were intimidated to speak up about issues related to Cabot’s activities at their golf courses in Inverness.”

Livingston told The Reporter in an interview on Nov. 11 that those issues surround non-compliance with the contractual obligation to build beach access, which is still outstanding.

Subsequently to that, Livingston said the MEA noticed Cabot excavating a dune at Cabot Links during its construction and reported it to the government. He noted that about one-third of the Cabot Links course is built on the protected beach lands of Inverness Beach, which he called ”the largest violation of the Protected Beaches Act in the history of Nova Scotia.”

Although violating the Protected Beaches Act is a summary offence, Livingston said the province still hasn’t done anything about it.

Through a Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy (FOIPOP) application, Livingston explained that against the recommendations of the bureaucrats, former Natural Resources Minister Lloyd Hines granted approval to build part of Cabot Cliffs on a protected area.

Livingston said this latest proposal is “precedent-setting for all parks in Nova Scotia,” which is why their petition in opposition has more than 16,000 signatures.

The petition states that future generations of Mabou residents can’t afford to lose the legally protected and ecologically sensitive area to private development.

According to the petition, the triangle-shaped park is about 215 hectares and includes a two-kilometre sandy beach along one side, and home to sensitive ecosystems of a sand dune system and a salt marsh, as well as an estuary and trail networks. In developing this land, the negative impact on the local biological systems will be far reaching and unprecedented in the region, the petition asserts.

Livingston believes there is plenty of private coastline that Cabot can purchase to build a golf course, and they should leave the ecologically crucial provincial park alone.

Livingston accused Cabot Golf of recycling their past technique in Inverness of creating conflict in the community, then doing an end run straight to the politicians.

When they see a former premier as Cabot’s front man, throwing money at community groups and highlighting the 500 jobs Cabot has, Livingston claims that at least 300 of those are caddie jobs who are required by Cabot Golf to declare themselves self-employed.

Regardless of the tangible economic impact from more jobs, more visitors, and more investment in the region, the fact that part of the golf course will exist in an ecologically sensitive area is a consideration that can’t be ignored.

Yes, it will improve the economy, but if that’s done at the risk of harming the environment, then aren’t those benefits superficial and short-term?

While acknowledging that beach access is what makes this project valuable in the first place, if there is a way for Cabot Golf to leave this area out of their proposal, it could more likely get the support of environmental groups and more residents, and would stand a better chance of provincial approval.

If there is no way around including the beach park, and the project does proceed, hopefully that won’t induce a cost that outweighs the gain.