Growing opposition could sink proposed Navan wetland project

A city councillor told an angry crowd in rural east Ottawa that a proposed wetland project could be cancelled if enough citizens are against the idea.

Project could be cancelled if enough residents oppose it, says Coun. Stephen Blais

Peter Friske points to the land behind his home on Birchtree Crescent in Navan, where the South Nation Conservation Authority had developed a plan to create a wetland. A meeting held on the divisive issue last week got heated, and the authority has now backed out of the project. (Amanda Pfeffer/CBC)

Explanations by conservationists, a city councillor and a scientist at a meeting Wednesday night were not enough to assuage the fears of some 100 Navan residents about a $300,000 wetland project.

It's being proposed as a "community enhancement" and has already been given the green light by Ottawa city council, but Coun. Stephen Blais will make a final decision after parsing through feedback on whether to continue the project.

In an interview at the Navan Memorial Arena, where the meeting was held, Blais said the project could be in jeopardy if it causes too much division in the community.

The project involves a small parcel of parkland owned by the city at 999 Smith Rd., north of the Prescott-Russell Trail Link. The South Nation Conservation Authority developed a plan to create a wetland there by building a shallow pond and a boardwalk.

The idea originated with the Navan Community Association as a way to make the land more accessible to the public while preserving it as a wetland space. 

The meeting's question period was marked by accusations of poor communication and distrust. (Amanda Pfeffer/CBC)

Tweaks made after initial objections

The project presented Wednesday night featured a few tweaks, which were made after Birchtree Crescent residents adjacent to the project objected when workers began assessing the land last year.

The walkway, for instance, would no longer have an entrance on Birchtree Crescent, and the space would have only a single shallow pond instead of three.

But despite the changes, most of the question period Wednesday night involved accusations of poor communication, distrust about the long-term implications of the project, and fears the site will attract predators, mosquitos and beavers.

Birchtree Crescent residents have created the Navan Landowners Committee to fight the project. They have circulated online petitions, one of which calls for the project's termination. It says they're concerned the project is the first step "in a steady 'creep' in the rezoning or re-designation" of the parkland into a provincially significant wetland.

They're concerned that would bog homeowners down in red tape, and cause "a drastic decrease in property value and restrictions to landowners' rights within the wetland areas and surrounding buffer zones."

Peter Friske, who lives on Birchtree Crescent next to a path leading down to the proposed site, said he fears a special designation will mean homeowners would have to apply for special permits and perhaps require environmental assessments in order to build on their own land.

Not everyone against project

But not everyone in the room Wednesday night was against the project.

At one point, about a quarter of the attendees stood up when Birchtree Crescent resident Daniel Charron asked those in favour to "be recognized" and not "be ashamed." Two thirds stood up when he asked to hear from those opposed.

Resident Kelly Sirvin said she's sad to see so much misinformation circulating about the project. 

She almost signed the petition, she said, but decided to look into it a little deeper and found that "a lot of the claims were just false."

"I know a lot of people that are for [the project], and they are afraid to speak up," Sirvin said, adding there have been concerns about the pace of development in nearby Orléans and that the project would help ensure Navan's rural character.

"I just don't like the fact that the wrong information is snowballing and causing all this sillyness."

John Mesman, a spokesperson for the South Nation Conservation Authority, moderated a tough crowd in an attempt to sell the idea. (Amanda Pfeffer/CBC)

No rezoning from park to wetland

John Mesman, a spokesperson for the South Nation Conservation Authority, moderated much of the meeting,

He, at times with Blais and Nick Stow, a scientist and senior planner for the city, took turns attempting to allay the key fears, saying:

  • There would be no rezoning of the land from a park to a provincially significant wetland.
  • The land did not meet any of the criteria — including having species at risk, for example — to designate it now or in the future as a protected wetland by the city or the province.
  • Studies suggest the project would likely enhance housing values rather than lower them.
  • Predators would not be introduced to the land.
  • There is no evidence that similar projects have created new mosquito problems.

Still, on more than one occasion, Mesman was told he wasn't trusted, Stow was told to sit down, and Blais was told he could be in trouble over the issue in the next municipal election.

Cheryle Houle, right, spoke to residents ahead of the meeting in Navan Wednesday night. She helped create the Navan Landowners Committee to fight the wetland proposal. (Amanda Pfeffer/CBC)

Cheryle Houle, who helped create the Navan Landowners Committee to fight the project, asked Blais for a guarantee that the area will not be designated a protected wetland in the future, and that people will be compensated if it is.

"While I'm a city councillor this will not become a provincially significant wetland," Blais responded, adding that scientists, including Stow, have said it wouldn't qualify.

"I can't guarantee anything beyond that, just like I can't guarantee an asteroid is not going to hit Earth tomorrow," said Blais. "I can tell you there is no plan, I would not support it, the mayor would not support it, there's no support on council to do it, the experts and scientists wouldn't recommend it, and even if they did, the project does not meet the criteria for the province to go ahead."

'There's actually no guarantee'

But the questions and the skepticism continued throughout the meeting.

Houle said in an interview afterward that Blais can't make guarantees because he may not be around much longer:

"There's an election next year with his position. We don't know what the future is going to hold," she said. "There is actually no guarantee that this land would not be redesignated as a wetland in the future."

Regarding the tone of the meeting, Houle said she thinks it shows Blais and the South Nation Conservation Authority "that there is a large majority of people against this project."

Residents filled a room at the Navan Memoral Arena to hear what officials had to say about the project and to voice their concerns. (Amanda Pfeffer)