Nature Wins!

11 Oct

10153855_10152455675422921_7196318617536841399_nGraeme Hamilton- National Post, 11 octobre 2014

Half an hour from downtown Montreal, across the road from a posh golf club and bordering a provincial park, the six-hectare wooded lot owned by Senator Paul Massicotte would seem a prime location for luxury homes.

Mr. Massicotte’s company describes its proposed housing development here, valued at between $30- and $40-million, as a “collection of distinctive, luxurious and sophisticated cocoons inserted in untouched nature.”

But amid the rotting branches and fallen leaves now covering the forest floor, an endangered plant grows that could thwart Mr. Massicotte’s cocooning plan. In a notice sent last month to his company Sommet Prestige Canada Inc., Quebec’s Environment Department concludes that the 30-home development “runs the risk of severely degrading” a prime habitat for wild ginseng. Also known as American ginseng, the plant prized in Asia has been on Quebec’s list of endangered plant species since 2001 and faces an “elevated risk” of being wiped out in the province, the notice says.

Mr. Massicotte, a Liberal appointed to the Senate by Jean Chrétien in 2003, has been given until Nov. 1 to respond, but the Sept. 2 notice signed by Environment Minister David Heurtel has opponents of the project in Saint-Bruno celebrating. “With the conclusion [of the notice], we have a hard time seeing how the minister could authorize the project,” said Marilou Alarie, a longtime defender of the woods who was elected to town council last year.

Mr. Massicotte, 63, has worked in real estate most of his life, including 21 years as president of Montreal’s Alexis Nihon Group. He declined a request for an interview for this story, directing questions to Bruno Bergeron, a consultant in urban planning who has worked on the project.It has been a laborious process. After purchasing the land in 2005 from the Mount Bruno Country Club for $1.9-million, Mr. Massicotte was told by the mayor of the day he would have to wait until after the 2009 election for the municipality to agree to the project. After the mayor, Claude Benjamin, was re-elected, the town signed an agreement to build the necessary road and sewers, provided the provincial Environment Department approved.

As preparations advanced, a vocal opposition group emerged, determined to preserve the woods, known as the Boisé des Hirondelles. They turned to the media, to biologists and even to Quebec’s anti-corruption police, raising questions about the project’s approval by the town. In January 2013, Mr. Benjamin sued Ms. Alarie for defamation after her group filed a report with police alleging shady dealings. He later withdrew the lawsuit and was ordered to pay Ms. Alarie’s legal fees.

The standard developer-vs.-conservationists confrontation had taken a twist in 2011 when biologists with the Université du Québec à Montréal discovered the wild ginseng. According to the latest Environment Department inventory, there are 31 ginseng plants in the area slated for development. It may not sound like much, but the Environment Department says that combined with ginseng in the adjacent Mont-Saint-Bruno provincial park, the plants form part of “one of the rare viable populations in Quebec.”

Mr. Bergeron acknowledged that the discovery of wild ginseng plants has complicated matters, but he said it does not necessarily seal the development’s fate.

“My client wants to build a project with a high environmental value, obviously careful about the presence of ginseng,” he said. “He wants to adopt the best practices.” The developer has hired biologists to study how the project can be modified to protect the ginseng, and whether plants in the way could be transplanted.

“There are seven plants at the heart of the project, and there are a couple dozen plants on an escarpment at the back,” he said.

He added that the ginseng already faces significant stress, from deer nibbling at it to mountain bikers tearing through the woods. “The ginseng plants in the middle of the property are currently endangered because people go on the site with bicycles, they walk their dogs, they collect firewood and throw away garbage,” he said.

He said opposition to the project is driven by locals who are jealously guarding their tranquility. “Are we going to shelve a project worth $30-million or $40-million just to satisfy the 10 neighbouring residents who use it as a private park?” he asked.

Martin Murray, who was elected Mayor of Saint-Bruno-de-Montarville last November, said opposition to the development is much more widespread in the town. “Citizens of St-Bruno consider the mountain a jewel to be preserved, and any threat to its integrity poses a problem,” he said.

“If we decided today to have a protest, there would be hundreds of people, not just people from the neighbourhood.”

Mr. Murray and Ms. Alarie said the town is happy to forego the property taxes that would be generated by 30 expensive new houses. But there is no question of buying the land to create a municipal park.

“He took a risk,” Ms. Alarie said of Mr. Massicotte. “Before buying his land, he conducted an environmental study, which unfortunately was incomplete. He did not do his homework. Before investing in the stock market, you do your due diligence.” She suggested he look into getting a tax credit by donating the land for conservation.

This is one of only a handful of cases in which Quebec’s Environment Department has invoked an article of its 2002 Natural Heritage Conservation Act that allows the minister to block development that “may severely degrade a natural setting that is remarkable because of the rarity or exceptional interest of one of its biophysical features.”

Jean-Pierre Laniel, head of biodiversity expertise for the Environment Department, said the law “is not aimed at preventing development.” The province has approved other projects that were modified to avoid threatening wild ginseng. “On a property like this, I think that if good practices are put in place, if elements of protection are identified, it can be possible,” he said. “We have seen it in other cases.”

Not surprisingly, Ms. Alarie questions whether that protection is possible. The notice sent to Sommet Prestige details how ginseng relies on shade, and the construction of houses will necessarily involve significant clearing of trees. Add to that the digging, leveling and blasting that would be required to build on the sloped property, and she does not see how the fragile ginseng could survive.

Walking on a trail through the towering sugar maple and oak trees one afternoon this week, she said she could not fathom that anyone would propose building there. “I can’t believe it takes ginseng to stop this project,” she said. “But it is here, and all the better for the forest.”

National Post

 

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