Nova Scotia

N.S. proposes legislation to allow Antigonish town, county to consolidate

The Nova Scotia government has introduced special legislation to allow the Town of Antigonish and the Municipality of the County of Antigonish to consolidate, amid ongoing opposition from residents and a pending court appeal.

Municipal Affairs and Housing Minister John Lohr tabled Bill 407 — the Antigonish Consolidation Act — in Province House in Halifax on Tuesday, a few weeks after both councils re-affirmed their positions to dissolve the town to consolidate under the county’s name in a January vote.

“It’s a pretty exciting day for our community,” County Warden Owen McCarron told reporters alongside town Mayor Laurie Boucher after they watched the bill introduction from the gallery.

Both leaders have said consolidation allows the municipalities to pool resources and better tackle issues like housing and infrastructure together.

Boucher said it’s important to merge while both municipalities are financially stable, rather than be forced into it as other Nova Scotia municipalities have in the past.

Municipality of the County of Antigonish Warden Owen McCarron, left, with Town of Antigonish Mayor Laurie Boucher. (Jane Sponagle/CBC)

“We’re looking forward to five, 10, 15 years down the road. We want to cement a good future for the next generation coming up in Antigonish,” Boucher said.

“We anticipate being able to do things that we haven’t been able to do before as two separate municipalities.”

Lohr said there are “tremendous advantages” for the move, and while the decision is up to the town and county he agrees with their vote.

“The reality is they’re all living in the same space together, and we think municipal government should reflect how people are living in a community,” Lohr said.

Court appeal pending

In December, a Nova Scotia Supreme Court judge ruled the town and county of Antigonish had the legal right to ask the province for permission to amalgamate.  A group of residents is appealing that decision.

“I’m astounded that they have absolutely no respect for the rule of law and for the court process,” Anne-Marie Long, part of the group appealing that decision, said about the bill Tuesday.

She and other residents have argued both councils did not conduct adequate consultation on the plan. Long said she’s worried the county’s property taxes —which are lower than the town’s — will go up to subsidize the town given its higher debt and infrastructure costs.

The bill will eventually come back for second reading before going to the law amendments committee before it can come into effect.

Long said she’s already planning to speak to the law amendments committee about shutting down the bill until a plebiscite on the issue is held, which residents have long demanded.

A sign on a back road in Antigonish County calls for a public vote on a potential merger with the town.
A sign on a back road in Antigonish County calls for a public vote on a potential merger with the town. (Jon Tattrie/CBC)

“This is wrong, and we should have a say in what’s going on,” Long said.

Both NDP Leader Claudia Chender and Liberal leader Zach Churchill noted that Premier Tim Houston fought for a plebiscite when he was an opposition member and multiple towns in his Pictou County riding considered amalgamating.

“My issue in all of this is that the premier is not a person that keeps his word. He says one thing in opposition and then does another thing when he’s in government consistently. You can’t trust what this guy is saying,” Churchill said.

“The people in Antigonish, or at least a large number of them, are asking for a plebiscite — he’s not even meeting with them.”

The plan is to have consolidation in place as of Nov.1, 2024.

Lohr said residents of both town and county will go to the polls alongside all other Nova Scotians during the coming October municipal election, to vote in a new council and mayor for a consolidated Antigonish.

When asked about the ongoing court appeal, Lohr said using special legislation to consolidate is not new and was used in 2020 when the Town of Windsor and District of West Hants merged into the West Hants Regional Municipality.

“The legal precedent is very strong for how we’re doing this. We’re not worried about that,” Lohr said.

However, Long said the West Hants comparison isn’t a fair one because in that case residents had pushed for the merger by first approaching the Utility and Review Board (UARB) before the process unfolded under special legislation. 

Lohr said the bill allows the merger, and outlines the responsibilities for a transition coordinator and committee to handle the process. The committee itself will be made up of the transition coordinator along with the mayor and deputy mayor of the town, and warden and deputy warden of the county.

The province will provide funds to handle the transition costs as it has for other municipalities going through mergers, Lohr said. He added that both town and county have committed to keep their current employees.

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