In the picturesque Eastern Townships village of North Hatley, population 632, town council is promoting a 210-unit condominium complex it says is crucial to ensure the survival of a municipality with a heavy debt load and a shrinking population. They fear services like the post office and the anglophone elementary school, down to 62 students, are at risk of closing unless they can attract more residents.
They are being met with concerted opposition by residents who argue that sticking a multi storey housing project in the centre of a heritage town that could increase the population by 50 per cent will destroy the very essence that makes the village what it is.
Critics add that the housing project is slated to be built in what was until recently defined as a flood zone, putting the project and the town itself at risk.
“The town has given an agreement in principle (to the developer) to build 210 units in buildings four to five storeys in height in the middle of a village that is characterized by historic buildings that are two to three storeys high,” said Michael Grayson, a resident since 2003.
“We have been fighting this even before the agreement. We feel it goes totally against the character of the town.”
Developer Richard Laliberté started buying up property in 2012 in an area then designated as a flood zone, acquiring more than two acres of land, Grayson said. Laliberté submitted a proposal to build more than 200 residential units. The town granted an agreement in principle in 2014.
The following year, North Hatley had a new map of the flood zone area drawn up by a Sherbrooke consulting firm, which downgraded the risk of flooding indicated in previous maps. The local regional municipality of Memphrémagog approved the new map in 2015, despite allegations of inaccuracies brought forth by residents, who noted the area suffered heavy flooding in 1994.
Last Thursday, residents came to a public consultation held by the regional municipality for one of the final steps in the approval process of the condo project, a management plan for the North Hatley flood zone. Residents argued the plan was premature because it was based on inaccurate information regarding flood risks, particularly as it pertains to the rerouting of the Kezar stream. The development could cut off what once served as an overflow channel for Lake Massawippi, putting the project and the community at risk, Grayson said.
North Hatley Mayor Michael Page said the flooding issues have been addressed by the town and experts from Quebec’s environment ministry. Local opponents are using unfounded flooding threats to halt a development project they don’t agree with, he said. And while he said he understands their fears, the town has little choice.
“We are an ageing community and the more we are at risk of losing services, like the post office or the school, the harder it is for people to stay here year-round,” Page said.
North Hatley has been forced to upgrade its road and sewage system, as well as put in a costly water-purification plant recently to protect Lake Massawippi. The town has $9 million in debt, no industrial base, and only 430 households to pay taxes.
Bringing in an extra 200 residences would go a long way to help to pay down debt and ensuring schools and post offices stay open, Page said. Aging homeowners looking to downsize could move into condos, giving young families a place to buy.
Although a 50 per cent population boom sounds drastic, he said, it means the town would go from roughly 630 residents to about 900, meaning it would still be small. Page says town planners will ensure the condominium complex is not an eyesore and will not deter from the charm that brings thousands of tourists during the summer months.
“We will still remain a small town, but with a more dynamic core and more people involved in the towns,” Page said. “To me, adding 200 to 300 people would be an awesome help.”
In a town that is only three kilometres square, there is little other land available to support a housing project that will significantly boost the population. Five provincial government ministries are studying the proposal to ensure it will be a positive, he said.
“I feel that the people who work in those ministries are all experts in their fields — I don’t understand how they could all be wrong and getting it all ass-backwards. That’s what (residents who oppose the project) are saying. They’ll say anything because they don’t want to see any change, obviously.”
For residents like Grayson, however, it is the lack of impact studies, be they fiscal or environmental or on traffic, that is troubling. He supports more modest growth to bolster the town’s population, as well as discussing the possibility of merging with other municipalities or sharing services with them to offset costs.
“To put all your eggs in one basket and say building these condos will save this town is a very dangerous way to try and correct things,” he said. “Because it might bring worse problems.”