Time to Get Tough with Developers?

Bullying has been in the news a lot lately. What can we learn from the outrageous behaviour of Bremont Homes Inc, concerning their Forest Edge (how ironic!) housing development? The details have been widely described in the local press. This development project has a long history beginning with a Draft Plan and Zoning Bylaw Amendment in 2005. This was followed by a Draft Plan of 37 lots approved “with conditions” by the Town in 2009. A Draft Plan of 35 lots was subsequently approved “with conditions” by Simcoe County in 2012.

One of the conditions imposed was a “5 metre tree preservation buffer where no cutting of trees or lot grading is permitted”. Regardless, according to a press report,

“In mid-July, Bremont distributed letters to affected homeowners, which provided notification that some tree line clearing would be taking place over the course of a few weeks. Then in mid-August, the County of Simcoe issued a stop work order on the property, and fined Bremont $300 for harvesting trees in a woodland/sensitive natural area without a valid permit.”

(Tree cutting ‘mistake’ upsets residents, Innisfil Scope, Sep 12, 2012)

Bremont offered a slew of excuses:

  • “Bremont representatives suggest a surveying mistake was made”
  • “Those trees were on our property; our permit was in transition”
  • “the mistake was not really something we deliberately did”
  • “We were cutting to get engineering perspective” (say what?!)
  • “We had concerns about whether this was attainable to provide a reasonable backyard and buffer”
  • “We also need to fit stormwater management into that backyard”
  • “stormwater management … will not be achievable if we have the five metre buffer”

What’s their solution? “Bremont is now seeking permission to remove the trees, re-grade the land, and install a four-meter re-vegetated buffer, that would include a [20 cm. deep] drainage swale” [i.e. – a grassy depression in the ground]. Besides significantly altering the landscape, Bremont now wants to add a 1.8 metre (6 ft) privacy fence at the property line. Adding insult to injury, Bremont is asking to survey neighbouring properties for permission to remove any trees on the proposed fence line.

Tut, tut, says Bremont. The trees “were within the ‘footprint’ of the new subdivision and would have been felled anyway once the proper permit was obtained”. The existing mature trees are in “mid to poor condition” and “aren’t going to survive the construction very well.”  (i.e. – we were going to kill them off one way or another anyway)

The town’s manager of land use planning, Tim Can, said drainage concerns remained …. “even working with the developer to reduce front yard setbacks to allow the homes to be moved forward, and agreeing to a narrower-than-usual road allowance.” Blame it on our car-driven commuter lifestyle:

“The major concern is building homes of “marketable unit size”, and still providing a usable backyard. [The developer] noted that two-car garages — preferred by buyers — push the homes further back on the properties. “Even the smaller unit types, the depth is generally consistent.”

(Concerns about tree cutting continue to grow with residents, Innisfil Examiner, Sep 20, 2012)

How is Bremont able to bulldoze its way through all of the planning and zoning restrictions to cut trees illegally and propose replacing a natural, unaltered 5 metre tree buffer with a smaller 4 metre, graded, fenced and landscaped buffer? How do we prevent it from happening again? Here are a few ideas:

Developer pre-qualification

Maybe a background check needs to be conducted as part of any development application. Has the developer ever acted illegally? What fines have been imposed anywhere in the past 10 years? How often has the developer sought plan or zoning amendments to an already approved plan? What commitment can it demonstrate to environmentally responsible development?

Stricter zoning review

It boggles the mind. How did Bremont’s proposal ever receive approval when units of ‘marketable size’ cannot fit on the existing property ‘footprint’? When was anyone going to notice? Wouldn’t the sensible thing be to shrink the development to fit the existing ‘footprint? When was anyone going to notice that the development involved a trade-off between a ‘useable backyard’ and a functional storm drainage? Shouldn’t prior Town approval be obtained for any material change to the development plan?

Residents’ Site Plan Committee

Since the planning dept. doesn’t seem to ask enough of the right questions, perhaps residents adjoining any development property should be invited, prior to planning approval, to conduct its own review of a development proposal where pertinent details about preservation, buffers, grading, fencing, drainage, lot sizes etc. can be determined. The review should lead to a formal, legally binding agreement between existing affected residents and the new development.

Stricter penalties, personal liability

Would the tree cutting have been prevented with much heavier automatic fines? Residents called the $300 fine nothing but a license. Should the developer and the contracted tree cutter both be held liable? Should the principals of the development company be held individually and personally liable?

Violation = automatic cancellation

Any illegal activity that violates the zoning approval should result in the automatic cancellation of all zoning approval and building permits.

Public censure

Illegal activity by a developer needs to be made known to other jurisdictions. Violations and fines should be reported to other Ontario municipalities through the Ontario Association of Municipalities. Bremont Homes Inc. has filed a development proposal with the City of Brampton to rezone agricultural land for the construction of 15 residential units. That proposal includes a commitment for “preservation of valleyland”.  A meeting is scheduled in Brampton for December 5. Violations and poor corporate conduct should also be reported to builders’ and developers’ professional associations.

If legislative changes are needed at the county or provincial level, let’s get to it. The county has the option of taking the builder to court with the potential for a maximum fine of $50,000. Town Council has yet to decide if the existing trees can be cut down as requested by the developer.

Zoning By-law Amendment and Amendment of Draft Plan Condition
Public Meeting Presentation, Sep 19, 2012 (PDF)
includes maps and aerial photo


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