Density plan seen as threat

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Density plan seen as threat to forest in western end of the island

Groups concerned well-intentioned scheme could backfire and harm environment in Beaconsfield, Ste. Anne, Senneville

Michelle Lalonde, The Gazette , Saturday, January 14, 2012

Minimum density rules set out in the Montreal Metropolitan Community’s much-heralded regional development plan might have the perverse effect of encouraging development of certain green spaces in the West Island rather than protecting them, critics say.

The development plan, called the Plan métropolitain d’aménagement et de développement or PMAD, has been touted as a solution to urban sprawl with its emphasis on transit-oriented development and higher housing densities in alreadydeveloped areas. The PMAD is expected to be approved by Minister of Municipal Affairs Laurent Lessard within the next few weeks.

But in towns like Ste. Anne de Bellevue, Beaconsfield, and Senneville, where some of the island’s few remaining forests, meadows and wetlands are located, concerned residents and city councillors are sounding the alarm.

“Are we shooting ourselves in the foot with this plan?” asked Ste. Anne de Bellevue councillor Paola Hawa. “For people like us in Ste. Anne and Senneville and Beaconsfield, the PMAD doesn’t make sense because it could force us to raise densities in places where it is not environmentally sound to do so.”

Hawa is particularly concerned about wetlands, forest and former farmer’s fields just west of the Rivière à l’Orme that were left out of a conservation deal announced last August by Environment Minister Pierre Arcand. The province announced that it would set aside for conservation 31 hectares of a 95-hectare tract then owned by the government’s investment agency, the Société générale de financement du Québec. Environmental groups had lobbied for all 95 hectares to be protected, but instead, the SGF sold its remaining 64 hectares to real estate developers.

Hawa notes that six of the seven council members in Ste. Anne de Bellevue, including the mayor, campaigned on a promise to preserve green space in this area.

Now she is concerned that the PMAD, which sets out a minimum density of 30 housing units per hectare for Ste. Anne, will force development of any vacant land not officially protected.

Hawa would not give details of the proposed urban plan for Ste. Anne, which will be presented publicly by the council in February or March. But she is organizing information sessions for residents in her district to prepare them for the debate.

“The PMAD is a wonderful thing and the intent is good,” said Hawa, “but we have to ask, have we made its rules and requirements too generic across the board, or do we need exceptions where there is already green space and forest cover? The whole point is to be sure we follow the rules of sustainable development and leave something for future generations.”

In Beaconsfield, there is concern for Angell Wood because it is near the Beaurepaire train station on the Vaudreuil-Hudson line, and in Senneville, residents worry about green spaces near the Ste. Anne de Bellevue station. The PMAD calls for higher levels of housing density near transit hubs, with 40 per cent of new homes built near these hubs.

Marie-Hélène Gauthier of the Association for the Protection of Angell Woods said that even though the PMAD clearly identifies Angell Woods as an ecologically important forest, conservation advocates must be vigilant to ensure it is respected.

Senneville resident Linda Besner says most of the people who made presentations to the MMC about the PMAD were calling for a freeze on the urban perimeter. She is worried that although the plan has goals for conserving certain percentages of natural spaces and tree cover, it does not really set out rules to get there.

“Wherever there is potential for conservation areas along these transit corridors, there is going to be this conflict,” between the need to conserve and the need to densify, said David Fletcher, of the Green Coalition. He said conservation should always win out because the Montreal region is overdeveloped.

He notes that the doughnut model, where cities conserve a green belt around a city but develop everything within the doughnut hole doesn’t work to stop urban sprawl. People need to live near natural spaces and will flock to cities that preserve them.

But it’s not just about preserving forests. Fletcher notes that the former farmers’ fields in Ste. Anne’s have regenerated into important habitat for field nesting birds such as the bobolink and the eastern meadowlark, both species at risk.

Source: The Gazette