For all the contentious matters that have come up in Portugal Cove-St. Philip’s over the past few years — from the toppling of the old Anglican church steeple to prickly relations within town council — Mayor Bill Fagan believes the town does not get enough credit for all that’s going well.
“We don’t seem to get a lot of visibility about all the things that are happening here and drawing people in,” said the mayor.
People have flocked to the community over the last decade. The 2011 census reports 7,366 people live in Portugal Cove-St. Philip’s, up 12 per cent from 2006 (6,575) and 26 per cent above the 2001 census figure (5,866).
Deputy Mayor Jane Tucker said young families make up a large proportion of those coming to the community. Though new data has not been released from the 2011 census, results from 2006 listed the average age of Portugal Cove-St. Philip’s residents at 38 years — four below the provincial average.
Many new residents are working professionals, and Tucker said the construction of high-end homes highlights the effect the booming oil and gas industry is having on the town.
Over 100 students are enrolled in kindergarten at Beachy Cove Elementary, and a new grades 5-7 school is due to be built in the community.
Recreation is a focal point for council, according to Tucker. It hopes to build a $25-million lifestyle centre behind the town hall that will include a swimming pool, among other amenities. It will look to the province for support to build the centre.
One downside of its growth is increased financial responsibilities for capital projects. As a municipality with a population above 7,000 (as is now also the case for Torbay), it is responsible for 30 per cent of costs on capital projects jointly funded with the province, instead of 20 per cent.
Fagan said the town has asked Municipal Affairs Minister Kevin O’Brien to consider allowing Portugal Cove-St. Philip’s to continue operating under the 20-80 arrangement.
A new soccer field with artificial turf is set to be built a short distance away from the town hall alongside the already existing softball diamond on Rainbow Gully Road. More than 450 children enrol in the local soccer program, according to Fagan.
The town is also saving land in that area for the province to build the new school. This would give students nearby access to most of the community’s recreation infrastructure.
Space for development
Although it covers an area of 57 square kilometres, Fagan said much of the land in Portugal Cove-St. Philip’s is not appropriate for development due to its hilly nature.
“There will always be a fair amount of open space in the community,” said Fagan, adding it has plans in place to help extend the East Coast Trail from Bauline to Portugal Cove-St. Philip’s and to expand Voisey’s Brook Park through the purchase of 100 acres of Crown land.
However, space remains for development. Three are in the works, pending amendments to the municipal plan, that would create 54 new residential lots. All are under public consultation.
A provincial government study recommended the release of 1,200 acres of agricultural land in the community that’s no longer feasible for its past use. Fagan said the town may eventually look to develop this land.
Tucker said the town has every intention of maintaining its rural feel, as it will state explicitly in the next town plan, which is currently being developed.
From 2007 to 2011, an average of 78 permits were issued for single and double dwellings in the community. The busiest of those five years were 2010 and 2011, when 87 and 86 permits were issued respectively.
According to the town’s 2012 budget, property tax revenue is expected to jump 12 per cent from $4.6 million in 2011 to $5.1 million this year.
Business tax revenue only accounts for four per cent of the town’s budget of $8.9 million, but Fagan hopes to see that percentage one day jump to 20 per cent. Last November, the town released a draft version of its economic plan for the public to review, and it is now in the process of hiring an economic development officer.
To help attract businesses, the town reduced its general business tax rate from 14 mills to 10. Rates were also reduced for medical office and professional service establishments, and no taxes are charged in the first year of a business’s operation.
Fagan said there’s tourism potential for the area as a gateway to Bell Island and as the home to multiple farms. It also has a number of historic properties and holds community events, including its winter carnival, happening now until March 10. Last month, the town launched a 42-page booklet highlighting Portugal Cove-St. Philip’s heritage.
The town also has in place a rule requiring developers to either leave 10 per cent of a subdivision as open space or to pay a fee in lieu of doing so.
Fagan said volunteer support is strong in the community, leaving no shortage of bodies to help with school events and sports. He said the volunteer fire department — which now has a paid chief for the first time — also benefits from the influx of young people in the community, with volunteers available to replace retiring members.
“We certainly have no scarcity of volunteers coming forward when it comes to the fire department,” said Fagan.
While there remains some disagreements on council regarding the speed with which development should proceed, Tucker said its members are able to find common ground on issues to serve the needs of the community.
“Whatever councillors there are, it’s not holding back the town. We’re certainly moving forward with the town plan, our parks, and our lifestyle centre.”
Fagan was the lone holdover from the previous council following the 2009 municipal election, having previously served as a councillor prior to defeating then-incumbent mayor Norm Collins by 12 votes.