Montreal

Why some towns in Quebec's Laurentians are pressing the pause button on development

The appeal of nature and forests and a wide trail network is what draws many to Morin Heights, Que. But it's also what longtime residents and the municipality want to protect from new housing projects.

Pandemic-fuelled population growth and development putting pressure on Morin Heights

Lena Measures says her town must strike the balance between development and environment protection otherwise nature and the quality of life of residents is at stake. (Marika Wheeler/CBC)

Lena Measures loves taking her new puppy, Kuiper, for walks in the nature around her home in Morin Heights, Que. Her converted cottage is steps away from a small, quiet lake. Birds and squirrels chirp and chatter from the trees on her property and last summer, a moose wandered by her deck.

Over the years, Measures has watched more people move to her community, cut down trees, build houses and cause premature wear on road infrastructure and she "doesn't like where [the town] is going."

"The development has become a little too excessive," she said. "People are building these monster homes, I call them McChâteaux and there is a lack of affordable housing."

Morin Heights is just one of the small towns in Quebec's Laurentians that is grappling with rapid development, as former city dwellers take up house and home in the mountains.

In March, the town council approved an interim bylaw to temporarily halt certain forms of development and give itself time to rewrite its urban-planning bylaws and reframe development. Nearby Sainte-Anne-des-Lacs has responded in a similar way to development.

Booming population

From 2016 to 2021, Morin Heights has seen its population grow by nearly 13 percent to about 4,755 residents. The mayor says before the pandemic, there were usually 30 to 40 new homes built in the town each year. That number has nearly tripled to 100 homes per year for the past two years.

"We were not ready for it," said town councillor Gilles Saulnier. "We were ready for development that was coming more slowly, so we would have time to adjust."

Town councillor Gilles Saulnier recently voted against a 21-home subdivision project in Morin Heights, Que. (Marika Wheeler/CBC)

In the fall of 2020, the town adopted an interim bylaw that forced developers to double the minimum size of property lots. Then came the March 2022 bylaw to halt any new road development and subdivision of land into more than five lots.

Local politicians hope these interim bylaws will give them the time to rethink their urban planning. They hope to complete the process by the beginning of the new year, after public consultations.

"We're going to implement the vision that the citizens have given us … and try to make Morin Heights the place people want to live," said Mayor Tim Watchorn.

Mayor Tim Watchorn says the Havre du Balmoral style of 'small lot' development is what he wants Morin Heights to move away from. (Marika Wheeler/CBC)

Finding a balance

Striking a balance between land preservation, affordable housing and development is a challenge.

Watchorn points to a recent development called Le Havre Balmoral, which broke ground five years ago.

Even though the town made sure that the popular Triangle nature trail was protected within the development, the lots are considered "small" at 2,000 metres squared and there are few trees between properties.

"I don't think this is a model we will use in the future," he said. "We tried it … but in the end it looks a little too much like surburbia."

He wants to move toward larger lots with more forest protection to conserve wildlife corridors and quality of life. The flip side, he concedes, is the cost.

"The lots are way more expensive for sure but in the end I think we have to prioritize the environment," Watchorn said. "Our whole DNA is outdoor activities and we want to preserve that for future generations."

A scan of real estate sites shows listings for properties in the "large-lot developments" the mayor prefers at $300,000 comparable to about $100,000 for lots of about 2,000 metres squared.

Watchorn says more affordable housing could be built by densifying the central part of town.

Mayor Tim Watchorn says he hopes the new urban planning bylaws will come into effect early next year. (Marika Wheeler/CBC)

Project close to home

The development project that most worries Measures is one the town council approved in a four-to-two vote just one day before the interim bylaw that would have stopped it.

Allowing the project was necessary, said Watchorn, because if council had blocked it — it had been in the works since 2016 — the developer could have sued the town.

Measures is worried the new 21-home development adjacent to the local ski hill and next to her home will be a licence to party for disrespectful visitors, given it is in the only part of town zoned for short-term rentals.

Morin Heights recently passed a bylaw putting development on pause. (Marika Wheeler/CBC)

An active citizen who says she attends every council meeting she can, Measures submitted a 14-page brief to the town's environmental committee outlining ways the town could frame development in a way that would ''work with nature not against her and use nature-based solutions."

Measures says the municipality is taking steps to improve the situation and she looks forward to finding out what the new urban-planning bylaws say.

"People come here for the recreation, the peace and quiet, the bucolic small town atmosphere," she said. "The more people come here, the more you lose that. We don't want to become a suburb of Montreal or Laval."

LISTEN | Marika Wheeler talks to Laurentian residents about development: 

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