Lack of Environmental Assessment at the municipal level in Québec and Canada

Update: For more details about this story check out this article in the Vaudreuil-Soulanges Gazette: http://www.gazettevaudreuilsoulanges.com/2013/10/23/trees-an-election-issue-says-tpac-member/ and Nico Ahn’s response on his blog: http://nicoahn.ca/essays/2013/10/response-and-follow-up-to-the-article-trees-an-election-issue-says-tpac-member/

As a future environmental professional, I am already trying to get involved and gain experience in planning and assessment. I am currently appointed as a citizen member to the Advisory Committee on Urban Planning in the Town of Pincourt (Québec), which advises the town council on planning and land use topic. Planning Committees with citizen involvement (limited public participation) have been in place in the province of Québec in 1985 [1]. Through my involvement in this committee I was hoping to be able to make my town’s environment more sustainable for its citizens, however as I am noticing more clearly this is a very hard feat, as the municipal by-laws and provincial legislation do not provide any tools to further environmental protection and sustainable development in urban planning.

The role and mandate of the committee is to study projects at the discretion of the town council, and to study applications for certain projects and subsequently form recommendations to the town council. It should be noted that the committee has no actual decision-making power. [2]

See interactive map on Google Maps (http://goo.gl/maps/80rHL)

Figure 1: Development Site in Pincourt (QC). See interactive map on Google Maps (http://goo.gl/maps/80rHL)

The committee convenes whenever matters arise that require its attention. This summer, two projects were studied: the development of two hardware stores (Patrick Morin Inc. [3] and RONA [4, 5]) in a wooded area of the town, which separated the city’s residential areas from a major national rail (CN/CP) and road transportation corridor (Highway 20) (see figure 1 for an overview).

Different than my colleagues on the committee, with backgrounds in municipal politics and planning, I approach the committee’s topics differently. Having a background in environmental impact assessment and sustainability science, I see potential issues with these projects. I point out the loss of important ecosystem services, changes in local microclimates and other potential impacts that will potentially affect residents through increases in noise, air and light pollution [6, 7] that will have short and long term effects on the town’s citizens.

As the committee analysed the developments’ architectural and landscaping plans to make recommendations to the town council, I tried to recommend how these plans could be improved or adapted to reduce or mitigate some of these environmental impacts. Even when my fellow committee members agree with my suggestions, we end up not adding them to our resolution for the town council. The key issue is that there is no legal basis for the municipality to demand the developer to make changes to his project to reduce the impacts. Like in many other municipalities, the by-laws simply do not exist.

In the resolution for the RONA project in Pincourt, I managed “to suggest that the developer keep the undeveloped portions of his project wooded” [5]. The keyword here is “to suggest”. We had no legal basis for making this an obligation for the developer. While the land use planning legislation in Québec has provisions allowing municipalities protect forests [8], these are not enacted in Pincourt. Figure 2 shows the site after initial logging has taken place. On Google Maps StreetView you can see how the site looked pre-logging (http://goo.gl/maps/1qg9x).

Figure 2: Photograph of the site by Nico Ahn. Too see the way this site looked before looking visit Google Streetview (http://goo.gl/maps/1qg9x).

Figure 2: Panoramic photograph of the RONA site by Nico Ahn. Too see the way this site looked before looking visit Google Streetview (http://goo.gl/maps/1qg9x). Update: The wooded area on the left of the picture has now also been logged.

Everything that happened in Pincourt was legal; the forest was zoned commercially giving the developer licence to destroy the ecosystem. Current EIA laws and regulations in Québec do not require assessments for these types of commercial development projects; neither do municipal planning processes seem to account for the environmental impacts. While a development like a RONA and Patrick Morin may not have environmental impacts on a provincial or national scale, and thus may not be of concern at a Bureau d’audiences publiques sur l’environnement (BAPE; Québec) or the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency (CEAA) level, they do have impacts on a local or regional scale.

Taking these impacts into consideration could be improved by implementing EIA-like processes at the local and regional scale, similar to the way German local authorities can be the competent authorities for EIAs on local projects [9]. In Germany, the competent authority overseeing the EIA process is the municipal, regional, state (“Land”) or federal authority that is concerned with issuing the project permits [10, 11]. This ensures that assessments are dealt with at the scale where it is most relevant, thus taking a decentralized approach to impact assessment. The construction a parking lot larger than 1 ha, for example, requires a Federal EIA under German law, which would however be dealt with by a municipal planning authority (see the inclusion list in the appendix of the translated German EIA Act [12]).

In Canada or Québec, such a project would not require an EIA. And that makes sense the way the system is currently set up to work. If the CEAA or the BAPE were to conduct EIA reviews of every municipal project in Canada, nothing would ever get built, because these agencies would likely be backlogged. If municipalities and regions would be given the mandate, obligation and funding to oversee environmental assessments for local and regional projects, we would decentralize the EIA process and be deal with it at a more relevant scale. We could then also expand the list of projects requiring assessments. To ensure the quality of these EAs, the provincial and or federal agencies would take an auditing and advisory role. Public participation would also become even more relevant at such that scale [13].

However such processes are not in place in municipalities like Pincourt. Municipal development decisions lack of environmental assessment considerations in. In order to improve these trends I suggest two potential solutions:

  1. by-laws (and federal/provincial laws) need to be adapted to implement local and regional EIA processes and to give the municipalities more control over their environment, and
  2. as municipalities key motivation to continually develop their territory is to increase property tax revenues and not environmental conservation, the property tax system should be updated to place a value on ecosystem services [14, 7]. This would allow towns to gain tax revenue even from undeveloped land, which may not have an ‘economic value’ but an ‘environmental value’.

Bibliography

[1] Ministère des Affaires municipales, des Régions et de l’Occupation du territoire, “Planning and development powers in Québec,” 2010. [Online]. Available: http://www.mamrot.gouv.qc.ca/pub/amenagement_territoire/urbanisme/plan_development_powers_angl.pdf. [Accessed 28 September 2013].
[2] Ville de Pincourt, Règlement relatif au comité consultatif d’urbanism [N° 782], Pincourt: Ville de Pincourt, 2007.
[3] Patrick Morin Inc., “Patrick Morin s’installe à Pincourt,” 12 July 2013. [Online]. Available: http://www.patrickmorin.com/10-nouvelle-patrick-morin-s-installe-a-pincourt.html. [Accessed 03 October 2013].
[4] RONA Inc., “RONA Our Footprint,” 2013. [Online]. Available: http://www.rona.ca/corporate/corporate-responsibility. [Accessed 03 October 2013].
[5] Ville de Pincourt, “Résolution 2013-09-277,” in Procès-verbal (10 septembre 2013), Pincourt, Ville de Pincourt, 2013, p. 6794.
[6] P. Bolund and S. Hunhammar, “Ecosystem services in urban areas,” Ecological Economics, vol. 29, pp. 293-301, 1999.
[7] R. Costanza, R. d’Arge, R. d. Groot, S. Farberk, M. Grasso, B. Hannon, K. Limburg, S. Naeem, R. V. O’Neill, J. Paruelo, R. G. Raskin, P. Suttonkk and M. v. d. Belt, “The value of the world’s ecosystem services and natural capital,” Nature, vol. 387, pp. 253-260, 1997.
[8] Gouvernement du Québec, An Act respecting Land Use Planning and Development [RSQ, c. A-19.1], Éditeur officiel du Québec, 2013.
[9] M. Graggaber and W. Pistecky, “The implementation of the Environmental Impact Assessment on the basis of precise examples,” EU IMPEL, Nicosia, 2012.
[10] Niedersächsisches Ministerium für Umwelt, Energie und Klimaschutz, “Die Umweltverträglichkeitsprüfung,” 2013. [Online]. Available: http://www.umwelt.niedersachsen.de/portal/live.php?navigation_id=2531&article_id=8964&_psmand=10. [Accessed 05 October 2013].
[11] M. Sauer, “Report of Germany on the implementation of the convention on environmental impact assessment in a transboundary context,” United Nations Economic Commission for Europe, Geneva, 2010.
[12] Federal Republic of Germany, “Environmental Impact Assessment Act,” 2001-2004. [Online]. Available: http://www.bmu.de/fileadmin/bmu-import/files/pdfs/allgemein/application/pdf/uvpg.pdf.
[13] N. Munier, “EIA and Urbanization,” in Multicriteria Environmental Assessment, New York, Kluwer Academic Publishers, 2004, pp. 197-236.
[14] R. Janda and S. Kurtz, “Accounting for the new philanthropy,” 04 November 2011. [Online]. Available: http://www.theglobeandmail.com/life/giving/accounting-for-the-new-philanthropy/article4182642/. [Accessed 03 October 2013].
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