Development on Mont Rigaud deemed a necessary part of conservation
By Carmen Marie Fabio
THE JOURNAL FILE PHOTO/CARMEN MARIE FABIO
Many of the hiking trails on Rigaud Mountain traverse privately-held properties.
Saint-Lazare resident and environmentalist David Hill has launched a petition on Change.org in hopes of stopping the building of a house and preventing all further deforestation on Mont Rigaud following the discovery of new construction of a large single-family home on the ‘second summit.’
As reported in The Journal in the summer of 2018, the Town of Rigaud unveiled its strategic plan to be implemented for the next 15 years for long-term sustainable development. The plan, crafted with the input of about 1000 residents and presented by Comité 21 Québec, focused on six major points which included ‘protecting and enhancing the natural environment.’
At the time of the presentation, Mayor Hans Gruenwald said progress had been made in the protection of the forest cover on the mountain with the creation of a land bank through the purchase of land from private owners. There are numerous owners of parcels of land which comprise the 4300 hectare mountain and over 800 private residences, according to the town.
Need to protect the mountain
“I support Mr. Hill’s petition,” said Gruenwald this week, “because we need to protect Rigaud Mountain. But what we have done in this case (allowing building there) is an important issue toward protecting the mountain.”
Gruenwald maintains that the homeowner, confirmed as Martin Tremblay, is currently contributing more to the mountain’s conservation than anyone else. “He’s conserving lots of property at the same time that he’s building (his home). He’s putting property into the Fiducie (Fiducie de conservation du patrimoine naturel de Rigaud) to protect it. Once land is in the trust, it cannot come out and nothing can be done with it.” Gruenwald added that the 2-kilometre stretch of road leading the home existed 40 years ago to access the ‘Maison du Cook,’ the abode of a resident who worked as a cook for Collège Bourget. It is not part of the new construction.
“This whole thing is around one house. Not many houses.” Gruenwald maintains the mission of conservation of Rigaud Mountain is intact.
Visit from homeowner
Hill told The Journal he contacted police a few days after Tremblay showed up at his home on October 24 to discuss the petition, saying it contained inaccuracies and that he was concerned for his family members. While Hill amended some wording on the petition, he said he called the SQ a few days later at the urging of community members who declared Tremblay’s visit to his home constituted intimidation. No charges have been laid.
“I find it odd that someone would choose to build in the contested area and not expect any kind of resistance,” countered Hill.
Gruenwald confirmed the homeowner is the same person who was nominated to sit as a member of the Comité consultatif d'urbanisme (CCU) for a two-month period October 9, 2018 to December 31, 2018 but added it did not constitute a conflict of interest.
“It was debated,” the mayor said, “but everybody came to the conclusion that it wasn’t an issue. Everything was done within pre-established parameters.”
PHOTO COURTESY CHANGE.ORG
The beginning of the construction of a single-family dwelling on Mont Rigaud has rankled some residents who want the land preserved.
Gruenwald added that two weeks ago, representatives from the provincial Ministry of the Environment, the Vaudreuil-Soulanges MRC, and the Ville de Rigaud all met on the property and concluded everything is being done within the established guidelines. “The property owner met all the obligations to obtain a permit. Legally, I couldn’t refuse it.
“If I don’t want somebody to build on a piece of property, I’ll buy it. But as long as somebody else owns it, that ‘somebody else’ also has legal rights.”
“If someone says, ‘If you allow me to build, then I’ll put the rest of the land into the holding of the Fiducie’ it’s protected forever.’” The mayor denied that any deal had been struck. “What he (Tremblay) asked for is all provided within the rules.”
Hill discovered the construction site of the house recently while on a hike on many of the formal and informal walking trails which traverse the mountain. Information posted on his petition, which now has over 6000 signatures, includes a map showing significant areas with ‘elevated ecological importance’ on the second summit of the mountain.
The petition states, “In May, 2020 the RCI (Règlement de contrôle intérimaire) was modified, by the Mayor of Rigaud, to change the ecological value of some zones and allow construction in previously forbidden high ecological value zones. Immediately after, construction and tree cutting started on the second summit. This was done without referendum.”
“There was no need to conduct a referendum” Gruenwald told The Journal. “The moment a building request comes in and it meets with all the criteria in place, there’s no referendum necessary.”
“There is a massive lack of transparency,” contends Hill. “The whole timing of this during COVID-19, at the very least they could have passed a motion saying, ‘This is not a good time to proceed with this dossier, we will resume at a time when our citizenry can participate in the democratic process.’ I think that’s reasonable.”
PHOTO COURTESY MARTIN TREMBLAY
Homeowner Martin Tremblay said he has no plans to stop people from using the hiking trails that cross his property and has installed signage to help hikers orient themselves.
Response from the homeowner
Reached by phone, Tremblay confirmed that within the next two years, he plans to purchase an area totaling one-and-a-half times his current lot of over 42 acres to donate to the land trust and added the footprint of the house he plans to build will only occupy 0.005 per cent of his property.
“All the trails on our lot are still available to the public,” said Tremblay. “And there are signs we installed to help orient people as to where the Chemin Saint-George is, where Sucrerie de la Montagne is, because people get lost.” Tremblay said access was blocked for two weekends to prevent anyone from being injured at the construction site but all trails are now accessible.
“I bought the property in May of 2020 and I’m building within the boundary of the permit,” said Tremblay, taking umbrage with the original wording of the petition that included the words ‘corruption’ and ‘greed of rich people.’ The title has since been changed to ‘Save Rigaud Mountain.’
“I can’t just ‘throw money’ at anything if it’s illegal,” he said. “I can only build according to my permit.”
Tremblay said the majority of the walking trails on the mountain are on private land and though landowners could legally put up fences, it’s not feasible. “It’s also not the spirit of the place,” he said. “People have been walking through there for 80 years.”
Tremblay said the only thing he does not want to see is ATVs (All Terrain Vehicles) or motorcycles used on the path network. “But anybody who wants to come on bike, snowshoes, cross-country skis, we have no trouble with that. We would not have put the signs up if that was the case.”
Amendments to the original RCI
The Règlement de contrôle intérimaire (RCI) 229-2 states, in part,
· Considering the By-law 229 (the by-law protecting the environmentally sensitive areas) has been in effect since September 19, 2016;
· Considering that it is necessary to introduce partial exclusions from the application of the interim control regulation;
· Considering the powers accorded to the MRC by article 64 of the la Loi sur l'aménagement et l'urbanisme (LAU) for the content of this regulation….
“For these reasons,” it continues, “…By-law 229 is modified by the insertion of article 2.2,” which defines partial exclusions to the by-law.
The exclusions include to 10 further plots of land on Mont Rigaud which have been okayed for development. (The full Règlement-229-2-Mont-Rigaud-et-certificat-de-promulgation will be posted at the bottom of this story on our website.)
Of the 10 lots pictured in the By-law 229 modification, eight included red areas which are considered to have a ‘very elevated ecological value,’ while nine contain green portions which are of, ‘elevated ecological value.’
Soil characterization study
In conversations with residents on social media, the Town of Rigaud wrote that a 2017 soil characterization study that was not commissioned by the town confirms, “… the current place of construction of the residence is located in an area of low ecological value.” The town further states the tests are conducted by experts in their field and there is no reason to question their professionalism.
When The Journal asked for a copy of the most recent environmental study of the area, Communications Director Simon St-Michel responded, in part, “The last soil characterization study for Mount Rigaud was conducted in 2017. This study is not available on our website as it is an administrative document of an ongoing file.”
Information shared with The Journal by a reader names some of the firms that carried out the studies including Grebe Inc. Engineering, WSP Global Inc., and Groupe Hemisphère.
THE JOURNAL FILE PHOTO/CARMEN MARIE FABIO
The 4300-hectare mountain is home to myriad species of flora and fauna.
Additional funding needed
Gruenwald said there are ongoing talks with the provincial government for additional preservation funding as the town does not want to expropriate existing properties for conservation purposes after the residents have paid taxes for decades.
“We want negotiations where people will sell their property to put into this conservation project.” He said the town has already spent close to $1 million to conserve some properties but needs to raise an additional $13 million. “I’m working hard at making it happen.” Two floods, a change in provincial governance, and a global pandemic have all taken precedence over talks of protecting the mountain. “But I haven’t given up,” Gruenwald added.
“The hiking trails will be conserved,” he insisted, “and even enhanced. I’m putting a regime in place so the people who use Rigaud Mountain will become the protectors of Rigaud Mountain.”
The feedback on both the petition and the Town of Rigaud’s Facebook page is less than supportive with some accusing both the mayor and the MRC of profiting from the Vaudreuil-Soulanges’ population’s preoccupation with COVID-19 to pass the by-law and others questioning what is, and isn’t, ecologically sensitive land.
“I get that no official rules were broken,” said Hill. “But I’m of the mind that just because somebody has the money and has the resources and says, ‘I’m going ahead with this’ it doesn’t make it right.”
The petition can be accessed at tinyurl.com/y6lda877.