Lunenburg to consider housing development proposals on Blockhouse Hill, plans closure of campground in 2024

(The Visitor Information Centre on the campground site at Blockhouse Hill. Photo: Sal Falk)

Can Blockhouse Hill be left as a nice piece of nature for animals?

This question is explicitly asked, and answered “No,” by the Town of Lunenburg in a new document addressing the future of the land.

This summer is set to be the last for the Lunenburg RV Park and Campground on Blockhouse Hill, as the Town prepares to consider proposals for conditions of sale for housing development on the land – a move the Lunenburg Board of Trade says would not be as economically prudent as letting the campground they operate remain.

The town opened a request for proposal in early February for a plan to develop the approximately 22.53 acres on the hill, following plans laid out in the Project Lunenburg Comprehensive Community Plan launched in 2020.

The lands highlighted in green are outlined for possible divestiture in the RFP. Sylvia Park, highlighted in yellow in the bottom left, is a town-owned park and not included in the RFP. (Photo: Town of Lunenburg)

Based on the zoning of the land, any possible development allows for six main buildings on the Hill, directly adjacent to Old Town. The land is primarily green space and features stunning views of the Back Harbour. 

Five of the six lots would host a maximum of 16 dwellings, with the last lot allowing for a main building up to three stories and no limit for the number of dwellings.

Ten percent of the dwellings would be “affordable housing” which the town cites as approximately $1,637 a month.

While the town cites rising expenses that could be balanced by the sale of land for moving forward with the development and closing the campground; Jamie Myra, President of the Lunenburg Board of Trade Council, shares a different perspective.

Board of Trade to see an 80 per cent cut to revenue with campground loss

Town-owned land on the hill is currently host to the Lunenburg RV Park and Campground, operated by the Lunenburg Board of Trade.

In an FAQ for the Blockhouse Hill RFP process posted online to the Town of Lunenburg website on Feb. 24, two weeks after the RFP was released, the Town answers the question, “Can’t we leave it a campground?”, with: “No. The lease of the land for the campground with the Lunenburg Board of Trade (LBOT) expires in 2024.”

The campground on Blockhouse Hill. (Photo: Sal Falk)

Closing the campground is a move that would cut approximately 80 per cent of the board’s funding – the Board projects $200,000 to $220,000 in revenue for the campground over the upcoming 2023 season. 

The board lists 110 local businesses and non-profits as members. The board represents and promotes the interests of its membership to government, and plans and solicits economic activity for the community. 

Popular events organized by the Board include the Light Up Lunenburg Christmas Festival and the annual Lunenburg StreetFest. 

The campground also hosts performances for the Lunenburg Folk Harbour Festival, and the board’s Visitor Information Centre which staffs summer students who share information with tourists.

“We’re able to do all that because of the funds we bring in through the campground,” says Myra.

Myra says 2022 was the best year in revenue for the campground, with the crew for Disney’s Washington Black production followed by a record period of occupancy for the hill’s 30 serviced RV sites.

“Without that campground, we’re really struggling to try to find a way to transition into a board in a very small community and fund ourselves through membership, because that’s probably not going to be possible,” he says.

Myra says the Board has suggested a compromise of only operating on part of the land, but the Town is not cooperating.

“We’ve said, ‘Let’s negotiate. Leave us on the top where the RVs go, and we’ll take over that portion of the land, and you can develop from the bathrooms down to facing the harbour. And it’s win-win.’ But for whatever reason, they’re not even willing to discuss that option with us,” says Myra.

Town exploring marketing levy to offset campground revenue

The Town of Lunenburg leases the campground land to the board for a dollar a year.

Project Lunenburg, the Comprehensive Community Plan guiding the Town’s planning decisions that was completed in 2020, identified site planning for Blockhouse Hill as one of nine items to pursue for residential expansion in the town.

Step 1 of the implementation plan for Blockhouse Hill site planning reads: “Relocate campground and off set lost Board of Trade revenue by increasing Old Town visitor parking fees.”

Matt Risser, Mayor of Lunenburg, answered emailed questions from The Barnacle regarding how the new RFP aligns with Project Lunenburg.

Risser says the town is currently exploring possibilities other than parking fees for offsetting the revenue towards the Board of Trade, due to the province having authorized municipal units to collect a marketing levy.

Matt Risser, Mayor of Lunenburg (left) and Jamie Myra, President of the Lunenburg Board of Trade meet to sign the lease for the campground on Blockhouse Hill in April 2021. (Photo: Lunenburg Board of Trade, Facebook)

Myra says working with the Town towards a marketing levy has been very positive.

“Our problem is that doesn’t alleviate the fact there is going to be no place for the type of visitors that RV tourism brings to this community, or even the surrounding area,” says Myra.

“I think everybody is missing the point that hundreds of thousands of dollars a year that RV visitors spend at our businesses is going to be lost.”

Myra says the board is currently assembling a study on the economic impact of the campground, but he is aware it is in the hundreds of thousands of dollars. 

He adds the decision for Netflix and Disney crews to film in Lunenburg over the last two years, which brought hundreds of thousands of dollars to the community, was influenced by the location and capacity of the campground.

The Town’s FAQ for the Blockhouse Hill RFP answers the question, “What about the film industry? They will never come here again without Blockhouse Hill,” with, “The film industry is fully capable of finding another suitable location for base camps and the like.”

The FAQ also states the Town is willing to cooperate with the Board to find a new location for the campground. 

Myra says that to develop a new lot that can service 30 RVs would be cost-prohibitive, and locations that could be considered on the outskirts of town wouldn’t have the same appeal for visitors who select the spot based on the short walking distance to shops and amenities in town.

Myra says the board is conducting a survey of its membership asking for their opinions on the campground and the future of the board to determine how to move forward.

“The big thing with us is, we’d like to work with the town in a positive manner moving forward. And we certainly see the benefits of development,” says Myra.

“The board in general definitely is pro-development. But we feel very strongly that, at the very least, we’d love for the town to allow us to stay at the top portion of the area.”

Town cites rising expenses and town hall repairs as reasons for heading towards sale

An FAQ published by the Town on Feb. 24 includes the question, “Why are we doing this? Why can’t we just leave it for the animals and have a nice piece of nature?”

The question is answered: “The Town has three tools to generate revenue to help offset capital costs; raise taxes, cut services or generate a revenue stream, such as selling land. As we’ve all seen in our own lives, expenses are on the rise and the Town is working to find solutions that won’t put more pressure on residents. Our best available land to sell is Blockhouse Hill. By readying these lands for development using a Request for Proposals (RFP) we have a say into what is eventually constructed on that site.”

The sale of land can only be done once unless you buy land back and sell it again at a profit, so it is a temporary revenue stream. The long-term revenue stream from selling the land would be the additional tax base of new residents, but the scope of anticipated tax income and any analysis that may be in progress behind this estimate is not referred to in the FAQ.

Blockhouse Hill from above in August 2021. (Photo: Google Earth)

The second question in the FAQ, “Why sell land?”, is answered:

“Selling surplus assets (land) ensures revenue for the Town. Land must be sold at fair market value and proceeds are deposited in the Town’s Capital Reserve. Once land is sold, it generates new taxes, helping support the ongoing sustainability of the Town by paying for buildings, infrastructure, maintenance, water and sewer, etc. A Building Condition Assessment report for Town Hall was recently completed which suggested without spending $3.8M to extend the lifecycle of Town Hall it will fall further into disrepair. The same results are expected for all Town-owned buildings. The report is available here (Item 9.1):”

How does the current RFP match the plan in Project Lunenburg?

Project Lunenburg’s implementation plan for Blockhouse Hill’s third step is: “Initiate feasibility study to explore conditions of sale, municipal land bank or community land trust as prefered model to ensure inclusion of affordable housing.”

It is not clear whether this feasibility study was conducted. 

Asked via email whether this feasibility study was conducted, or whether the release of the RFP represents the town’s decision to proceed with the conditions of sale option without the feasibility study, Risser writes: “The approach the Town has chosen to take with respect to affordable housing inclusion is conditions of sale and is the same for its process with respect to the King St extension property.”

“The Town would have enhanced revenue as a result of this plan due to the divestment of ownership and tax base generated by additional housing units,” writes Risser.

“The Town has requested, as a part of the design services component, a design that includes a 10% allocation of affordable housing as 30% of the gross median income for the applicable census dissemination area.”

“The remainder would be market housing but the Town has also provided guidance and zoned the area for medium and high density residential use to enhance the market affordability of per unit costs.”

The final implementation step is listed: “Commence Blockhouse Hill master planning study.”

Risser writes, “This RFP is to undertake the master planning study and includes components for design services and public engagement. Once a study is complete the Town can enshrine the results as conditions of sale in its divestment of the property.”

What is the housing capacity of Blockhouse Hill?

While the total number of dwellings and their rental or purchase cost in a potential development can only be speculated on right now – the RFP does not name a minimum or maximum number of dwellings – some numbers are available.

The RFP allows proposals to include up to sixteen dwellings on five low and medium-density lots, and an unlimited number of dwellings on one high-density lot.

All lands listed in the RFP fall under the “Old Town/New Town 1 (ONT1) Form Zone”, which the RFP notes enables a maximum of one main building per lot. 

According to the Town Land Use By-law, the maximum height for the ONT1 zone is 34 feet, which would allow up to approximately three stories. The maximum lot coverage for this zone is 40 per cent.

The RFP lists three lots with unique property identification numbers (PIDs) 60057015, 60057007, and 60056991 located in a Lower Density Residential (RL) Use Zone, which allows for a maximum of two dwellings. These are small lots near the eastmost end of Creighton Street at the back of Old Town.

Two PIDs that comprise most of the hill – 60056892, 60056900 – are located in a Medium Density Residential (RM) Use Zone. The RFP notes, “The Medium Density Residential (RM) Use Zone only permits four (4) residential dwellings plus one accessory dwelling for a maximum of five (5) dwelling units per lot.”

One PID, 60671427], is located in a Higher Density Residential (RH) Use Zone behind the Harbour View Haven long-term care home and connected to Sawpit Road. The RFP notes, “The Higher Density Residential (RH) Use Zone does not limit the number of dwelling units per lot.”

This map shows the PIDs listed in the RFP. (Photo: Town of Lunenburg)

What is the scope of affordable housing in the proposed development?

The RFP calls for 10 per cent of dwelling units in the proposed development to be “affordable”, with affordable defined as “housing that costs no more than 30% of the median household income within the applicable census dissemination area.”

The town’s FAQ for the RFP says, “According to Statistics Canada the median total household is $65,000 (pre-tax). 30% of that is $19,650 which translates roughly into $1,637/month.” 

In terms of how many units could be supported on the land, Project Lunenburg includes a population density estimate for the lands on Blockhouse Hill based on the density of the surrounding area. 

The estimate is the land could support 110 residents over 45 dwellings – a density of 25 residents/hectare and 9.6 dwellings/hectare, over 4.4 hectares.

A potential development with 45 dwellings, and 10 per cent affordable units, would have approximately 4.5 affordable (approximately $1,637/mo) dwellings.

How could this affect the Town’s UNESCO Heritage Site status?

The land listed in the RFP represents approximately 20 per cent of the Buffer Zone of the Town’s UNESCO Heritage Site.

New streets and houses appended to the existing grid of Old Town would represent a significant change to the layout of the town, but the land on Blockhouse Hill falls outside of the actual UNESCO Heritage Site.

The RFP comments on the need for proposals to complement the town’s heritage values:

“Any development proposal must complement the site’s heritage values. Proponents should note that Blockhouse Hill is archaeologically significant, and if any artifacts are found, the Provincial Department of Communities, Culture and Heritage must be contacted immediately. Developers should undertake a Resource Impact Assessment Report before any development.”

The town’s FAQ on Potential Sale of Municipal Properties indicates any potential disposal of property within the town’s heritage district “would be researched carefully and include consultation with Parks Canada, who administer UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Canada.”

Michael Best, Communication Officer with the Town of Lunenburg, writes in response to emailed questions, the town is “working in an ongoing process with Parks Canada and cannot share any confidential conversations at this time.”

“Thoughtful development in this area will contribute to the continued vitality of the heritage district by allowing compatible growth and affordable housing and should not affect Lunenburg’s world heritage listing,” writes Best.

What comes next?

The RFP, originally scheduled to close on March 7, had its timeline extended to March 31.

The Town’s website indicates “more information and a timeline for public engagement will be shared once a proponent has been chosen.”

The town remarks in a release, “There will be several opportunities for public engagement ahead of any prospective sale of the lands.

A public workshop for input into the type of design scenarios citizens wish to explore, resulting in a Visioning Report for the design consultants’ use.

A public presentation of the final four design scenarios to obtain public feedback and comments for integration into the final design, resulting in a What We Heard report.

A public presentation to outline the designers’ final recommendation.”


4 responses to “Lunenburg to consider housing development proposals on Blockhouse Hill, plans closure of campground in 2024”

  1. Edmund Brownless

    My love for Lunenburg will be over. Will the town still be designated by UNESCO? I hope that these politicians will be stopped. They have no idea what they are doing. It will not help Lunenburg.


      Dear Edmund, your love for the burg is only about yourself or you would welcome more people to share it with.

  2. Elizabeth Singer

    If you think Lunenburg should sell Blockhouse Hill to creat housing do you think Halifax should sell Citadel Hill and put up a high-rise?

  3. Claire

    ‘A potential development with 45 dwellings, and 10 per cent affordable units, would have approximately 4.5 affordable (approximately $1,637/mo) dwellings.’

    Oh wow, that solves everything… NOT.

    Removing the campground also discriminates against people who camp with tents, and perhaps can’t afford the high B&B prices. Lunenburg is one of the very few towns that gets their campsite right. So let’s destroy it, along with Blockhouse Hill!

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