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?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s