Sandy Casselman 
Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

EMBRUN – Once again, a final decision on the township of Russell’s Heritage Conservation District (HCD) has been put on hold.

During the May 17 council meeting, director of planning, building and economic development Dominique Tremblay recommended municipal politicians approve the implementation of the HCD plan following the appeal period.

In addition, she asked council to approve a Community Improvement Plan (CIP) program for the HCD to offset Heritage Impact Assessment (HIA) costs for affected property owners.

“I’m super proud of what we’re presenting tonight,” Tremblay said, noting the lengths staff went to address resident concerns.

She said heritage permits would be covered under the cost of a regular building permit, while the CIP program, if approved by council, would address most HIA costs. She said small projects would go through staff and larger ones through council. If a property owner is unhappy with a decision, they have the right to appeal to council. If they are still unhappy, they can appeal to the Local Planning Appeal Tribunal (LPAT).

“We feel, at the planning department, this is the best way of managing change in the township of Russell. We’ve tailored our HCD in a way that addresses concerns. It’s not super strict,” Tremblay said, noting there’s leeway within the plan.

Mayor Pierre Leroux thanked Tremblay and her team for their hard work and professionalism on this project. The project was first introduced roughly six years ago.

“When I talk to a lot of new residents and why they moved here, they always talk about the feel of the village and the history,” Leroux said. “We’ll have 200 homes changing ownership within this year if it continues down this road. I have heard of developers buying properties next to one another to build multi-unit buildings, which is okay, but in the HCD it is managed. So, it will contribute to the area instead of stick out like a sore thumb.”

Noting the polarizing nature of the project, Coun. Jamie Laurin said he remained opposed to the project. However, should the HCD be approved, he seconded a motion by Leroux requiring the CIP program be implemented at the same time. This amendment was unanimously approved.

Councillor Mike Tarnowski said he remained uncomfortable with the plan in its current capacity, noting he might be open to it if it covered a much smaller area. He said his concern was with resident comments.

“There’s a lot of uncertainty,” he said. “By starting smaller, we would have found out any kinks and dealt with them on a much smaller scale. So, I’m not sure if there’s any issues or not. I think we’re taking some control away from residents who live in that community to benefit the majority of residents.”

Tremblay said when the project began in 2015, the intent was to start small, but the council of the day felt it wouldn’t be worth doing if it didn’t cover a larger area. As more research was done, she said the area to be protected under the HCD increased. She said the plan, once passed, can be amended by council-led resolution or bylaw. The plan won’t hinder minor changes, she said, but it will protect against large changes like demolition. Leroux said without the HCD, the municipality has no tools in its toolbox to prevent unwanted changes.

“Staff have put steps in place to give people options and a process to follow should they disagree,” Leroux said, adding that most worries about the HCD are for things that will never happen. “Someone sells their house. It gets torn down. It was a heritage property, and we lose it. I think this is something worth protecting.”

Councillor André Brisson, who previously voted in favour of the project alongside Leroux and Coun. Cindy Saucier, said he was not sure he could support the project. In addition to agreeing with Tarnowski’s comments, Brisson said newer builds can be much nicer than heritage homes.

“I find it ironic, Coun. Brisson. I respect what you’re saying, and you have every right to say it,” Laurin said. “We’ve spent over $100,000 on this to try to convince you, but now you’re not convinced by it. You’re on the fence. At least with me, I’ve been consistent all this time.”

CAO Jean Leduc suggested deferring the decision if council members felt they needed more time. Saucier said she attended all meetings, read all relevant data, and she was ready to vote in favour, but if her colleagues needed more time, she would rather move to defer the decision, than see it off the table. Tarnowski said he did not need more time unless there was an option to come back with an amended plan for a much smaller protected area.

Leroux said there is a vocal minority, but a silent majority. He suggested the potential for adding the question to the election ballot next year. Laurin agreed, noting that some residents had also suggested the ballot idea.

With a motion on the table to defer the decision until the August council meeting, Tarnowski, Laurin, Saucier, and Leroux voted in favour, while Brisson voted against. Tremblay was instructed to work on reducing the geographic area of the proposed HCD, while the clerk was asked to research the election ballot idea.