Another legal twist in Sandy Beach saga

The Superior Court decision posted here may alter the exclusive right of Quebec’s environment ministry to regulate wetland protection. Appeals to this and another ruling will determine whether municipalities can still maintain some control of wetlands by way of the trees growing in them.

The 20-year Sandy Beach development saga has taken yet another twist.

A Quebec Superior Court ruling posted last week has restored the right of developer Nicanco Holdings Inc. to backfill a wetland on the 24-hectare (60-acre) Sandy Beach site, thus removing the basis for a November 2021 resolution withdrawing the Town of Hudson’s support for the project. 

This latest twist has its roots in a certificate of authorization (CA) from the provincial environment ministry at a time when a developer could obtain permission to backfill a wetland in exchange for the donation of a wetland of equal or superior environmental value in the same watershed. 

Nicanco applied for, and was granted a CA allowing the backfilling of one hectare in exchange for the conservation of 3.5 hectares of greenspace, which was transferred to the town in March 2014. 

Four years later, the environment ministry — bowing to pressure from the municipalities and the public — adopted changes to Quebec’s cornerstone environmental protection act (EPA). The change at issue here was Clause 46.0.9, which gives the ministry the right to annul a CA if the developer hasn’t begun work within two years of it being issued. 

On that basis, the environment ministry annulled Nicanco’s CA on March 23, 2020 — two years after the adoption of the EPA changes.

Nicanco was one of three developers to file a joint challenge to Clause 46.0.9. Representing the ministry was the office of Quebec’s procureur-general. Arguments were presented before Judge David Collier on June 15. 

In his Sept. 7 decision, Judge Collier agreed with the plaintiffs that Article 46.0.9 of the revised EPA does not apply to CAs issued prior to April 7 2017 because the changes to the EPA didn’t specify that they could be applied retroactively. Collier reinforced his decision by awarding costs to the three plaintiffs.

Could Collier’s ruling be appealed? The province has 30 days from the receipt of notification letters to file a notice of appeal, leaving the outcome in limbo until mid-October.  However a source familiar with the file thinks an appeal is doubtful. 

“The court has confirmed that it takes clear instructions in the legislation to create retroactivity,” they told me. “Else the state of law would be permanently in flux (all it takes to apply retroactivity is for the thought to pop into an apparatchik’s head, à la Trump? Certainly not)  Pretty much what is taught in first-year law school.”

Even if the judgment goes to appeal, the Town of Hudson’s current opposition to Nicanco’s 214-door project is on soggy legal ground. 

The developer’s lawyers will certainly invoke the 20-year history of incremental approval by a succession of administrations, beginning with the original rezoning — from 49 single-family dwellings to a mixed multi-unit project — approved by referendum in September 2001. 

Next in the chain of approvals was the March 2014 CA allowing Nicanco to backfill one hectare in exchange for the conservation of 3.5 hectares of greenspace. (The CA authorizes 15,800 square metres of backfill, but it turns out the project will use 4,128 square metres (26%) because backfilling isn’t authorized in the ZIS, the special intervention zone decreed in the aftermath of the 2017 and 2019 floods.)

Another key approval was the resolution approving a development agreement between Nicanco and the Town, adopted in October 2017. (Although neither side is particularly happy with the agreement, nobody wants to risk reopening it.)

Then there are the urban planning approvals.  At its June, 2020 meeting, Hudson’s town planning advisory committee (TPAC) voted unanimously to recommend that council approve the Pine Beach subdivision plan, with two conditions — that the six townhouse units closest to the beach be relocated to minimize friction between residents and beachgoers, and that the developer agree to a  perpetual servitude in favour of the town to existing and future pedestrian paths. 

That same evening, TPAC also voted unanimously to reject the developer’s proposed design portfolio because the mix of townhouses and condo blocks didn’t satisfy Hudson’s architectural requirements for an integrated project. 

At its July 2020 meeting, a council majority approved adoption of the subdivision plan with TPAC’s recommendations — plus council’s insistence that the sewer system be routed outside the floodplain as specified in the 2017 development agreement. 

On TPAC’s recommendation, council also voted to reject Nicanco’s proposed architectural mix.

Finally, a resolution was adopted at the September 2020 council meeting authorizing the town clerk to issue a certificate of conformity with municipal bylaws to Nicanco, allowing the developer to apply for permission to begin infrastructure work on the condition that the developer submit revised architectural plans.

The outgoing council discussed acquiring all or parts of the 24-hectare Sandy Beach site. One proposal would have paid Nicanco market price for three environmentally sensitive wetlands characterized in the 2008 Teknika greenspace audit. There were never any talks between owner Nicanco Holdings Inc. and the town.

Prior to the November 2021 municipal election, the outgoing council discussed the possibility of acquiring all or part of Nicanco’s holdings. It quickly became clear that there would be no consensus. One councillor supported the Save Sandy Beach demand that council adopt a resolution petitioning the Montreal Metropolitan Community to acquire the entire site. Some proposed using the town’s accumulated surplus to acquire three wetlands characterized in the 2008 Teknika greenspace audit. The only point on which there was general agreement was that there was no appetite among Hudson residents for a tax hike to buy the site. The discussion died as soon as it was revealed that the environment ministry had annulled Nicanco’s 2014 CA. 

Any further discussions of acquiring all or part of Sandy Beach ceased with the incoming council’s repeal of the previous council’s 2020 resolution authorizing the issuance of a certificate of conformity green-lighting Nicanco’s infrastructure operations. Despite the presence of two Save Sandy Beach activists on the current council, it has yet to adopt a resolution tapping the CMM for acquisition funding.

In theory, the restoration of Nicanco’s CA means the Pine Beach project is back on the books. But so far, there’s no indication of that from the key players. The development’s longtime spokesman, Empero’s Marc Perreault, did not respond to my inquiries. Calls to Nicanco’s Pointe Claire offices go unanswered following the death in July of CEO Hans-K. Muhlegg. 

Meanwhile, similar challenges are working their way through the courts. One currently under appeal is the September 2021 decision rendered by Superior Court judge Florence Lucas involving a multi-unit development project in Saint-Bruno-de-Montarville.  Her ruling, compared by one legalist to the pound-of-flesh-but-no-blood decision in Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice, allowed the development as long as it preserves a forest of interest. 

The logic behind this approach? While the environment ministry jealously guards its power to regulate wetland protection, municipalities have jurisdiction over the trees. Depending on this appeal, Hudson may be in a position to exercise some control over the Sandy Beach project.

Whatever the outcome, the only sure thing for Hudson’s taxpayers in the foreseeable future are lawyers’ and consultants’ bills. Hardly their gainful use. 

Those who wish to read the Collier decision can find it at: 

http://citoyens.soquij.qc.ca/php/decision.php?ID=6FF141BDC6E21A81E3DCCCF215FD6734&captchaToken=03AIIukzhxHjd6XoDaYToVErQ_j5JCz9W8gWDuLSZ3fTmyETjYAJ54DjfucoWz0EiXd-EqCDIPk_MTVgv-1ymrPMLA1F8_0pzApS9XaBAQsaheVcQuWW4bo-1fWcwRmhz-azLr0I8wooDwDe1ftK1wEnnvKUXRIO7E_45a2G3-crSKiKwckfhaj3UahikaqtJVBuLcTcvlLV3znTt3pEgDRnMDU0quZTRmC6bgiZZgiotOPN8ZImIKdAh1BSKZgty1i90-ZzOq4xur6BraBsuwSeU5C5oVSAJN1zFLgbSEVIrdQCNXmV23JbmwtkgIUbZ45rLNlXvTVaT4lu1fy2MDLRJ8DZJuYn9wgY4v-x9A7VJZG4QgECtXaP7OHDrSOM8VkN05h1ZEIvVnoEXKknSNclNEXKW7Vhn1g9ySwpiiUlo2ruZASZwN2GqoboW84APGS2h2HtVaRJ5l3W86CHSovy4B-JQeF5ULpfUMDAo8VbHgobTOrHMQzS2OtUc95wFk9cUQny5DUcZgvKMEXSpYXUXBsaGvJURdXaYOFmfyP19XKi-EvmV-Frd6r6XS_5znhpK5Y9-Owet3qZtGPOecXfVc_RH2pYfOQw

The Locas decision is likewise publicly available on the SOQUIJ site. 

Your tax dollars…

At Hudson’s September meeting, council approved eight studies and expert analyses for a total cost — including taxes and expenses — well in excess of $150,000. By my rough calculation, taxpayers will have ponied up more than $300,000 in the 10 months since this council was elected.

Some consulting fees are inevitable. Quebec requires third-party engineering analysis as the basis for loan bylaws and some infrastructure projects. Other consultancy costs were inevitable with this council’s shift in orientations regarding constraints on future development and wetland/woodland protection. Others reflect the difficulty in hiring and retaining administrative staff, such as council’s approval of $20,000 plus expenses for a white-collar contractor to clear the urban planning backlog. 

Other fees appear to facilitate what the mayor used to call nice-to-haves, non-essentials — like the hiring of an architect to redesign Yacht Club Road between Main and the tracks. What’s the justification for this $17,500 expenditure?  

Another $37,200 was earmarked for a strategic planning study. Didn’t we pay $60,000 plus for a strategic planning study in 2016, still gathering dust in the municipal archives? I can’t recall the last time an incoming Hudson council agreed with the orientations of its predecessors, so why squander tax dollars on a shopping list that isn’t legally binding on the next council?

The $12,200 commercial analysis appears to be yet another attempt to resurrect the moribund Hudson SDC, or local business association. The 2009 Archer Report — commissioned for triple the price — is still sitting on the same dusty shelf in the town archives. Has anyone on council cracked it open to see if it’s still useful? 

What really burns my britches is the $28,000 for an updated Viviry Creek flow analysis and another $1,740 for a biologist to explain what it means. Is this the latest stall tactic to avoid replacing the Pine Lake dam (after having failed in the spring of 2014, Quebec insists the structure must be removed) in this mandate? Three ad-hoc citizens committees and two loan bylaws later, do councillors actually believe this latest kick at the can will produce different results than the 2014 AMEC report?

Louise Craig and I like to explore small towns like Hudson to observe how they deal with the same problems we have. This past summer, we spent a day walking around Bloomfield, a hamlet of about 600 people in Ontario’s Prince Edward County just west of Picton. There’s a creek the size of the Viviry running through town, with a dam and a millpond next to a main artery. Instead of a weir, there’s a square sluiceway which feeds into a six-foot culvert passing under the dam and the street to the other side. 
Last week we saw a similar layout in Mont-Tremblant Village, where a busy creek flows into a pond pretty close to the size of Pine Lake. At one end, a square sluiceway feeds into a culvert beneath the dam, below, and under the main drag into Lac Tremblant.
I have no engineering credentials nor expertise in small dams, but I’ve been exploring, writing and talking about Pine lake since I was a kid. it strikes me that if other municipalities have been able to solve this problem with simple, elegant fixes, why is this such a struggle? 

Finally, there’s a $27,790 update of the 2019 Maxxum intervention plan. Again, what has changed, other than the repaving of residential streets that never topped any list I saw as a councillor? Is this the pretext to rejig the list to satisfy some sectors at the expense of the majority? 

Some analysis expenses may prove to be justified, like a study to determine the usefulness of the town’s various real estate assets and giving the town a yardstick to assess whether to relocate public works to the snow dump, thus making better use of the works yard in the town core. As the editor of the Hudson Gazette, then as a councillor, I saw the waste in having the administration split among half a dozen unsuitable, substandard structures. The last council pushed to have Hudson’s ‘look and feel’ codified so that prospective builders and buyers would know what design elements were mandatory in their proposals to urban planning.

But I don’t see any of this happening. Instead, I see money being spent on what the mayor used to characterize as non-essential consulting contracts — all paid for out of the apparently bottomless ($7 million plus) accumulated surplus.

Yes, Hudson is on track for yet another operating surplus in 2022, but what that says to me is we could just as easily cut taxes and tariffs when some residents are struggling. With this year’s final tax instalment due last week and the clerk’s office compiling the list of properties in arrears for eventual sheriff’s auction, a spending spree is bad optics.

No licence to trespass

One of Hudson’s remarkable trees, this stately American chestnut is on public land and deserves protection. What if it stood on private land and the owner was concerned about security?

By now Hudson residents will have received a disquieting note from the town in the mail announcing a “mandate to inventory remarkable public and private trees.” Between Sept. 18 and Sept. 30, people identifying themselves as Enracinart team members will be identifying and geolocating potentially significant trees on public and private property throughout town.

The mayor’s letter is vague about whether the tree people have the legal right to set foot on private property. “It is possible that a specimen located on your property could be recognized as a remarkable tree. I, and council, would therefore appreciate your permission to allow Ms. Hardy and her team to inspect, measure and photograph the tree(s).”

Background: Resolution 3.9, adopted at the Aug. 1 council meeting, approved the July 14 hiring of phytoculturalist Suzanne Hardy (for $7,200 ex taxes) “to assist the town in establishing an inventory of remarkable trees on its territory.” The goal: to develop and implement a new tree policy specific to Hudson.

Resolution 3.9 doesn’t provide details, but it’s my understanding that this tree inventory is part of the runup to the proposed overhaul of Hudson’s Planning Program, the collection of bylaws that regulate urban planning.

My first reaction was that there’s no harm in seeing what remarkable trees are out there. One of Hudson’s star attractions is the stately and spectacular American chestnut at the rear of 539/541 Main. I’ve come across awesome 120-foot hemlocks in several of Hudson’s deep ravines as well as monster-muscled blue hornbeams in the lower Viviry wetland.

Blue hornbeams in the Lower Viviry wetlands: ironwoods are understorey trees that seldom grow this big. You can see why they’re called musclewoods.

But these are on public land. What impact would this tree census have on private property?

The interim control bylaw adopted early this year includes a measure to geolocate remarkable trees as part of a strategy to map a protected canopy corridor with GPS coordinates. These corridors and adjacent buffer zones would become constraints on development in a revised master plan.

More simply, the revisions would appear to further limit the right to cut trees on private property.

I think a majority of residents would agree on the need to protect the forest canopy, which is why we adopted the revised tree bylaw in 2021. The problem lies in the process.

The folks doing this remarkable-tree inventory aren’t certified tree experts. Hardy’s bio says she’s a ‘phytotechnicienne’ and botanist. Their body of work includes a 2005 Hydro-Quebec subcontract to identify 1,000 remarkable trees (no word on what happened to unremarkable trees). In 2016, Enracinart published an inventory of remarkable trees for Laval’s regional environment council and in 2012 a similar census for a Quebec City heritage site. Their biggest job: an inventory of Mount Royal’s most remarkable trees, which identified a number of unique specimens.

Therein lies the crux of the problem. From what I know, only designated town inspectors can set foot on private property without the owner’s permission, and only in the course of enforcing municipal bylaws. Anyone else requires the owner’s permission, preferably written. Anything else is called trespassing.

Moreover, the information gathered likely will be shared with the Conservation Working Group, a body of unelected citizens tasked with creating a conservation corridor. This would be a clear violation of Quebec’s Privacy Act.

As we saw with the previous council’s disastrous effort to impose a 30-metre wetland buffer throughout the town, this isn’t the sort of thing a council can do without consultation with those whose property values will be impacted.

A friend owns a woodlot which includes several enormous trees that presented a real threat to his family’s security. As currently written, the tree bylaw allowed them to be felled because they represent a public security hazard. As we were chainsawing and splitting the tonnes of lumber, he asked me whether letting the tree people onto his land means he can get the town to pony up to take down a remarkable tree that threatens to kill people and destroy his house.

I said I’d ask.

Faut voter à bon bord

Even in this time of increasingly insignificant Canadian elections, Quebec’s Oct. 3 exercise may seem like a wallow in futility.

With 40% of the decided vote, François Legault’s CAQ is guaranteed a second majority. The most significant outcomes left to decide: the official opposition (likely Eric Duhaime’s Quebec Conservatives) and whether the PQ and Liberals will elect a sufficient number of MNAs to retain party status.

If Quebec was a true participatory democracy, Oct. 3 would be a plebiscite on Bill 96, the CAQ’s language law rewrite and Bill 21, Quebec’s emulation of France’s secular-state edicts. Sadly, the province’s legislators voted otherwise, leaving it to the courts to thrash out the human cost. 

So much for principled stands on the sanctity of individual rights.       

What I find more surprising is the voting public’s apparent surrender of their collective rights at the outset of this 36-day Marathon of Irrelevance. 

I’m referring to the generalized apathy surrounding two files critical to millions — the failing Ile aux Tourtes highway bridge and the substandard emergency care system in southwestern Quebec. 

Rendition of the 404-bed Vaudreuil-Soulanges hospital, promised for 2026: will construction really begin this fall, or is it another electoral gambit?

Most Vaudreuil-Soulanges residents find ways to work around the challenges. Rather than risking a multi-hour wait at overwhelmed ERs or packed walk-in clinics, many choose to drive to Ontario ERs. To escape the hell of the daily commute on and off the island, we negotiate flextime, co-working and work-from-home alternatives. Sometimes we joke about it. But why should we accept it?

Begin with the bridge and the lack of public-transit alternatives. When it was inaugurated in 1965, the existing structure had an estimated 50-year lifespan carrying 25,000 vehicles a day. Now it carries 90,000 vehicles a day, a third of them big rigs averaging   50,000 pounds. Decades of deferred maintenance, incompetent modifications and road salt have forced the regular closure of one or more lanes (and once the entire bridge). These closures are increasing in frequency and duration with every passing year. 

In 2007, Transport Quebec boasted of keeping the bridge in operation for 70 years. A year ago, the ministry conceded the lane closures would have to continue until a new bridge was opened in 2031.

This past March 10, CAQ transport minister François Bonnardel announced the reopening of the new bridge would be moved forward 18 months, thanks to the government’s fast-tracking legislation for major infrastructure projects. No revised target date was given. 

Castle in the air? Three years ago, a light rail transport system was integrated in plans for the new Île aux Tourtes bridge. Between then and now, the proposal dropped dedicated bus lanes and turned the REM extension into an imaginary corridor now occupied by the existing bridge.

Four years ago, the transport ministry and its CAQ overseers were talking about incorporating an off-island extension to the REM light rail system into the new bridge. Between then and now, the REM extension was dropped. So were dedicated bus lanes. Henceforth, buses could use the outside breakdown lanes, the only safety zones for two kilometres.

The one concession to an eventual REM extension was an imaginary corridor where the existing bridge now stands. 

Hard targets remain equally elusive for the Vaudreuil-Soulanges regional hospital originally promised (by the premier himself) by late 2026. A prime contractor for the 404-bed hospital was to have been picked in the spring of 2022. Instead, a June 30 announcement by health minister Christian Dubé said construction will start “au début de l’automne prochain.” Taken literally, one might assume this to mean work will begin next week even though the prime contractor has yet to be named.

It’s hard to digest all this without getting the feeling that Vaudreuil-Soulanges voters don’t matter to the CAQ. The test of any government’s commitment to the democratic princlple is how quickly it abandons its promise to be a government for all citizens, not just those it was elected by. In Quebec’s bad old days, that manifested itself in whose roads were repaved and who got hired to do the job. 

Maybe it’s just me, but François Legault’s 2022 Quebec is starting to feel like the 1936 Quebec of Maurice Duplessis, where faut voter à bon bord wasn’t an idle threat. All the more reason to raise our voices on the public forums open to us. Legault’s CAQ will persist in pandering to its base, but we all need to hear dissent and concerns from across the political spectrum.

Hudson’s priceless wetlands

This is the wetland Hudson should acquire: the Viviry watershed and catchment basin between Highway 40 and boul. Harwood, source of Hudson’s drinking water — and ever-increasing runoff from development in St. Lazare and Vaudreuil-Dorion.

I expect mail on this, but Hudson’s most valuable wetland isn’t Sandy Beach or Como Bog — and it isn’t even in Hudson. It’s the 100-hectare wilderness of forests, ravines, marshes and fens lying between Highway 40 to the south and Harwood Blvd. (Hwy 342) to the north. This is the Upper Viviry watershed and catchment basin, source of Hudson’s drinking water — and the recipient of ever-increasing runoff from new residential development in St. Lazare and Vaudreuil-Dorion.

The Upper Viviry is part of the Viviry/ Black Creek watershed, 14.5 square kilometres stretching through three municipalities. Its headwaters are three branches fed by springs and marshes in the forested wetlands reaching as far south as rue Ste. Angèlique in St. Lazare, from past Camping Daoust to the east and Montée Alstonvale in Vaudreuil-Dorion’s Fief sector.

The Viviry flows northeast under Hwy 342 into Hudson’s Viviry Conservation Area, past Whitlock’s links and under Cote St. Charles, through Bradbury Park into what was Pine Lake on its journey to the Sandy Beach estuary and the Lake of Two Mountains. Over that last mile, the Viviry’s flow is increased by drainage from ravines and wetlands extending along the escarpment between Montée Lavigne in Hudson’s west end and Bellevue in the east.

The Upper Viviry basin probably looks like it did when Cumberland settlers colonized the region in the first part of the 19th century. It’s accessible only in winter, and for the most part only on back-country skis or snowshoes. But civilization has encroached over the 60 or so years since I first explored its reaches. The tracks of unauthorized snowmobiles and ATVs stitch the the frozen marsh. To the northwest looms the sewage treatment plant where Habitations Robert is building the first 294 homes of the multiphase Ravin Boisé development on what was once a working farm and sugarbush. The southeastern corner, a mix of woodlots and grasslands behind Mon Village, is zoned for a major residential/commercial project with its own sewage treatment plant.

Crossing Highway 342 into Hudson, sections like the upper Viviry and Hudson’s Viviry Conservation Area remain relatively pristine. The stretch between the Bradbury Nature Trail and Cameron is in the process of re-wilding in the wake of the 2014 Pine Lake dam failure. Given the length of time since Pine Lake became Pine Flats and the ongoing political debate over what to do, it is increasingly unlikely that the lake will be rebuilt to its original dimensions.

Early Viviry Bottle Race, with The Wilson Company’s icehouse in the background. The lower Viviry appears to have been less forested half a century ago and residents were able to walk its banks.

Between Cameron and Main, the Viviry is in rough shape. Fallen trees, junk and generations of illegal dumping inpede its flow. Instead of the shoreline vegetation one finds on its upper reaches, erosion caused by unchecked high-water periods has turned the lower Viviry’s banks into mud flats. The growth of trash trees like Manitoba maples and willows cuts sunlight that bank-repairing, pollution-filtering species would need to thrive. Ecologically, the urbanized, canalized lower Viviry is a wasteland instead of an eco-corridor. This is being addressed in draft bylaws 525.3 and 750 but will depend on buy-in from property owners who will no longer be permitted to do whatever they want in their back yards.

I’ve already written extensively on the Viviry between Main and the Ottawa River, but to summarize, both banks are within the 60% placed under conservation as part of the development agreement with its owners. Ironically, the estuary, once home to flocks of shore-dwelling birds and mammals, has been trampled into desolate mud flats by hordes of day trippers looking for a place to camp and run their dogs. The adjacent wetlands are filled with garbage, scrapped appliances and junked industrial machinery from the former Wilson Company icehouse.

Exploring the Upper Viviry

Our exploration of the Viviry Valley watershed in St. Lazare began at 10 a.m. Tuesday, March 16/21. In blue, the GPX tracking starts and ends beside Mon Village, at the northwest corner of the junction of Highway 40 and Côte St. Charles. Total distance covered: 5.4 km.

In mid-March 2021, our hiking friends Denis and Frances joined Louise and I for a trek through the Upper Viviry catchment basin. Between the start of mosquito season and the first frost, this square kilometre is unbearably buggy; late winter is the ideal time to explore.

I carried a Garmin GPSMap 78s to generate a GPX track of our hike I could overlay onto cadastral and zoning maps. It allows the user to compare what’s on the ground with municipal and agricultural zoning and land use maps, cadastral records, municipal boundaries and other information.

The four of us were awed by the vastness of the wetlands. We crossed beaver dikes hundreds of metres long and took selfies with condo-sized beaver lodges. We bushwacked through old-growth forests of maple, oak, hickory, hemlock, cedar, pine, fir and spruce where we identified tracks of coyote, lynx and fisher. We startled a sizeable herd of whitetail deer. Overhead, raptors circled.

Later, I overlaid our track onto the aquifer map contained in the 2015 PACES analysis (more below). Much of where we walked lies within the replenishment area for the aquifer which supplies Hudson its water. Despite its size and importance to the aquifer, the wetland is not designated as protected in St. Lazare’s conservation plan, below left. At lower right, Commission de protection du territoire agricole (CPTAQ) zoning allows residential and commercial development on the par 3 golf course behind Mon Village you can see as the cluster of buildings just above the Exit 22 cloverleaf. This project, along with the pink Habitations Robert development to the west, would hug the southern edge of the Viviry watershed.

What we see of the Viviry and its tributaries is mirrored by another Viviry dozens or hundreds of feet below the surface, an invisible river flowing slowly through layers of silt, clay, sand and gravel laid down during the last glaciation 11,000 years ago. That underground Viviry — and aquifers like it — supply close to half of all the drinking water in Vaudreuil-Soulanges and its 150,000 residents, including all of Hudson, St. Lazare and Rigaud.

Ours is the largest region by population in Quebec dependent on underground aquifers for its drinking water, yet we know next to nothing about their capacity or recharge rates. The only numbers we have are for municipal consumption; figures for the volume of water drawn by private wells are guesstimates. Quebec’s 2008 regulation designed to monitor the quantity of water being drawn from a given aquifer is a pretense of control that fools nobody.

By 2010, Vaudreuil-Dorion, St. Lazare, Hudson and Rigaud were all dealing with chronic drinking-water issues — stressed or failing municipal wells, boil-water advisories, watering bans, even total exterior-use bans. (St. Lazare went to court to defend the right to keep water-consumption statistics secret so as not to slow the rate of development.)

It was at this point that retired hydrologist Gabriel Meunier and a group of concerned individuals created the Conseil des bassins versants de Vaudreuil-Soulanges (COBAVER-VS), a non-governmental organization with a mandate to study the region’s water sources with funding from the MRC and the environment ministry’s Programme d’acquisition de connaissance sur les eaux souterraines (PACES) and technical support from geomapping consultants Géomont. Over the next three years, an 20-person interdisciplinary team from the Université du Québec à Montréal (UQAM) gathered the data required to model our region’s aquifers.

From the 2015 PACES/UQAM study, aquifer replenishment areas for the region are concentrated in the wetlands and upland sand lenses with the Viviry centrally located.

Published in 2015, the PACES/UQAM study established that the plateaus in St. Lazare and Hudson are critical aquifer replenishment zones, vulnerable to pollution and hardscaping which reduce permeability. Their recommended protection measures: allowing only low-density (less than eight units per hectare) residential development and conserving the complex of wetland corridors.

Key points:
— 54% of all drinking water consumed in Vaudreuil-Soulanges originates from the Mont Rigaud highlands (9%) and the Hudson and St. Lazare plateaus (41%).
— Local aquifers (eg the Viviry watershed) are most vulnerable to depletion; public and private wells draw down 29% of their natural replenishment.
— Hudson, Rigaud and St. Lazare depend entirely on underground water.

The report made special mention of a 2007 study by Gartner Lee Ltée. commissioned by concerned residents of St. Lazare’s west end. It found that wells on Ste. Angèlique and Fief need to be drilled progressively deeper to obtain sustainable water, raising the possibility that the aquifer in that part of St. Lazare is shrinking, either because of reduced replenishment or increased consumption. Fief residents have told me they had to drill up to 600 feet to ensure an adequate water supply.

PACES concluded with the recommendation that municipalities dependent on local aquifers must closely track consumption data before authorizing any new wells or allowing residential development based on water from the aquifer. It also warns that even if an aquifer appears to be productive, there is no way to measure long-term sustainability.

In the seven years since the PACES team published their report, emerging anecdotal evidence suggests that some aquifers in the region are stressed beyond their capacity by unregulated high-density residential development.

Earlier this month I got a call from Gary Dover, who lives on Harwood in Vaudreuil-Dorion west of the entrance to Hudson Valleys. Gary and Anita drink bottled water, but draw water for their household and garden from an 80-foot borehole well completed in 1990, the year before they purchased their house. With various modifications and a new pump, the system appeared to be working well until last year, when Gary’s seven-year-old pump showed signs of failure. The service technician identified the problem: their well was taking longer to replenish itself — a precursor to failure.

They learned neighbours were having similar problems with their wells regardless of depth or age. “Some of us have 80-foot artesian wells,” says Gary. “Others have 30-foot wells straight out of the 19th century.” Gary and neighbour Frank Delforge went door to door along Harwood and adjacent streets asking people whether they were having well issues. They found at least 40 others who were seeing signs of their wells failing over the past several months. When Gary told them that he and Anita were drinking and cooking with bottled water and boiling their well water for domestic uses, most said they were doing the same.

Dover contacted his district councillor Karine Lechasseur to discuss the problem and possible solutions. He said Lechasseur told him the city was aware of the problems residents were having with their wells and proposed a solution that would have Harwood households on private wells connect to a new west-end municipal water system fed by the city well at the corner of Harwood and Alstonvale. “She agreed it was a regional problem,” Dover told me, “and that the city would put it right, with consideration for the fact that this wasn’t our fault.”

I asked Lechasseur whether the city felt an official boil-water advisory was advisable for the sector. She told me she didn’t think the situation had reached the critical stage, but that Vaudreuil-Dorion’s director-general and staff were aware of the situation. One question she couldn’t answer is the sustainability of the aquifer, beginning with Vaudreuil-Dorion’s well at the corner of Harwood and Alstonvale that will supply Dover and his neighbours when and if they’re connected. Her understanding is that a municipality must apply for a certificate of authorization (CA) from the environment ministry to allow a sector to draw well water based on the number of homes and the working capacity of each well.

According to Dover, municipal employees have been working nonstop to ensure the well can supply increased demand from Ravin Boisé and adjacent developments. He finds it mind-boggling that the city would issue construction permits before ensuring it had a revised CA in hand, especially when the evidence suggests the aquifer may be showing early signs of stress.

While residents of the nearby Hudson Valleys and Alstonvale developments draw their water from municipal wells outside the affected area, some also have commissioned private wells to get around Hudson’s water-conservation regulations. Since the Environmental Quality Act was modified in 2008 to include the regulation of private wells, the Town of Hudson has issued 84 private-well permits for all sectors of town. I was told no numbers are available for the quantity of water extracted per well per day nor in which sector.

In principle, private wells require regulatory approval under a clause of the Environmental Quality Act, the Water Withdrawal and Protection Regulation, which sets standards for “water withdrawals, water withdrawal facilities and facilities or activities that may affect the quality of water withdrawn in the vicinity. It ensures, in particular, the protection of water withdrawn for human consumption or food processing purposes.”

The maximum daily amount of water that can be withdrawn by a private well is based on a 90-day average taken over a period of maximum water withdrawal (eg. a golf course well in summer) and the maximum number of users connected (20). Withdrawals cannot exceed 75 cubic metres (75,000 litres) per day.

My next call was to Vaudreuil-Dorion’s director-general, Olivier Van Nest, who shared his city’s long-term plan to connect all Harwood sectors currently on private or town wells (Hudson Acres, Domaine en haut, Normandie/Picardie/de la Concorde) to municipal water via a line up Montée Cadieux. The exception is Gary and Anita’s’s neighbourhood, separated from the rest of Vaudreuil-Dorion by the Viviry Valley. The solution there, Van Nest explained, is to connect them to the town’s Montée Alstonvale well — but only once data confirms the well is capable of supplying more water than the 600 cubic metres (600,000 litres) per day authorized by the current CA.

Can he be sure that aquifer can support a level of consumption required to supply several hundred new homes in the sector as well as hooking up those still on private wells? It’s up to the experts, Van Nest said. A similar process is underway to determine whether Vaudreuil-Dorion’s wells in southern St. Lazare have sufficient capacity to supply the network with the increased capacity required by the regional hospital scheduled to open in late 2026.

Above, a profile of 4/83, one of Hudson’s two most productive wells.

How does one determine the sustainability of Hudson’s aquifer? The latest attempt to answer this question was the 2018 Akifer study, one of the first contracts approved by the Nicholls council (residents will find the study posted on the town website). Below, the core paragraph (my translation):

In order to clarify whether the flow of the aquifer currently used by the Bradbury and 4/83 wells is capable of permitting the extraction of an additional flow, it will be necessary to provide, following the installation of new wells, an extended pumping period of one month during low-water periods to better document the behaviour of the pool under this constraint. It would also be preferable to have the shortfall period set during the summer to ensure that the Whitlock Golf Course well is also operated during the trial period, as the Whitlock Golf Course Golf Course Well uses the same aquifer as the Bradbury and 4/83 wells.

We know what is being produced and consumed from Hudson’s five operational wells (three in Bradbury Park, two in Hudsn Valleys/Alstonvale) because Quebec requires municipalities to monitor and post water consumption and test results. Hudson was negligent in doing so until 2017, when data first showed the municipality has a serious over-consumption problem. Over three days late last August, the main filtration plant on Woodland produced an average of more than 3,000 cubic metres of water a day — three million litres, or 596 litres a day for every one of the 5,033 residents on the two distribution networks it supplies.

Over that same period, the Mount Victoria filtration plant and reservoir serving Hudson’s Valleys and Alstonvale averaged 665 cubic metres (665,000 litres) a day for 263 residents — 2,528 litres per person. Losses due to leakage, arrived at by comparing daytime use with overnight baselines, was 70 cubic metres per day, or 10.5%. Quebec’s average usage is 385 litres per person per day. The provincial target for water loss due to leakage is 15%.

                       
Brookside, circa 1950, by Hudson artist James Crockart. It’s hard to reconcile his peaceful pond with the detritus-clogged Black Creek of today. River cleanup and shoreline vegetation management should be priorities.

As kids, we swam in Pine Lake and explored the trails that ran along Black Creek. One of my goals, first as a newspaper editor, then as a councillor and now as an elder with a blog, has been to protect the Viviry, both as a natural area and as the source of Hudson’s water supply.

Sometimes those two missions have taken different paths. In 2017, the Citizens Action Group on Infrastructure, one of several advisory committees created by mayor Ed Prévost, produced the Source Report, a controversial analysis of Hudson’s chronic water shortages. (Water: Hudson looks to the Ottawa, http://www.thousandlashes.ca, September 6, 2017)

To summarize, the report urged incoming administrations to solve the town’s immediate water woes with a new well, but not to gamble on the aquifer being able to supply sustainable water in perpetuity. Instead, the town should be prepared to invest $12-$15 million in a new west-end filtration plant to treat water from the Ottawa and link it to the existing network as well as to Hudson’s thirsty neighbours.

The Nicholls administration went ahead with the new well roughly 100 metres west of 4/83, the town’s highest-producing well, but ignored the rest of the Source Report’s recommendations on the basis of the success of the new well.

Given Hudson’s dependency on three wells in a small area, Hudson’s former mayor Jamie Nicholls was mandated by council in 2018 to discuss ways to protect Hudson’s drinking-water source with former St. Lazare mayor Robert Grimaudo. There is no record of any discussion taking place and Nicholls was unsuccessful in his efforts to raise the issue at the regional level.

Council continued to push. Item 7.1 on the Dec. 10/18 council agenda was a resolution requesting an MRC intermunicipal meeting to discuss watershed management and the impact of increased runoff due to climate change and upstream development. In March 2019, council approved a request for financial support from the environment ministry to assemble data on what Hudson should be doing to protect its drinking water sources.

As far as I know, the result of those efforts was the installation of fences and generators around the Bradbury Park, Hudson Valleys and Alstonvale wells. We were told told there was no interest from neighbouring municipalities in the Source Report’s lakewater treatment plant alternative.

The only direct reference to the aquifer since the current council took over last November was in response to a question at the Dec. 6 council meeting from former Gazette publisher Louise Craig, who asked mayor Chloe Hutchison whether she was concerned about the impact of upstream development on the Viviry watershed and Hudson’s drinking water.

The mayor’s response: she believes that is part of the regional planning conducted by the MRC, which has already done a diagnostic of MRC watersheds. A working group would be starting in January, polling general public via online consults. The intent, she added, is to have a plan ready for June which they will send to MELCCC for approval, then integrated into Hudson’s bylaws along with wetland and forest canopy conservation. I have since been assured this council plans to prioritize potable-water protection.

                   
Commercial and residential zoning on both sides of the 40 west of Côte St. Charles on St. Lazare’s zoning map. Until this is altered to reflect the sensitivity of the Upper Viviry, the watershed remains at the mercy of municipal conservation orientations. (A is agriculture, C is commercial, H is residential, E is equestrian)

Who owns the Upper Viviry watershed and how is it zoned?
According to the Commission de protection du territoire agricole (CPTAQ) mapping app (https://geoegl.msp.gouv.qc.ca/igo/cptaq_demeter/?) and the St. Lazare and Vaudreuil-Dorion valuation rolls, the basin’s west-facing slope on the St. Lazare side is owned by a handful of longtime residents, some of whose families have lived there for generations. It is zoned green — agricultural — and taxed as farmland. One exception is a white (non-agricultural) slice to the west of Côte St. Charles along the 40, nearly 300,000 square metres zoned for a commercial-residential development from Cote St. Charles to the Vaudreuil-Dorion town line. Out of the roughly two dozen owners, perhaps half a dozen are holding companies and/or possible developers.

On the Vaudreuil-Dorion side, residential zoning extends outwards on both sides of Montée Alstonvale between Harwood and the 40. South of the 40, the zoning reverts to agricultural, with the exception of several enclaved lots giving on the Upper Viviry. Although they are currently unbuildable, they would become developable via Oakridge in St. Lazare. Their ownership says to me it’s a matter of time and opportunity.

These and other warnings prompted St. Lazare’s previous and current administrations to prioritize wetland protection. With input from a 10-member Comité consultatif sur l’environnement they have focussed on learning more about the sustainability of the aquifers and protection of recharge zones. They were unable to halt a number of developments either underway or already approved, some in clearly delineated aquifer replenishment zones, such as at the southern end of Côte St. Charles.

Like Hudson, St. Lazare is struggling to harmonize protection of ecosensitive lands with the rights of landowners. In municipal governance, you can’t repeal decisions already reached unless you’re prepared to spend a lot of money on legal battles and/or acquisition or engineer controversial land trades of 10% subdivision greenspace allotments for areas others want placed under conservation.

St. Lazare’s PDC had this to say about acquiring greenspace:
We note that conservation zoning represents just 5% of St. Lazare’s total land area, a fraction of the zones targeted by the PDC. Acquisition is pricey, so we need to consider alternatives, eg. land use constraints and specific measures aimed at sustainable management to complement acquisition. In each case, the acquisition of lots by the city must be subject to an objective evaluation based on ecological value, including a series of explicit criteria currently being drawn up by the CCE. No acquisition policy, no acquisition.

Hudson’s new council should take the lead in adopting an acquisition policy which makes protecting the source of its drinking water its top priority. If they don’t, I fear the time isn’t far off that we’ll wish they had.

525.3: were they listening?

Draft Bylaw 525.3 proposes to extend canopy protection to both new and existing developments.

If last Wednesday’s public consultation left many Hudson residents confused about council’s plans to change Hudson’s land use and zoning bylaws, the notice of motion (Item 10.4) on the order paper for Monday’s February council meeting should provide us some clarity on who will be affected, and how.

When adopted, draft Bylaw 750 “establishing a moratorium on certain planning operations” will replace the interim control resolution (RCI) enacted at the Dec. 6 council meeting. Like its predecessor, Bylaw 750 will expire once the revised land use and zoning bylaws are in place. Unlike the 90-day RCI, Bylaw 750 will remain in effect until sometime this fall.

Both the RCI and its replacement apply to lots “in whole or in part” within the areas characterized in the Eco2Urb report, but I expect Bylaw 750 will contain specifics — the width of green buffers along wetlands and watercourses, maximum canopy setbacks for new construction, sanctions for violations and various other bits of regulatory machinery.

Was council listening to those who spoke up at last week’s public consult? Have they read through the 60 or so written comments? Given that the administration has not posted the draft bylaw, we can assume 750 is a work in progress, with final adoption at the same Feb. 24 special meeting as Bylaw 525.3. But from the contents of the presentation by Community Planning director Etienne Lavoie, I don’t expect significant changes in either. 

Here’s what we heard during the Feb. 2 public consultation:

— a clear timeline. The vague 90-day RCI runs out March 6. Council could extend it. Instead, they’ll replace it with Bylaw 750 and a more explicit set of controls. 

— a wider mandate for 525.3. Strategies now include the preservation of ‘the ecological integrity of the forests.’ As innocent as it may sound, that translates into potential constraints on development throughout the town on both new and existing subdivisions, including declaring lots unbuildable.

— wider buffer zones around wetlands, strict limits on tree-felling during construction and contraints on ‘mineralized surfaces’ (less hardscaping).

We won’t know until Feb. 24 whether the moratorium will halt all projects within Tiers 1-5 until the revision process is done, or whether some construction will be permitted to proceed according to council’s revised orientations. More than once, mayor Chloe Hutchison inferred that owners who have already initiated the process of applying for a building permit might be able to proceed this year, depending on what council decides prior to the Feb. 24 special meeting.

For many of the 115 people who logged into the Feb. 2 consult on Zoom,  it was an exercise in patience and a lesson in frustration as they failed to get clear answers to why they might not be able to build this year.

Developer Sylvie Rozon had planned to submit plans by the end of March to begin construction of a home in Hudson Valleys this year. She only learned of the town’s construction-permit moratorium the day after the Jan. 10/22 council meeting when she called Hudson’s planning office to ask about a possible modification. Since then, she has made four followup calls to urban planning to find out what the planning process means to her project. Nobody could give her an answer.

At Wednesday’s public consult, Rozon again failed get a hard answer from the mayor on any of her queries. Her lot is in Tier 3, Rozon explained to me following the consult. “Does that mean it’s unbuildable if there’s a tree in the middle of the lot? Is there a legal remedy if the lot is unbuildable? When will we learn whether the lot is unbuildable?”

Even if they agree in principle with tougher constraints on treecutting, residents of Hudson Valleys and Alstonvale sectors see the fall timeline as an attack on their acquired rights. 

In the past two years, Hudson Valleys developer Daniel Rodrigue has sold 35 lots, the culmination of 24 years spent turning the former Norris farm and woodlot into prestige homes on 40,000-square-foot lots. The permit moratorium will cost at least 10 property owners the ability to build this year, he told the consult. “The freeze doesn’t concord with the reality of Quebec’s short building season. Will you raise the freeze so that we can build this year? COVID and this delay are costing us enormously.”

Hutchison’s stock response to residents and developers of the Hudson Valleys and Alstonvale sectors: wait for the next step in the revision process. She said she has not seen any unbuildable lots, but there will be constraints on development, such as an end to clearcutting. The aim, she told one questioner, is to “keep the integrity of the forest, if possible.”

She skated around questions regarding compensation to lot owners whose new builds are delayed by the moratorium, assuring one questioner there would be no delay for people planning to build this year. 

For the lot owners in Willowbrook’s Phase 1, the mayor had a different message. Building permit requests predating the Dec. 6 RCI would be honoured. A buyer whose original lot became unbuildable as the result of heritage discovery was offered a replacement lot after the deadline. “You will find provisions for exclusions in the revised 525.3” the mayor assured him. Asked about the fate of subsequent Willowbrook phases, the mayor refused to be pinned down.

The day after the consult, I asked District 5 councillor Mark Gray why it was essential to delay planned projects in sectors already zoned for development when the town has a robust tree-cutting bylaw. His response was that the town is reserving the option of acquiring key lots to ensure the connectivity of eco-corridors. Preserving “fragments of forest” might be the key to a corridor’s survival, Gray added.   

hi He insisted this council isn’t anti-development. “Saying you can’t develop anywhere has serious financial consequences.” Instead, he wants residents to see the revision process as short-term pain in exchange for ensuring the resiliency and sustainability of Hudson’s eco-corridors. “The process is so critical…we’re relying on [the town’s legal consultant lawyer Marc-André] LeChasseur to get it right.”

This isn’t the first time the administration has consulted with LeChasseur, a partner with Belanger Sauvé and assistant professor of land use planning law at the School of Planning at McGill University. The author of five books on development, he specializes in advising municipalities on how to develop land use regulations that can stand up in court. 

While LeChasseur advises the town on process, the task of turning Eco2Urb’s recommendations into regulations falls on urban planners Paré + Associés, whose $21,500 (ex taxes) contract was approved at the Jan 10 council meeting.

What isn’t clear is the role of the ad-hoc conservation working group, a nine-member (seven non-elected, two elected) committee created at the Jan. 10 meeting to make recommendations to council. The committee, which includes members of the anti-Willowbrook lobby Nature Hudson, is slated to present a preliminary report at Monday’s meeting and its final recommendations prior to the end of the interim control process. I asked Mark Gray, the committee’s chair, what contact they had with LeChasseur, Paré and the town’s urban planning department. He assured me there had been no direct contact except through him.

Gray also refutes accusations that the administration has been less than transparent in informing residents their properties could be subject to constraints on development. For example, he claims the town’s interactive map of Eco2Urb’s five tiers doesn’t include cadastral numbers because it would take too long to load all that data. 

I asked Gray whether this council would adopt a greenspace acquisition policy that would allow landowners to be compensated. “You can’t mix acquisition with conservation,” he said. “Protection is what this is about…30,15 and 10-metre buffers.” He said he could see using part of Hudson’s annual budget for the acquisition of key links and suggested that greenspace acquisitions should be given equal priority to infrastructure upgrades. “We’ve already had conversations with some developers.”

Gray surprised me when I asked him why Hudson’s three golf courses weren’t protected in the town’s interactive map. Como should have been because it’s part of an east-west forested eco-corridor, he said. The Falcon? “That area I see as a good option for redevelopment.” Ditto for R-55, a 14-acre parcel zoned for a continuing-care seniors’ campus between Côte and Oakland. 

Was council listening to what people had to say at the consultation? Gray’s impression was that there’s a three-way split in public opinion, with a third in favour, a third opposed and the rest trying to figure it out. “We’re in mid-process,” he said, adding that the process would continue even after revised Bylaw 525.3 is adopted. “We can make changes after the 27th.”

To sum up, I don’t expect an answer to my headline question at tomorrow evening’s February council session. Mayor Hutchison showed herself adept at deflecting questions and gaslighting her questioners, but it was to be expected, given the legal razor’s edge this council has to walk. I’m referring to two decisions handed down late last year, one a Superior Court decision blocking development in Saint Bruno de Montarville, the other an appellate court ruling against the Ville de Mont-Saint-Hilaire’s efforts to block development. The first is under appeal; the other gives St. Hilaire 270 days to come up with proof as to why the area slated for development should be protected. 

The Saint Hilaire judgment was scathing in its analysis of the role played by a citizens advisory group, which brings me to wonder what the courts will make of lots suddenly declared unbuildable in well-established 20-year-old developments, or in approved subdivisions on lands where developers paid taxes and obtained permission to build roads and other infrastructure. If a municipality can collapse a right based on the strength of a vociferous anti-development lobby and an incoming council’s whim, what’s next?

Draft bylaw 525.3: my questions and comments

Above, the overlay map of Eco2Urb’s proposed five-tier conservation plan contained in their 2020 report. The emphasis was on eco-corridor and forest canopy protection and resilience, not on halting all development.

By now, most Hudson residents will have received in their mail a one-page invitation to participate in a written public consultation on Draft Bylaw 525.3-2021 ‘to further amend the planning program — protection of natural areas.’ Observations, questions and comments are welcome until Monday, Feb. 7. And in bold letters, this piety: Your opinion counts!

To help residents understand the mechanics of the process, the town has scheduled a Zoom info session and live question period for next Wednesday, Feb. 2. An explanation of how to access the webinar is posted on the town website. Those unable to attend will be able to watch the recording and find the draft bylaw at https://hudson.quebec/en by clicking on Public Consultation.

To be clear, this public consultation is a legally required second step in the adoption process of the draft bylaw and revised interim control measure. Proposed changes to planning programs and zoning bylaws begin with a council’s approval of a first draft. And before we get our hopes up that our opinions will count, here’s what MAMH, Quebec’s municipal affairs ministry, says on the subject of public consultations:

A consultation scheme is a two-way communication with information exchange where citizens can ask questions, express concerns, expectations and opinions or comment on the project, the policy or approach under consideration. It is a way for the municipal body to understand the views of citizens on an issue, problem or policy. It should be noted that public consultation often occurs at an already advanced stage of the project, policy or process, which limits the ability of citizens to actually influence the final decision. This is an important distinction from interactive and collaborative participation schemes.

Or in plain English, council isn’t bound by anything submitted during this two-week exercise. Moreover, it has yet to commit to making the changes subject to approval by referendum. 

To recap, council adopted the first draft of Bylaw 525.3 at its Dec. 6 council meeting. It also froze the issuance of subdivision requests and building permits on every Hudson lot falling — entirely or in part — within one of five colour-coded tiers contained in a 2020 report by Eco2Urb (now Habitat) ranking conservation priorities. The five, in descending importance: core conservation areas; top 25% conservation priorities; top 30% conservation priorities; Montreal Metropolitan Community and Vaudreuil-Soulanges MRC conservation priorities and lastly, a catchall labelled remaining natural areas. 

As you’ll see, three of the five tiers are based not on science, but on hypothetical scenarios and political discussions at two workshops held in the fall of 2019 and attended by fewer than 30 people.

In the spirit of this consultation, here are my three questions and a series of observations:

Q#1: If the 2020 Eco2Urb report is the bedrock on which council’s proposed overhaul of Hudson’s planning program and zoning bylaws is based, what gives this administration the ethical or legal right to extend the current freeze to hundreds of landowners whose properties were never characterized in Eco2Urb’s report? At what point in the process will these restrictions be lifted or made permanent? 

I’m referring to significant differences between Eco2Urb’s five tiers and the town’s interactive version. (The original is posted here, while the town’s version is found on the website or at: 

https://www.google.com/maps/d/viewer?mid=1tyScJXG9a5Bp0nPQDfj6tW5JPvj_ALmY&ll=45.460503057268404%2C-74.1339053149356&z=13&fbclid=IwAR1xgnDa7cGm75KQgipl6Nfx3ZC25r_udFD-zYOy-wVCfXeATIBylL3-ZoE

Start with Tier 5: remaining natural areas. We find less than a dozen of these purple blobs on the Eco2Urb overlay, yet they’re scattered throughout the town’s interactive map. For example, the town map draws a swath of purple covering some 18 lots between Shepherd and Mount Pleasant you won’t find on the Eco2Urb map. Purple predominates in parts of Hudson Valleys and Alstonvale. Who authorized these additions? On what basis were they characterized thus?

Above, lots near the urban centre characterized as natural areas in the town’s interactive map, but not in Eco2Urb’s report. Below, sectors of Hudson Valleys. Who added this? On what basis?

Q#2: Eco2Urb told those attending the workshops that the town has access to the software to enable property owners to determine by address or cadaster whether their lot is within one of the tiers. If so, why hasn’t this ability been made available to concerned citizens as part of the process? 

On the town map, we see all or parts of built lots characterized as Tier 2-5, even on long-developed streets and subdivisions: Bellevue, Seigneurie, Oakridge, Olympic, Whitlock West, Windcrest, Fairhaven, Birch Hill, Upper Whitlock, Evergreen, Mount Pleasant to name a few. Will these characterizations be lifted? When? If not, when will their owners be made aware of the constraints on development?

There is a DIY possibility here. Property owners can find their cadastral numbers on their tax bills. Armed with that knowledge, they can Google Infolot, zoom in on their property, then match it with the lot shape and location on the town’s interactive map. For those without the inclination or time, wouldn’t it be easier to reprogram the interactive map with cadastral numbers? 

Q#3: What part of the proposed changes to 525.3 are science-based and what is based on conjecture and politics?

Many residents are asking how the colour-coded five-tier metric evolved. Go back to May 2019, when Eco2Urb was hired to incorporate known wetlands and woodlands in Hudson’s planning program and zoning bylaws. Eco2Urb’s team began with verifying the data contained in the 2008 Teknika greenspace audit and 2017 CIMA+ study, then filled in the gaps with their own fieldwork. With cutting-edge planning spoftware, they generated the biodiversity, landscape connectivity and ecosystem service maps found in their report. 

The result of that first pass was Tier 1: Core conservation areas. Canary yellow on the Eco2Urb priorities map, they’re the yellow-edged brown areas on the town’s interactive map. These are areas already enjoying some environmental protection from municipal bylaws and provincial legislation — forested and open wetlands plus a 10-metre buffer zone, watercourses and their buffers, slopes of more than 30 degrees and their buffers, and flood zones along the Ottawa. “These are corridors of high ecological value.” the report concludes. I doubt many residents have a problem with Tier 1.

At this point, Eco2Urb’s mandate strayed from science into scenario-spinning and discussions about how to rank greenspaces in terms of their conservation and ecosystem service values. Facilitators at two workshops oversaw a handful of citizens in a consensus-building process determining what should be saved first. What would be the result if 25% of the top conservation priorities were protected? What about 30%? What happens if we add the conservation priorities of the CMM, the MRC?  The result: tiers 2-5.

Tier 2: Top 25% conservation priorities. Pale green on Eco2Urb’s overlay and forest green on the town’s version, this and the Top 30% are arbitrary numbers based on a range of assumptions presented at two workshops for council members and citizens. (The latter saw a turnout of just 26 people.) 

The workshops included blue-sky scenarios, some of which had no basis in reality. In an exercise weighing the relative impacts of transit-oriented and service-oriented outcomes, both foresaw “Hudson’s golf courses […] flipped into urban developments resulting in the erasure of Golf Falcon, the Whitlock Golf and Country Club as well as the Como Golf Club.” 

In fact, The Falcon and Como Golf are agriculturally zoned under provincial authority (CPTAQ) while repurposing all or any part of Whitlock would require zoning changes at three levels of government (municipal, MRC and MMC). 

CPTAQ agricultural zoning map: 52% of Hudson’s 36.5 square kilometres are zoned green. Nothing supports Eco2Urb’s dezoning hypothesis.

Or this: “Agricultural land would be lost in part to urban developments in areas previously zoned white.” More than half (52%) of Hudson’s 36.5 square kilometres is zoned green on the CPTAQ map. Neither the Montreal Metropolitan Community nor the Vaudreuil-Soulanges MRC have shown interest in supporting municipal dezoning requests even if Hudson applied — which it hasn’t in the past decade. Nothing supports this hypothesis.

Tier 3: Top 30% Conservation Priorities

Teal on Eco2Urb’s overlay and light blue on the the 525.3 map, the 30% represents what Eco2Urb believed would be the optimal conservation mix. While Eco2Urb’s overlays aren’t high enough resolution to be certain, there are enough discrepancies between the two maps to beg the question why. Were they aimed at stopping specific developments? Were they driven by an anti-development agenda? Those questions need to be asked because you can be sure the lawyers will be asking those same questions when alleged disguised expropriations are litigated.  

Tier 4: PMAD and Vaudreuil-Soulanges MRC conservation priorities

Aptly Quebec blue on both maps, these natural areas are defined as high priorities in the master plans of the Montreal Metropolitan Community and MRC. What I find odd is that while Hudson’s business-as-usual data shows a decrease in the total number of hectares developed, Eco2Urb  projects significant increases in every scenario. On what basis? 

Graph from Eco2Urb’s report projects the expansion of the urban perimeter by 2070 as the result of a range of scenarios, the least being if 30% protection measures are adopted. The graph fails to explain the drop in business-as-usual development even before conservation measures are in place.

Q#3: One of Eco2Urb’s metrics in establishing the five tiers was what would happen to the town’s greenspaces if development was left to current practices. Their report doesn’t define what is meant by business as usual. The number of households in Hudson increased by 375 between 1991 and 2016 according to federal census stats. Over that period, Hudson averaged 15 new doors a year, or 7% growth over 25 years. Can we assume this is what should be considered as the business-as-usual baseline and if so, what’s the problem with that level of development? 

To sum up, this proposed bylaw revision appears to be based in part on hypothetical concerns with little or no scientific basis. I believe most citizens will agree on the need for stronger measures against unnecessary tree-cutting and wetland backfilling on undeveloped land, but this can be achieved through more robust regulation enforcement on a lot-by-lot basis.  Hudson’s ravines — and the streams and brooks that run through them — are fragile and prone to contamination from failing septic tanks and other pollution sources but this council has already been made aware of proposed solutions.

I appreciate the enormity of the task this administration has set for itself in attempting to plug every loophole in Hudson’s planning program and zoning bylaws, but that isn’t an excuse for using Eco2Urb as justification for slamming the door on development. That orientation is nowhere in the report and this council will be reminded of that when the inevitable disguised-expropriation lawsuits arrive in civil court.

My advice to the mayor and council: Understand that this isn’t an exercise in proving how environmentally woke you are. Get your head around what this means to all of Hudson’s citizens, not just those who elected you. And above all, listen and take the advice of those who submit their questions, comments and observations. They’ll be the judges of your honesty and transparency.

(For more on how the colour-coded tiers came about, read my previous thousandlashes.ca posts Development vs. conservation: hope for a path forward, Nov. 14, 2019 and Eco2Urb report: plan to protect, July 9, 2020.)

Development: tolerance zero

Hudson’s current save-the-environment mantra provides convenient cover for a municipal council seemingly determined to halt all development anywhere in the municipality. I might be referring to the retroactive freeze on Willowbrook’s 30-door first phase, but in this case it was council’s decision at last Monday’s January session to reject a 10-unit townhouse project at the corner of Main and Daoust — without being able to explain why to the landowner.

Following the rejection of his proposal, Jean-François Duperron asked mayor Chloe Hutchison what he would have to change to get his project approved. First, TPAC recommended its refusal, followed by council voting to refuse, he noted. What doesn’t conform? I don’t know where to start. Can someone please tell me what I need to do?

Mayor Hutchison told Duperron that urban planning would work with him by conveying the whys and wherefores of the refusal to help establish the right orientation. She redirected the conversation to TPAC chair Peter Mate, who quoted from the criteria of the Site Planning and Architectural Protection Program for the Sector H: the heritage belt and scenic road along Main Road. I can hear the conversation now with Urban Planning, where Duperron will be punted back to the mayor and council because the project ticks the zoning checklist. In almost every other municipality I know, development is an administrative process. In Hudson, it’s a political decision. No wonder most experienced developers run from the place.

(Roughly half a dozen SPAIPs govern demolition, new builds and renos, mainly along Main Road and in the urban core. Collectively, the SPAIPs represent roughly 15% of Hudson’s 2,481 residential units. Although the wording varies, the common aim is to “preserve the architectural character of the buildings of interest during major renos or expansion works”, and in the case of new buildings, “favour a rural or country architectural character with high-pitched roofs and exterior siding materials such as wood, natural stone and brick in shades of red or brown to be in harmony with neighbouring buildings and the environment.” Ditto with architectural details.)

Duperron’s proposal faces an additional hurdle. His 10-unit rowhouse project is conditional on demolition of the existing house at 356 Main, but he can’t apply for a demolition permit until his replacement project is approved. The existing bungalow was built in 1956 and recently upgraded, but with a valuation of just over $400,000, its real value is in the corner lot it occupies — 2,944 square metres/31,694 square feet, with 99.1 metres/325 feet of frontage.

In any other municipality, a fully serviced lot of this size on the edge of the downtown core with a dwelling of no particular archtectural value would be a prime candidate for redevelopment. Not in Hudson, where the usual discourse about the morality of tearing down a perfectly good house takes precedence over basic common sense and where every council comes under pressure to save some pile of bricks or sticks (ref. Torrance cottage, Lavigne homestead, Macauley barn, Hodgson house, St. Mary’s Hall). In every case, the conversation ends when councillors are presented with the legal options — negotiate an acceptable development compromise or be prepared to ask taxpayers to buy the land.

Back to the case at hand, I find myself wondering how to read the 356 Main rejection. Most developers expect their initial presentation to be refused. It’s an opening gambit in a process that sees everyone involved — the client, urban planning, TPAC, council — working to negotiate a compromise. Listening to Monday’s comments from the mayor and TPAC chairman, one didn’t get that. What I heard was a mayor and councillor gaslighting the property owner into thinking he might get his project approved if he jumps through hoops, when in fact there’s not a snowball’s chance in hell he’ll get his demolition permit and approval for as long as this council can keep the old Hudson sport of moving the goalposts in play.

Suggested reading: Brian Grubert’s recent post regarding 356 Main on Hudson and Vicinity. Grubert claims the provincial land use and development act gives the town the power to say no to the project even though it was green-lighted by 2017 changes to zoning bylaw 526 as a result of the TOD designation. Grubert maintains that according to the LAU, Hudson’s Planning Program takes priority over zoning bylaws, giving council the power to reject this project outright. A trial balloon? It wouldn’t be the first time.

The mayor and council may not feel they have a legal obligation to inform Mr. Duperron of that possibility, but right-thinking citizens would argue that the town has a moral and ethical duty to tell the man his project is stillborn.

That same principle applies to Willowbrook. Until Monday evening, I was fairly sure council would agree eventually to exclude the 30 lots contained in Willowbrook Phase 1 so they won’t look like heartless meanies. Now, I’m a whole lot less certain. The mayor announced at the start of the meeting that there would be at least a dozen questions from Willowbrook residents. In the end, we heard from two. The others were given oral reassurances that their concerns were noted.

Now I find myself wondering whether those coy comments to Willowbrook Phase 1 residents (we can’t out-and-out state you’ll get building permits, but trust us) contain any weight.

I also find myself wondering whether that’s the real nature of the back-to-back development freezes. Are we looking at a process similar to the Legault government’s interminable lockdowns and restrictions? Is the development lockdown being extended to the entire town and every cadastral operation?

Let’s review some of the announcements and revelations emerging over the past week:

— a 15-day public consultation on amendments to the town’s land use and development bylaw 525 runs between Jan. 24 and Feb. 7. It will include a virtual Zoom information session, yet to be announced.
— at the Feb. 7 regular council meeting, a draft interim control bylaw will be presented to replace the interim control resolution (RCI) adopted Dec. 6. This new bylaw will include temporary measures to protect natural environments.
— a Feb. 24 extraordinary council meeting will adopt both 525.3 and the interim control bylaw, which will remain in effect until the bylaws affecting subdivision and zoning come into effect.

As of this past Friday, it wasn’t clear whether any of these revisions will be subject to approval by referendum, although town sources tell me some feel a moral obligation to open a register at the public consultation in the next phase (see below).

Also last Monday, council approved a $22,000 (ex taxes) contract with urban planning consultants Paré + Associés to assist in writing the final version of 525.3 and drafting the interim control bylaw that will remain in place until Hudson’s revised Planning Program is operational. Paré’s team will consult with Eco2Urb, whose findings provide the basis for the proposed woodland/wetland protections in Bylaw 525, and with the town’s legal council and urban planning department prior to revising the draft. A second public consultation places is included in the timeline. The estimated maximum delay between December’s adoption of the RCI and application of Planning Program bylaws: 24 months.

The constant in this council’s accession to power has been the speed at which the anti-development lobby has embedded itself in the administration. Monday’s session saw the adoption of a resolution empowering the Ad-Hoc Conservation Working Group (CWG), a group of environmentalists and activists to supply input to the Planning Program at the administrative and political levels.The committee’s membership (Donald Attwood, Tanja Burns, JJ Corker, Sylvie Ferron, David Kalant, Briony Lalor, Kevin Solarik) threatens to become a distracting issue following Monday’s meeting, where J.J. Corker outed himself as president of Nature Hudson, “a not-for-profit corporation representing the interests of Hudson residents affected by the Willowbrook development project.”

It’s unfortunate council members haven’t completed Quebec’s compulsory ethics-and-good-conduct course, where newbies learn their legal responsibilities and returning councillors get a refresher. District 5 councillor and CWG chair Mark Gray announced Monday evening that he and Smith had had four meetings with CWG members before the group was legally constituted. (I’ve been assured the CWG will have access to urban planning, but not to Eco2Urb or Paré.)

Also Monday, District 1 councillor Doug Smith hinted at major changes in urban planning (discussion of HR issues in open council is a no-no; Smith, a council veteran, should have known better.) These aren’t actionable, but they demonstrate the fecklessness of a council whose members appear to neither know nor care about legalities.

Meanwhile, legal considerations are piling up. One can assume the current ban on wetland backfilling will be extended to lands characterized as part of an eco-corridor. That directly affects the town’s most valuable real estate along the Ottawa River, including Sandy Beach and several smaller developments, such as John Nassr’s project at the foot of Macauley Hill.

Revisions to the town’s canopy-protection bylaw will limit tree-cutting on dozens of unbuilt lots in Hudson Valleys and Alstonvale. Lots adjacent to parks or bordering on watercourses and wetlands throughout the urban perimeter also risk being frozen pending a decision on who should and shouldn’t be grandfathered. Roughly 50 units on tracts to the east of the core are an indefinite hold.

hi With less than 200 grand earmarked for legal expenses in this year’s budget, council’s orientation (take it out of the accumulated surplus!) shows reckless disregard for the fiscal impact of saying no. Sandy Beach developer Nicanco and Willowbrook’s Habitations Robert have served the town with notice of their intent to sue for costs and loss of revenue. I expect others will follow as back-to-back freezes block their options. Time to post the big No! sign on the door at urban planning.

Brenda, Brenda, Brenda…

Those of us who felt our community wasn’t being well served by our local media rejoiced at the advent of the 1019 Report. With a veteran newspaper editor at the helm, those of us who still like to think the printed word is to be trusted assumed the addition would bring depth and balance to public discourse. 

Alas, Brenda O’Farrell’s pet project has proven itself incapable of either. 

Past issues presented skewed reportage on English school enrolments and the salaries of selected municipal councils. No effort was made to delve into demograpic basics or comparisons with municipal politicians’ wage scales elsewhere in Quebec and in other provinces. Sloppy, slapdash drive-by hackery for which Ms. O’Farrell has the temerity to charge nearly $3 per issue (with taxes) to her few subscribers. 

What really gores No Bull Joe is O’Farrell’s shamelessless, cloaking her personal petty hatreds as “quality local news.” This week’s flatulent front-pager — Hudson’s freeze on new builds exposes issues with the Willowbrook project — is a classic.

It quotes two of the eight Willowbrook buyers who wonder whether the town will allow the project to proceed and whether their individual lots will be approved for construction.

“The problem is that the answers to these questions lie not with a single source. Rather they are caught in a web of authorities, the project’s developer, and permission and planning processes — a tangle that is being twisted even more by speculative commentary on social media that is fuelling emotional reactions and argumentative debates that often degenerate into insulting exchanges that further tightenes the strands into a messy knot.”

You want the truth, Brenda? Pick up the phone and talk to Habitations Robert about their chronic tardiness in getting ministerial approvals — and their habit of selling units before critical infrastructure is operational. Pick up the phone and talk to MELCC about the modified Willowbrook C.A. Talk to Hydro about when the developer filed his request for the connection to the pumping station. Talk to the town about their approval timeline. 

Absent solid journalism, Brenda’s villain in this council’s retroactive cancellation of an already-approved first phase of the Willowbrook project is social media, not kill-Willowbrook zealots and their cancel-culture cronies on this new council. 

Pathetic, yes. But Brenda, clearly intoxicated by the sheer power of her bloviations, takes it further down her yellow brick road to Fabulationville. 

“And with members of the town’s former council who no longer hold public office and their spouses jumping into the social media fray, the push for answers and clarity slips from the central focus of the discussion in favour of what appears to be acrimonious debate and political cheap shots.”

Jeez, Louise, Brenda, who might you be referring to? Are there more than one of us? Did you miss the Libel/Slander 101 course? Did you address a single one of the points I brought up? 

It’s glaringly obvious Brenda did zero research. Maybe she talked to people already quoted by the CBC and Your Local Journal, but she sure didn’t advance this story an inch. Real reporters term this phoning it in, scalping, lifting. I call bullshit.

When I decided not to seek re-election last summer, I had hoped the next council would build on what our council had accomplished — repairing and updating infrastructure, restructuring our municipal governance structure and moving forward with our emphasis on reframing our development regulations to favour preservation of Hudson’s forest canopy and eco-corridors.

All this would be based on the need to balance conflicting needs: the right to enjoy one’s property; the need to ensure that Hudson add the 50 doors a year to offset inflationary pressures on the town’s operating expenses; the need to ensure that anyone proposing to add those doors will pay the real cost of the service capacity consumed so that taxpayers are not burdened with connection impact costs, either now or in future.

The incoming council hasn’t made the slightest effort to understand any of those priorities. Instead, emboldened by O’Farrell and her ilk, certain members of this council have made halting future development — of any size — their keystone.

Joe seriously doubts that O’Farrell has the foggiest of any of this. Her grasp of issues was never a strong point in her journalistic career. Joe wouldn’t deign to react, except when Brenda farts in his face. 

Hudson’s Cancel Conspiracy

Hopes rose Tuesday with the appearance of an Excavations Ali excavator at the Willowbrook site the day after a council caucus meeting was to discuss easing the freeze on the project’s first phase. Habitations Robert said Wednesday work would be limited to altering drainage and installing a temporary power grid. The project remains frozen for the indefinite future.

There’s no better example of the growing influence of environment and preservation activists on Hudson’s future than the uncertainty hanging over those who bought lots in Willowbrook.

At the Dec. 6 council meeting, councillors voted unanimously for two resolutions freezing all new development projects for the time it takes to overhaul the town’s master plan. The freeze — ostensibly for 90 days— applies to the issuance of building permits, tree felling and the backfilling of wetlands on 37% of Hudson’s 36.5 square kilometres. 

Willowbrook, the 114-door Habitations Robert development in Hudson’s Como sector, is the first casualty of the freeze even though the project had worked its way through an approval process going back to 2007. Those approvals concluded with a modified certificate of authorization from the environment ministry issued in March of this year and resolutions from the previous council giving the developer the green light for the 30-unit first phase. 

That was the basis on which Habitations Robert began selling lots over the spring and summer. 

This administration frames the freeze and bylaw rewrite as an opportunity to incorporate environmental protection in future development. In reality, the Willowbrook project underwent 15 years of study by an army of biologists specializing in flora and fauna, soil experts, hydrologists and environment ministry technicians. The studies analyzed, counted and measured everything from tree and plant species to the presence or absence of birds, vertebrates, even fish (mudminnows, sticklebacks and dace live in the wetlands and streams).

Those studies, combined with wetland and woodland data contained in the 2008 Teknika greenspace audit and 2017 CIMA+ conservation plan, formed the basis for Quebec’s approval of Habitation Robert’s application for permission to cut roads and install infrastructure for the project’s 30-door first phase.

What I find even more perplexing: the draft rewrite of Bylaw 525 pulls heavily from a 2020 report by Eco2Urb, the environmental consulting group hired by the previous council to confirm and update Teknika and CIMA+. Eco2Urb’s findings, including the existence of an unclassified wetland adjacent to rue Leger, were applied to Willowbrook’s Phase 1. In other words, Willowbrook is the first residential development to be subjected to the level of environmental scrutiny proposed by Eco2Urb — long before the interim control resolution and proposed bylaw changes.

So the question becomes why this council would ignore the science, dismiss 15 years of negotiations and refuse to address the immediate concerns of those who don’t know when —or even if — they will be able to move into the homes they contracted to buy.  

This analysis will attempt to answer that question.

Prior to the Dec. 6 council meeting, mayor Chloe Hutchison met with with Willowbrook’s developer, likely to inform them their project would be shut down by the RCI. The developer conveyed the news to their clients, setting off a Facebook firestorm in the absence of clear information of whether the impact would be temporary or permanent.

  A week after the freeze was adopted, Hudson’s new council met for a Monday-night caucus meeting to discuss the communications component of the freeze and according to one councillor, “sort through some of the misinformation.”  Buyers and their supporters were optimistic the mayor and council would reach out to those affected, ideally by allowing completion of the infrastucture already approved. At the least, they said, the mayor and/or council members should be up front with their plans for the project.

So far that hasn’t happened. Why the silence? 

Long before the freeze, the town’s relationship with Habitations Robert and its subcontractors was strained by violations of the Environmental Quality Act, including a drainage culvert discharging into a wetland. On top of that, the provincial heritage ministry intervened after conservation activists demanded protection for a 19th-century glassworks on the property. 

Work on the project was halted prior to the Nov. 7 municipal election because Hydro-Quebec had yet to install the poles required to supply power to the twin sewage pumping stations. 

The sewage pumping station opposite l’Auberge Willow won’t be connected to the power grid until Hydro Quebec deals with the aftermath of this week’s major power outages.

Early Wednesday (Dec. 15) Habitations Robert personnel and Hydro-Quebec subcontractors were on the site to replace condemned hydro poles on Main and build a temporary power grid to supply the project. As for the sewage pumping station, a Habitations Robert supervisor told me Wednesday that Hydro is prioritizing repairs to weather-damaged infrastructure, thus delaying non-essential work. He was optimistic that work on Phase 1 could resume next spring, but didn’t think the hookup to the municipal sanitary sewer system would be completed until the fall. His comments made it clear that Habitations Robert is not seeking to defy the freeze. 

Even the buyers most impacted have said a 90-day halt isn’t the problem, except that there’s no guarantee it will be lifted in 90 days. Lawyers have told the town an RCI can remain in place for whatever time it takes to draft and adopt stricter bylaws. At what point do young families who incurred serious debt to be able to afford a $750,000 home in Hudson and people stuck in rented apartments with storage units filled with new furniture and appliances they’re paying for but unable to to use, call it quits? 

This past Tuesday, one purchaser asked for the return of their deposit and prepared to move to another development outside Hudson. The longer the wait, the greater is the likelihood that others will follow. Their collective anger and frustration are reflected on social media. 

Phase 1 buyer Melanie Matte posted this to Facebook: 

“We were very excited for our first family home and to be part of Hudson. The project had already received approval from previous councils. Roads and infrastructure were underway. However last Monday the council adopted a 90-day freeze with no guarantee that this won’t be extended. This means all construction would be halted.”

Matte fears council’s intent is to cancel the entire project, beginning with Phase 1.  

“The town also started the process of changing bylaws which could affect the lots we purchased. This news has caused significant stress for our family. We are worried that we may have purchased a lot that we may not be able to build on. We have contacted the town several times but have not been able to obtain any concrete answers or information about the future of this project. 

“The mayor was interviewed last evening but only spoke about the fact that the building permits had not yet been approved. Building permits have no bearing on the issue. We are asking: will Phase 1 of the Willowbrook project be able to move forward or has council stopped it from doing the work needed to continue? Is council planning to rewrite the new land use bylaw in a manner which will make our fully owned lots unbuildable? We are hoping to get some answers and clarity on our situation.”

With a like-minded caucus majority, the mayor faces little internal opposition in her campaign to rewrite Hudson’s environmental bylaws. Nevertheless, the ruckus on social media was enough to force a meeting of the caucus exactly a week after the RCI was adopted.

“Please note that our intent is not in any way meant to cause undue consequences,”  a councillor wrote in an email to one of those affected.”It is a process we are permitted by law to activate on behalf of the protection and planning of our town. More information will follow in a timely manner.”

The RCI is a first in Hudson, although this won’t have been the first time a development freeze was discussed in caucus. Following the departure of the previous DG in August 2018, the sitting council twice considered an RCI for environmental protection purposes but was advised that it was late in the mandate (Fall 2019) to be claiming changed orientations and rushing to redraft the master plan. In both cases, it wasn’t clear what outcome council wanted once the freeze was lifted. Did they expect taxpayers to buy the property? Or were they hoping to negotiate a better outcome once the landowner had been brought to their knees? Jurisprudence has established that a municipality can’t block a project in perpetuity.

One of the legal arguments in favour of RCIs is that they offer some protection to an incoming council looking to enact or repeal bylaws, cancel contracts or lay off staff. The flip side of that is the town must have begun the process of amending the master plan when it adopts an interim control resolution for legitimate reasons, such as lowering density and reducing building footprints.The catch is that the owner retains the right to sue because they are deprived of the use of their land. Nobody has succeeded in getting an RCI quashed in court, but gambling on a favourable court outcome with tax dollars calls for a robust communications strategy so that taxpayers are braced for the fiscal hit. (Estimates of the legal cost of defending an RCI were in the $200,000 range in 2019.)

Whatever the outcome, taxpayers will be on the hook at a time when inflation is growing Hudson’s operating expenses while lowering Hudson’s welcome-tax windfall. This isn’t a good time to be incurring six-digit legal costs. Enviro activists scoff at fiscal arguments, but experience has shown that residents tend to vote down loan bylaws when they can’t see any personal benefit. 

***

Willowbrook has taken its current and former owners on a 12-year rollercoaster ride through four councils whose orientations ranged from strongly pro-development (Prévost), to divided (Elliott and Nicholls), to current mayor Chloe Hutchison’s election vow to slam the door on future development and cap Hudson’s population at the current level.

Opposition to development of the 17-hectare parcel began the day former owners George and Janet Ellerbeck applied for a rezoning permit in November 2006, mostly from neighbours who used Ellerbeck’s land for recreation. The property was zoned for 30,000-square-foot lots; the Ellerbecks wanted to raise the density once the sewer system had been extended to the east end. In return, they offered 60 acres of agriculturally zoned old-growth forest between the railway tracks and Harwood Blvd. — the largest single piece of Hudson land ever offered for conservation.

In July 2011, Hudson’s town planning advisory committee voted 5-3 to recommend approval of a zoning change that would clear the way for 33 single-family units on 10,000-square-foot lots. The project already had the blessing of the town environment committee, which included McGill University biology prof Martin Lechowicz. 

After inspecting the site, Lechowicz wrote: “a large part of the land slated for housing consists of tree plantations with low diversity and little value as wildlife habitat.” He welcomed the proposed expansion of the buffer zone on the north side of the floodplain, now incorporated in the project, calling it “an important greenspace for the development and for the town.”

A month later, the Ellerbecks sought permission for a revised project on 11.5 hectares. The proposal would see 37 single-family homes and 36-semi-detached units on lots ranging from 16,000 to 30,000 square feet, with an average size of 10,000 square feet.  Average density would be 16 units per hectare (the density of the current project was lowered to 12.5 units per hectare in 2017.) Both TPAC and the environment committee supported the request. 

In September 2012, the Ellerbecks withdrew their request for the zoning change after council backed a TPAC recommendation setting a maximum 12% floorspace footprint per lot. In between his rants aimed at certain TPAC members, Ellerbeck said he would wait for a regime change at town hall, but the real reason for his retreat may have been the realization that his project would be defeated in a referendum. (Revisions to the master plan in 2009 gave roughly 100 Como addresses the final word on the proposed rezoning.) Mayor Mike Elliott sided with TPAC, noting the proliferation of huge houses on tiny lots elsewhere in the Montreal Metropolitan Community. Those 60 acres of old-growth forest dropped off the table and have never returned.

Ellerbeck’s prayers for regime change were answered with the 2013 election of Ed Prévost. Under Prévost and director-general Jean-Pierre Roy, a council majority took advantage of changes to municipal competences to enact a series of concordance bylaws that would allow the rezoning of Ellerbeck’s property without the need to put it to the people. 

By bringing Hudson’s master plan into harmony with the Montreal Metropolitan Community’s master plan, the Prévost administration opened the door to multi-unit shoeboxes in the core as well as more units in the Sandy Beach and Willowbrook developments. These changes weren’t subject to approval by referendum; one of the last acts of the outgoing council was the adoption of a development agreement with Sandy Beach owner Nicanco permitting up to 256 doors. 

Ex-mayor Jamie Nicholls and council inherited Prévost’s concordance bylaws as well as department heads who persisted in pushing ahead with the late mayor’s orientations. It wasn’t until Roy’s resignation and a caucus revolt midway through the mandate that the previous council’s orientations were rejected — long after an RCI was legally supportable. After that, the mayor and the caucus majority voted to approve the Willowbrook subdivision with conditions recommended by TPAC.

This administration infers that voters handed them carte blanche to do what is required to save the environment. I see it differently. This mayor and council were elected by a quarter of Hudson’s eligible voters — hardly the strong plurality one would need to enact radical change. As we saw with the furore over the previous council’s efforts to enact a 30-metre wetland buffer, Hudsonites can get really angry, really fast when they have skin in the game and no say in what is being done to them.

Don’t think for a moment the Eco-Inquisition will stop with this. I predict that Bylaw 526, the bylaw setting ground rules for zoning and construction, will be next.  The mayor has never made a secret of her quest for tighter limits on building height, volume and architecture in the town core as well as strict enforcement of development on classified wetlands and forests of interest throughout the municipality. 

Perhaps it was inevitable the pendulum of public opinion would swing this way. In the 30 months Chloe and I shared on council, we agreed the existing urban planning framework served developers better than it did the town’s natural and architectural heritage. We also agreed on the need for change but we were worlds apart on how the town should get there. I’m sure she got fed up hearing me say it’s morally and ethically wrong to move the goalposts in the middle of the game. I know I got tired of being told I didn’t understand why routine decisions needed to turn into policy discussions. Chloe believes radical change requires radical measures. I believe change should be incremental, deliberate and based on informed analysis of the various options and outcomes.

April Save Sandy Beach rally: different projects, same organizers

I find myself wondering whether Willowbrook is being deliberately targeted to prove to this council’s voter base that they’re true-blue environmentalists and to send the message to property owners, developers (and potential residents) they’re not welcome — or irrelevant. I have documentation to support this concern, beginning with an August 2019 letter to the mayor and councillors from a group of rue Leger residents, demanding that the town change the zoning and density requirements for the project. 

“The Town has the power and jurisdiction, if it so desires, to change the zoning or set aside in a land reserve the wetlands and wooded areas of interest within the Willowbrook project so that it better reflects its surroundings,” read the letter. The author dismisses the threat of legal action, noting that Beaconsfield’s Angell Wood decision established that “the city has the power and jurisdiction  to change its bylaws at any time before a building permit has been given.”  

The letter concludes with a demand that building permits be refused until the developer agrees to a complete redesign, with changes to architecture, density, road and park layout and conservation areas.  

That was the start of the pressure campaign. A second letter to the mayor and councillors dated Jan. 8/21, contains a mise en demeure from lawyers for the group, by now formalized as Nature Hudson, “a not-for-profit corporation representing the interests of Hudson residents affected by the Willowbrook development project.”  

The cover email reads: “3.7 and 3.8 in the published agenda refer to modifications and approvals for Willowbrook. We respectfully demand these items be removed from the agenda for tonight’s meeting.” 

The mise-en-demeure contained a threat of legal action if council didn’t respond.

“Our Client hereby puts the Town on notice that any authorization or permit issued, and any agreement entered into by the Town in respect of the Project while the latter is in breach of the legal protections attaching to wetland Bi-11 (or on the basis of prior MELCC authorizations in relation thereto), should also be revoked immediately. This also requires that the Project be suspended pending a final determination on the relevant environmental concerns. 

“The City of Hudson is hereby on notice to take position (in writing) on the aforementioned measures by Tuesday, January 12, 2021, at 4:00 PM, failing which my Client will consider launching all judicial or administrative proceedings needed to protect the wetland and species at issue.”

Opponents of the project threatened council and an environment ministry engineer with legal action on the premise that a forest of interest (Bi-11) and a wetland of high ecological value (MH-12) were part of the same eco-corridor, when both were already under protection.

To reinforce their point, the email included a similar mise en demeure to Marc Leroux, the engineering head of the environment ministry’s regional municipal inspection team. It alleges “serious irregularities,” harsh words for any member of a professional order. “If they prove to be founded, these irregularities would appear to justify the revocation of the March 20/20 authorization.”

Irregularity #1 was the claim that Bi-11, a forest of interest characterized in the Teknika report, was in fact a forested wetland contiguous with MH-12, a bog of high ecological value. (The inference is that the ministry’s authorization failed to protect an eco-corridor)

Irregularity #2 was the possibility the area was home to brown bats, an endangered species. Interestingly for this account, the demand was based on an assessment by TerraHumana, the author of the flora and fauna study being cited by Save Sandy Beach and Nature Hudson in their campaign to halt Nicanco’s Sandy Beach development. None of the other studies — Eco2Urb, CIMA+, Enviro-Guide A.L., G.R.E.B.E. — confirmed the presence of the species.

Here again, the demand was to suspend the project’s authorization immediately pending revocation of the CA by Feb. 5/21 — and order the developer and the Town of Hudson to halt the project. 

Quebec’s Registre des entreprises listing for Nature Hudson identifies the president and treasurer as rue Leger residents, while the secretary is the same individual who filed the glassworks complaint with the provincial heritage ministry. The organization’s designated representative is a lawyer with the law firm Colby Monet and a director of the Legacy Fund for the Environment, the non-profit organization which contributed to the TerraHumana Solutions study of Sandy Beach. It appears to be a cozy conclave.

Taken together, these factors suggest the current Hudson council remains silent because it has nothing to say to the hapless buyers of those Willowbrook lots. If they were honest, they would tell those folks to ask for their money back and prepare residents for the first of many lawsuits.