By Robert Frank
The fate of Angell Woods could be decided by the courts, after agglomeration council voted, Jan. 29, in favour of changing the zoning of a large tract of overgrown Beaconsfield farmland from residential to conservation.
“Angell Woods is now permanently and officially protected as a regional park,” crowed Mayor Georges Bourelle in a statement, despite the fact that most of the land there is privately owned.
Bourelle told reporters that the matter must next be ratified by the Quebec government, which has 60 days to approve the new Agglo urban development plan.
“I’m pleased that a strong step has been taken to save the woods, but at the same time, it is never truly conserved while it remains in private hands,” demurred Beaconsfield Councilor Pierre Demers.
“It’s good news for people who want Angell Woods conserved,” he acknowledged, “but at the end of the day, this is a zoning change. The land itself is still very much privately owned and will remain so until a fair price is mutually agreed upon.”
“There has been a lot of discussion of willing buyers,” Demers told The Suburban. “Now we need willing sellers.”
He added that Beaconsfield had, for 30 years, resisted the temptation to rezone because of the cost of defending the move before the courts. Now, the city is relying on Montreal’s much deeper pockets to shield it from litigation.
According to Diana Shahmoon, who represents one of the largest landowners, Seda Holdings, the dispute could long ago have been settled amicably. She observed that the Agglo’s rezoning measure has dramatically undermined the market value of property that, for more than a half-century, had been zoned—and taxed—as developable.
“Illegally taking my assets is no less an act of theft just because it is done by the government, and this designation will condemn all of us to a lengthy and costly legal fight in order to protect my property rights,” she warned.
Shahmoon reminded The Suburban that in 2011, Beaconsfield paid a company to come up with several sustainable development scenarios.
“Each called for compromise,” she said, “a mix of conservation of the most ecologically valuable sections along with some tasteful development.”
“This kind of compromise would have allowed the municipal government to acquire the land justly, offsetting the cost of buying the conservation at fair market value. It is unfortunate that Beaconsfield and Montreal have chosen to turn their backs on their own studies in favor of designating Angell Woods for near-total conservation.”
The rezoning would permit the Agglo to achieve its goal of conserving 10 per cent of the land on the island.
Although the Agglo paid princely prices last year—$7.8 million, or up to $36.80 per square metre—to turn two tiny downtown parking lots into parks, it remains allergic to allocating similar sums to buy huge swathes in the island’s demerged cities like Beaconsfield.
A year ago, Bourelle denied that the Agglo had advised him to buy up boxed-in bits of Angell Woods in order to establish a low price when the time came to bid for the more lucrative larger landholdings.
He told The Suburban that Angell Woods would not even be on the agenda of the January 2014 council meeting. Two weeks later, it was, and council passed the first of several resolutions to acquire hemmed-in patches from various smallholders.
Beaconsfield subsequently squeezed the main private landowners in section 4 of the bylaw that it passed last year, on the pretext of protecting trees from destruction by the emerald ash borer (EAB). It contains special provisions and penalties for owners of “private forests”.
Bourelle added that its aggressive EAB eradication bylaw will apply to Angell Woods, despite its pending conservation status and that nature will not be allowed to take its course there.
“The private owners are responsible to abide by the bylaws of the community,” he told reporters following the Jan. 26 city council meeting. “The issue is price, let’s face it.”