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.

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