Land sale controversy has election undertones

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Land sale controversy has election undertones
Albert Kramberger  The Gazette   Wednesday, August 15, 2012

A large parcel of undeveloped land in northern Ste. Anne de Bellevue put on the market recently by Investissement Québec seems to be becoming a political hot button issue during the provincial election campaign.

The Green Coalition issued an open letter to Pierre Arcand, the Liberal government’s Environment Minister, objecting to the sale of about 35 hectares of land that borders the Rivière l’Anse à l’Orme eco-territory which is protected from development, adding that he has a moral obligation to make sure these lands are managed in the best interests of citizens. The letter goes on to state that is unacceptable and irresponsible to encourage any development of this land which is located north of the Hydro-Québec servitude in the area.

Green Coalition vice-president David Fletcher acknowledged the Liberal government and Jacques-Cartier incumbent MNA Geoff Kelley did manage to preserve about 31 hectares of a 95-hectare tract of land in Ste. Anne owned by the government’s investment agency last year, forsaking the land currently put up for sale by province’s investment agency to potential development is unacceptable. He also questions the timing of the sale, for which the public bidding period ends next Wednesday (Aug. 22).

“It’s not an ideal time for the public perspective, in terms of people being able to respond to this,” he said of the later summer sale period which coincides with the provincial election campaign.

Fletcher wonders if something has been pre-arranged with a perspective developer since Ste. Anne is still working on new municipal zoning and planning regulations for its northern section. “They seem to be selling this with the presumption that development is going to be able to go ahead,” he said, adding the area being sold is part wetlands and in a flood zone.

Fletcher said the provincial government should be able to give marching orders to Investissement Québec with the aim of conserving eco-territory.

“It is disingenuous on the part of the Liberals, including Geoff Kelley, to say they can’t afford it, they would have to pay Investissement Québec, because the money is going around in circles,” he said.

The Green Coalition as well as most Ste. Anne residents want this publicly owned land to be protected from development, Fletcher said, adding he hopes the sale could be revised following the election.

“That sale by Investissement Québec has to be revisited, in spite of Kelley’s protestations that he’s done the maximum that he can,” Fletcher said. “With all due respect, there’s a better deal that could be done.”

Ryan Young, a Ste. Anne town councillor, said his municipality is currently redrawing an urban planning scenario for its north sections and he questions the timing of this land sale by the provincial crown corporation.

“We’re going back to the drawing board to table a new urban plan,” he said. “The final version won’t be out until sometime next spring.”

“It’s bizarre,” he said of the timing of the current sale.

Young added it is the ultimate responsibility of the province or Montreal to step in and preserve eco-territory. Although Ste. Anne can control zoning, he said it’s not a realistic option, adding the small town cannot afford to purchase such large tracts of undeveloped land in order to conserve it as green space.

Coalition Avenir Québec’s (CAQ) Jacques-Cartier candidate Paola Hawa, a sitting Ste. Anne town councillor, questions why no impact studies have been conducted by the province and added Kelley’s inaction has led to what she describes as a crisis situation.

Hawa said Kelley sat at the table last year when 31 hectares were preserved but she added other sections of land in the area were also then sold on to a developer.

“A minimum of 37 hectares was asked to be protected by Montreal,” she added.

Hawa said the whole process of selling publicly owned land needs to be reviewed and more transparency is required, pointing out the Investissement Québec land currently on the market is being is being sold by CBRE Ltée., a Montreal real estate agency. “There’s a lack of transparency,” she said, adding who bid and final sale prices must be made public.

If elected Sept. 4, a CAQ government led by Ste. Anne native François Legault would place this sale on hold and demand a complete impact analysis before allowing any development of the l’Anse-à-l’Orme area.

“This valuable land is the heart of the l’Anse-à-l’Orme eco-territory,” Hawa said.

Meanwhile, Kelley points out Investissement Québec’s mandate is to encourage development and promote job creation and that the parcel of land in question had been set aside over a decade ago for a potential high-tech chip plant to be developed, though that project never materialized.

The veteran MNA also pointed to the deal the province struck a year ago with Investissement Québec to conserve 31 hectares of land, known as a habitat for deer, birds of prey and other animals and rare plants, along Rivière à l’Orme. This section, which had been part of some 95 hectares of undeveloped land owned by Investissement Québec in Ste. Anne, would then be added to the Rivière à l’Orme eco-forestry corridor established by Montreal.

Kelley said he worked hard to make sure the province protected these 31 hectares, after initially only 17 hectares in the area had been tabbed to be conserved.

“We’re now conserving a corridor that goes up to Cap St. Jacques,” he said, adding about a third of the Ste. Anne territory controlled by the Investissement Québec is being protected from development.

He added the province doesn’t have an endless supply of funds to gobble up undeveloped land for conservation, adding Montreal could step up if Ste. Anne cannot afford to.

As for any future development of the land currently on the market, Kelley said it’s a municipal issue. “The rest is up to Ste. Anne de Bellevue to decide use. I wish them well in their debate,” he added.