What would Steve Shaar do?

IMG_1008.JPG
One of the Town of Hudson’s full-page ads in the Hudson Gazette prior to the town’s 1999 referendum on whether to become part of the Montreal Metropolitan Community.

Will the grassroots citizen activism taking root in Hudson translate into a more open, consultative council and administration on the far side of the Nov. 5 municipal elections?

It depends on who we elect.

Tuesday, May 30, the town’s rapidly evolving email thread (approaching 100 names) was urging the creation of online and paper petitions calling on the mayor and council to delay passage of changes to Hudson’s master development plan until after November’s election.

As the day wore on, several people I suspect will run for council, as well as a local institution with something to lose by seemingly siding with rebels and rabble-rousers, had asked that their names be taken off the mailing list.

By day’s end, the email thread had become Hudson Citizens for Smart Development, a Google Group that allows people to come and go without fanfare or obvious slamming of doors.

It’s a good, forward-thinking name and the right platform as we head into this politically charged next few months, with dozens of residents mulling whether to run for the mayoralty or a council seat.

Hudson’s current council is proposing to adopt five bylaws at the June 5 monthly council meeting, including three concordance bylaws and the two zoning changes. This administration pretends all five can be adopted without recourse to the usual approval procedures of register and referendum because they fall within the CMM/MRC concordance framework.

It’s typical of the covert, cowardly, convoluted, confrontational stance this administration has taken since taking power — an approach which, until six months ago, appeared to go unquestioned by the majority of citizens. (In fact, those who questioned this council were mocked as troublemakers by a number of those now jumping on the citizen-activist bandwagon, but I digress.)

This latest call to action came the same day the town’s second public consultation in a week was to present modifications to the town’s site planning and architectural integration programs (SPAIPs in English, PIIAs in French) to conform with those of the Vaudreuil-Soulanges MRC.

The May 23 consult, to bring Hudson’s planning and land-use bylaws into concordance with those of the MRC and the Montreal Metropolitan Community, turned into a contentious discussion of why the administration was in such a rush to get it done when five other MRC municipalities which, like Hudson, are also part of the CMM, are delaying the procedure for various reasons.

As I explain in a companion post (Trojan Horse), the administration itself confirmed last week the concordance – and the transport-oriented development zone (TOD) it enables – is the pretext to allow half a dozen multi-unit residential projects to proceed without the inconvenience of a referendum.

Also on the agenda for the May 30 consult: a zoning change in the commercial core to permit an assisted-care seniors’ residence adjacent to the Wyman United Church and a long-promised non-conforming usage derogation for the Greenwood Centre for Living History.

It would be premature to call Hudson’s fledgling citizen’s forum an organization. Those with a hand in its creation can’t agree on the need for a formal structure. Some think the energy wasted on creating a shadow opposition and organizing petitions would be better spent running for office.

Others would like to see the resurrection of various consultative committees even though this and previous Hudson councils have shown no interest in using their input for anything other than window dressing and pretence.

Still others urge delegations to attend CMM and MRC meetings, where citizen participation is limited and strictly controlled.
But what binds them is the conviction this is a battle to save Hudson’s soul.

In truth, Hudson’s battle to to save its soul began in the spring of 1999, when Lucien Bouchard’s Parti Québecois government proposed to enact the recommendations of a 1993 report urging the province to adopt measures to cut Quebec’s 1,600 municipalities by two thirds.

This existential threat to Hudson’s existence began life as the 115-municipality Greater Montreal Development Commission before morphing into the current 82-municipality Montreal Metropolitan Commission, the CMM. By that April, the PQ’s Bédard Commission recommended including 10 Vaudreuil-Soulanges municipalities in a new supra-municipal structure, the precursor to the 82-municipality Montreal Metropolitan Community that Hudson’s current stooges are hiding behind.

From the outset, Hudson mayor Steve Shaar made it clear he wanted nothing to do with the Montreal-centric péquiste juggernaut that would stretch from St. Jerome to the north, Chambly to the south, Contrecoeur to the east and Hudson to the west.

“Hudson is a special place, different from anywhere else,” he said. “There’s a sense of community. We’re not Montreal, we’re not typical of any other area in Vaudreuil-Soulanges. It’s a very special place, not only to ourselves, but in the province. That feeling, spirit, sense of belonging will be eroded if we are forced to merge.”

Hudson wasn’t alone. It would be the westernmost of 11 Vaudreuil-Soulanges MRC municipalities, along with St. Lazare, Vaudreuil-Dorion, Vaudreuil-sur-le-lac, L’Île-Cadieux, Les Cèdres, Pointe-des-Cascades and the four Île Perrot municipalities — Nôtre Dame, Pincourt, Terrasse-Vaudreuil and L’Île-Perrot.

Shaar urged Hudson residents to get involved in the fight. “I am against it, the councillors are against it. And I believe that 99.9% of the citizens are against it. I intend to be energetic in the defence of my community.”

He couldn’t do it alone, Shaar added. “It may become necessary to enlist the co-operation and involvement of citizens in a somewhat militant manner (no guns!).” As for a strategic merger with one or more of Hudson’s neighbours, “I will not accept any amalgamation with anyone. We like it [Hudson] the way it is.”

The government’s promise of negotiations proved to be a lie. Shaar and St. Lazare councillor Paul Laflamme returned from an April Fool’s meeting convinced there was no way out. Government statistics (which Shaar disputed) showed that more than half of Hudson’s population worked on Montreal island, one of two factors which determined whether an off-island municipality would be included in the CMM. The other was Hudson’s population density.

There was one bright spot. Shaar was assured Hudson would be able to keep its rural small-town character. There is no reason to believe that the MMC would refuse zoning intended to keep that character, chief negotiator Louis Bernard told him. “We may be able to maintain our integrity.”

Other off-island mayors weren’t as confident. On March 29, the 23 MRC municipalities unanimously adopted a resolution demanding that the 11 CMM inductees be excluded in order to respect the region’s distinct geographical and political nature. “Vaudreuil-Soulanges will not negotiate the partition of its territory, MRC prefect Normand Ménard said. “We don’t want to sell out our municipalities, our citizens, to the Montreal Metropolitan Community.” Ménard’s chief fear was that the MRC would lose control of its planning process.

Municipal morale hit a new low at the end of April when a leaked government white paper revealed Quebec was looking to force municipal mergers. In 1999, 85% of Quebec’s 1,300 municipalities had fewer than 5,000 residents; 552 had fewer than 1,000. The Bouchard government was looking at measures that would allow Quebec to demand that small municipalities seek mergers against their will. The aim: cut costs.

IMG_1010.JPG
Mayor Steve Shaar with pre-referendum signage outside town hall: He was never one to surrender a principle.

That was enough for Shaar, who announced Hudson would join forces with 27 North Shore municipalities in holding a referendum asking residents whether they agreed with municipal affairs minister Louise Harel’s proposal to force Hudson to be part of the MMC. (Quebec had said it would ignore such referendums but Shaar felt it would set the legal bar when and if Quebec proceeded with its threat to force mergers.)

Shaar was especially incensed at a sentence in Harel’s white paper talking about the redistribution of growth revenues (a variant of that redistribution means our MRC pays for SQ policing in poorer regions). “That’s the Trojan Horse,” Shaar warned. “It could take bigger and bigger pieces of our revenues. I will do everything in my power to block this thing.”

Hudson’s referendum was held June 8-12,1999. (St. Lazare, in keeping with the conciliatory policies of the four South Shore MRCs, held a registry.) Shaar kept the question simple: Are you in agreement with Minister Harel’s reform project which forces Hudson to become part of the Montreal Metropolitan Community?

In his press conference, Shaar kept to his message: “A reorganization of this magnitude will have a profound impact on the lives of Hudson citizens and such changes should not be made without public consultation.”

IMG_1014.JPG
Hudson voters knew the Bouchard government would disregard their votes but they turned out anyway.

Hudson residents proved Shaar right. Close to 74% of Hudson’s 4,000 eligible voters voted 99.73% No. Seven residents voted Yes. Among the five Vaudreuil-Soulanges municipalities to hold registers, tiny l’Île-Cadieux had the highest No vote and turnout — 89 of the 92 residents voted No unanimously. The three others were out of town.

The Bouchard government was true to its word on only one of its promises: it ignored the results of the referendums, Hudson’s included. The MMC was proclaimed into law in 2002 in the dying days of the PQ government but if anybody thought the Charest Liberals would reverse the process, they were fooling themselves. The consultation process continued.

Some of Harel’s white paper proposals, like forced mergers and wealth redistribution, have gone silent. They’ve been replaced by others that serve to concentrate political and economic power in the hands of Quebec’s major cities as central governments seek new revenue sources to cover the cost of their skyrocketing infrastructure deficits and worsening traffic gridlock.

Suburban densification is one of those tools. It makes sense in theory. Urban sprawl gobbles up farmland and greenspace while imposing costs for roads, public transit, schools, hospitals, daycares, sewer and water infrastructures and a long list of additional costs. But this isn’t a totalitarian society, where government can forbid people from looking for an exurban lifestyle, which is what the MMC set out to do with its master land use and development plan, or PMAD.

Adopted March 12, 2012 and approved by a Liberal government under Jean Charest, the PMAD has been an unmitigated disaster for Vaudreuil-Soulanges. It blocked the creation of a institutional hub that would have preserved close to 400 hectares of greenspace while providing our region with a hospital, CEGEP, schools and other facilities lacking.

At the same time, it unilaterally and without discussion, imposed ridiculous population densities on the serviced sectors of existing municipalities, beginning with transport-oriented developments. As L’Atelier Urbain’s Jean-François Viens says in Trojan Horse, my companion blog, TODs were never designed for Hudson. They’re for de la Gare in Vaudreuil-Dorion, for Brossard’s Dix30, for Candiac and Boisbriand. They’re not for picturesque small towns whose residents want them to stay that way.

Mayor Shaar was just 56 when he died of colon cancer in December 2004 but his successor Elizabeth Corker maintained his position vis-a-vis the MMC and its densification proposals. In a June 2005 brief, the Town of Hudson made it clear it wanted nothing to do with the PMAD. (http://cmm.qc.ca/psmad/avis/CS-A6.1_Avis_Ville_Hudson.pdf)

The brief begins by noting that Hudson was never consulted and that if it had been, some of the glaring inaccuracies in the MMC’s schema could have been corrected.

Its main points:
• The proposed master plan doesn’t take Hudson’s peculiarities into account;
• The MMC’s demand for an average 24-unit-per-hectare minimum would require more water than Hudson’s waterworks could supply and a sewer system (then unbuilt);
• Hudson Valleys and Alstonvale were left out of the MMC’s proposed master plan;
• A minimum density of 24 units per hectare would result in 1,600 units on 812 hectares, a density 12 times greater than that found within the town’s urban perimeter.

“These densities are clearly not applicable in a town like Hudson,” the town’s brief stated. To achieve such a density, it would be necessary to build triplexes or apartments next door to single-family dwellings on 40,000-square-foot lots. “Multi-family dwellings, row housing, triplexes and quadriplexes would completely transform the natural environment and unique character of Hudson.”

Notwithstanding Hudson’s objections, the PMAD passed into law with the Charest government’s blessing on March 12, 2012.

Before he died, Shaar told me the writing was on the wall in 1999, when the péquistes decided they were going to empower Montreal and Quebec City to collect more revenues.

So why, if he knew the MMC was a foregone conclusion, did he take the town through the exercise of a referendum?

It was a matter of principle, he said. “Hudson punches way above its weight politically. We had a reputation to uphold.”