Councillor blasts residents' behaviour after wetland project shelved

A group of Navan residents strongly opposed to a wetland project say they're upset with how they've been portrayed, but their city councillor says they didn't behave appropriately and stands behind a conservation authority for pulling out due to safety concerns.

'This is not how I think anyone would want their children to act,' Coun. Stephen Blais says

From left to right, Daniel Charron, Peter Friske, Chance Houle, Cheryle Houle and Charles Houle stand in a Navan meadow where South Nation Conservation had proposed building a pond and publicly accessible boardwalk. On Thursday the conservation authority announced it was pulling out of the project. (Trevor Pritchard/CBC)

A group of Navan residents strongly opposed to a wetland project say they're upset with how they've been portrayed, but their city councillor says some of them didn't behave appropriately, and he stands behind a conservation authority for pulling out of the project due to safety concerns.

Members of the Navan Landowners Committee say they've been characterized by South Nation Conservation as possible vandals and "hooligans" — all because of their concerns the conservation authority's wetland project could reduce property values and limit what they could do with their land.

"They were worried about people being aggressive, and possibly aggressive in the future, [to the] people actually digging the ponds here in Navan," said Cheryle Houle, who helped found the committee to fight the project.

"To us, that is completely absurd."

The $300,000 project would have enhanced a small parcel of city-owned parkland at 999 Smith Rd., north of the Prescott-Russell Trail Link.

The group's anger stems from a letter sent earlier this week to Cumberland Coun. Stephen Blais, in which the conservation authority pointed out serious concerns with the project — concerns that included potential vandalism of the site and unsafe work conditions for its employees.

Angela Coleman, the conservation authority's general manager and secretary treasurer, told Blais in the letter they felt it was "appropriate to forego the project at this time."

"It has been our experience that vandalism and destruction of property often occurs where a project is controversial at the time of construction," wrote Coleman.

"To the extent possible, we like to assure parks and recreational spaces are cared for and valued by the community."

South Nation Conservation spokesperson John Mesman says the Smith Road project would have improved biodiversity and connected with a local recreational trail. (Trevor Pritchard/CBC)

Sustained opposition rare

Although the pond idea came out of a request from the community in 2009 to enhance local nature opportunities, it ended up dividing the community — and residents of Birchtree Crescent, which borders the site, formed the landowners committee to to fight it.

Conservation authority spokesman John Mesman said Thursday it was incredibly rare to see such sustained opposition to one of their projects, especially one that South Nation Conservation still believes is a "great project for the environment and the community."

"This is a great way to link up a rec trail to a community and to enhance a site that was at-risk," Mesman said.

"It's a city-owned park. It's not being used. It's a monoculture [so] we don't see good biodiversity on the site. There's beaver activity there that's threatening some of the existing trees."

Letter shouldn't come as a surprise

Nearby residents had strongly expressed their concerns about the project — particularly at a public forum last week, where both conservation and City of Ottawa officials were told their explanations couldn't be trusted.

The landowners committee had also circulated an online petition against the pond proposal, suggesting it was part of a "steady creep" in rezoning the parkland around Navan that could see it become provincially significant wetland and thus cause a "drastic decrease in property value and restrictions to landowners' rights."

In its own response to the petition, the South Nation Conservation said that was "highly unlikely" given the size of the site, and that greenspaces tend to increase property value, not drag it down.

Mesman would not go into specifics Thursday about which particular incidents spurred the June 12 letter, though he did stand by the letter's accuracy.

"After our last couple of interactions, I don't think that any of those words [in the letter] should come as a surprise," Mesman said.

Cheryle Houle says members of the landowners committee she helped form aren't bullies, despite the concerns in a letter written by South Nation Conservation. (Trevor Pritchard/CBC)

'We are not bullies'

Members of the landowners group strongly disagreed with the letter's sentiments Thursday afternoon, as they swatted mosquitoes and walked through tall grasses down to the Navan meadow that would have become home to the pond and boardwalk. 

"I mean, I'm 65. I'm retired. Most of the people on the committee are seniors who are retired," said Peter Friske, whose home backs onto the meadow.

"We're not a bunch of hooligans or [anything] like that. We just stood up for what we thought was right — the fact that we didn't want that pond, we didn't want the meadow destroyed."

Houle, meanwhile, said that while the committee had gone "door-to-door" in the neighbourhood to share their concerns with the plans for the Smith Road parkland, no one was ever pressured to join them.

"We are not bullies. And we've never been aggressive with anybody," said Houle.

"We were only stating the truth ... if they do redesignate [the zoning] in the future, that has huge implications on our land."

'Their behaviour is what leads to the label'

Blais told CBC Radio's Ottawa Morning Friday that he became aware of the conservation authority's concerns last Friday, a couple days after a tense information session, and asked Coleman to document them in the letter.

"I think certainly all of the public meetings — this was one of many — there was a level of aggression that was concerning," Blais said, adding that he received emails about it. An online petition to cancel the project was also viewed by some as "very aggressive," he said.

"And as a result there had been this tension that was building up, and we don't want to do that with a project anywhere, anytime, especially in a small place like Navan. So [Coleman] took the decision that she took [to get out of the project] and I completely respect that."

Listen to more of the interview with Blais here.

Asked whether people should be able to voice their concerns, Blais said: "Sure, but their behaviour is what leads to the label.... I can show you a raft of emails from people in the community who felt that it was not appropriate behaviour. This is not how I think anyone would want their children to act. I used to coach football — I can tell you if the football players acted this way they'd be running hills for a week.

"I've been in lots of public meetings where people disagree. We can disagree without yelling ... without interrupting ... without shouting at the experts to sit down because they don't believe them," he said.