Sandy Casselman 
Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

EMBRUN – For now, several residents in the township of Russell have been successful in stopping council approval of a zoning by-law amendment for multi-unit housing in their neighbourhood.

During the April 19 council meeting, director of planning, building and economic development Dominique Tremblay recommended a “zoning by-law amendment for blocks 97-98 and 99 on Plan 50R-353 from ‘Residential One A’ to ‘Residential Three – exception 51’ to permit construction of apartment buildings and to limit the maximum permitted height on the subject property to 12 metres, and not more than three storeys.” She noted in her report that the properties in question were part of phase 8b of the planned subdivision for the Russell Trail Project, which was registered on Feb. 4.

“Why does the board want this type of residence in this area? Other than affordable housing and tax income for the towns, I can’t see any benefits for the town to pass this,” Russell resident Paul Brown said at a public meeting late last month.

The report submitted by Tremblay included resident comments from a recent Planning Advisory Committee meeting on March 29 that was open to the public, as well as those sent via email. Residents also joined the question period during the April 19 council meeting. More than one resident wanted to know how the new buildings would benefit Russell residents.

“I’m not certain how to answer that,” Tremblay said during the March 29 meeting. “Our mandate is to ensure that we offer all types of development and all types of density and those blocks are meeting the guidelines set in the provincial policy statement and our Official Plan, which is guiding growth for the next 20 years. So as the township grows, this is more the type of development that we will see based on the provincial policy to ensure that we are investing and building where existing infrastructure is and to make sure that we offer all forms of buildings in the township.”

Tremblay said the builder is looking at three to four storeys and, according to the Official Plan, the density is 36 units per hectare. She said they will be apartment blocks, but she is unsure at this point whether they will be condominiums or rental apartments.

“I have lived in apartments for low-income families and when I was younger, I would recall that my neighbours of single home dwellings put bars in their windows and at times felt that they were threatened. This may not be our case, but it is a potential. Has the municipality planned anything for this potential future?” asked Russell resident Paul Magallanes during the March 29 meeting.

A few residents were concerned their property values would go down with the addition of multi-unit buildings to the neighbourhood. Tremblay said, while she does not assess property values, she does believe that adding multi-unit dwellings will negatively impact existing properties. Alix Jolicoeur said the data available does not show any substantial impact on property values.

“An argument I’ve heard in favour of the proposal is that it will create lower-cost housing,” Russell resident Bruce Smith said in an email. “While I sympathize with the plight of those looking to purchase in today’s real estate market, it should not be up to us to lose quality in our neighbourhood in order to accommodate more affordable multi-unit complexes. Those units should instead be built where current zoning allows for their construction, which allows for affordable housing to be built without back-tracking on existing plans that were presented to my family, and many others, before we purchased our homes.”

Most residents who voiced opposition had similar concerns. For instance, they wanted to know if the infrastructure would be upgraded to accommodate the extra water usage and road traffic. School systems at capacity were also mentioned. One of the recurring themes was property values and whether the premium lots they paid for would depreciate when rental apartments were erected. Several of the email letters were copied and used by multiple residents, each one ending with a threat to not vote for current council members in the next election should they approve the recommendation.

“It lowers the value of our community,” Russell resident Marley Ransom said in an email. “Russell has a reputation for its natural setting and quality of life. We’re a small town and we love it that way. There’s room to play, be active, and enjoy our expansive environment. This rezoning is a mockery of what we have come to be known for and if this is implemented, the township should start re-writing the ‘Why live here’ on the municipality’s website. Our area will become crammed with people who will overwhelm every facet of our community and will lack residents who take pride in being a part of a small village.”

During the April 19 council meeting, there were many varying opinions, some focused on resident complaints and some focused on the fact that the blocks in question had already been designated for multi-unit housing back in 2010.

“This isn’t a new request,” Coun. Jamie Laurin said. “This is a request that mirrors the application for subdivision agreement that’s already been signed and approved by council, an Official Plan amendment that’s already been put into place, and the draft plan of the subdivision that was done back in 2010.”

It appeared from the many resident comments that the potential for the inclusion of low-income housing was an issue. Mayor Pierre Leroux pointed out that the United Counties of Prescott and Russell use a rent subsidy system whereby those in need can rent any apartment anywhere and receive a subsidy to help pay for it. There is no longer a push for an entire building or area to be designated low-income housing. Tremblay pointed out that the municipality is provincially mandated to have all types of housing available.

A few politicians were concerned about resident claims that they had not been told at the time of purchase that these blocks were zoned for multi-unit dwellings. Leroux explained that it is the developer’s obligation to have a map of the subdivision in the model home outlining the plan, and it is the buyer’s responsibility to make sure they read all the paperwork before they buy a property.

“Any purchaser who had taken the time to contact the township to ask would have been provided with this information,” Leroux said. Tremblay confirmed this, adding that this would be true for anyone buying in 2010 or after.

The potential for the builder to make an appeal through the Local Planning Appeal Tribunal Act was also mentioned. Laurin noted that if they chose to do so, the builder could file an appeal down the road and potentially win the right to put in five-storey buildings rather than the three-storey buildings in Tremblay’s recommendation. It was also noted that soil testing could potentially rule out higher storey buildings, but the results are not yet in.

Councillor Mike Tarnowski put forth a motion to defer the decision until they had more information about the type of multi-units being built in the area. Coun. Cindy Saucier seconded the motion. Tarnowski called for a recorded vote. Tarnowski, Saucier, and Coun. André Brisson voted in favour of deferring the decision. Laurin and Leroux voted against the deferral. The recommendation has been put on hold until plans for the proposed building are submitted and reviewed against compatibility criteria.