Emotions flared at city hall Thursday evening as a packed room of residents voiced their concerns about a proposed housing development at the Synod West Wetlands.
Citizens’ major concerns included worries that losing the wetland area would increase risk of flooding in the neighborhood, increase traffic, and reduce the value of their homes, among other concerns.
The development would see a 95-lot subdivision cover the 7.1 hectares of wetland near Penney Crescent in the east end of St. John’s. Approval of the proposal would mean the wetland designation would be revoked to allow development to proceed.
A recent report conducted by the City of St. John’s and CBCL Ltd. recommended removing the wetland protection from the land, and city council agreed to consider this.
The city has identified the need to do a proper wetland assessment, and I would suggest the city do that before we start telling people they can destroy the wetlands that exist. The current municipal plan that the city follows right now still identifies that as a significant wetland.”
St. John's resident Jan Woodford
At Thursday night’s hearing, St. John’s resident Jan Woodford argued city council has more work to do before making such a decision.
“The city has identified the need to do a proper wetland assessment, and I would suggest the city do that before we start telling people they can destroy the wetlands that exist,” she said. “The current municipal plan that the city follows right now still identifies that as a significant wetland,” she added, as citizens gathered for the hearing applauded.
The portion of the wetland being considered for development is currently owned by the Anglican Church. The church is not involved, other than having an agreement for sale to the developer upon rezoning, should the proposal obtain approval.
The application dates back to 1999. In October 2016, it was recommended that the proposal have a public hearing to allow public input. The developer, Powderhouse Hill’s Bill Clarke, opted to go for the public hearing before council makes its decision on the proposal, on the recommendation of then-environmental committee chair Art Puddister.
Clarke says this application process is the most thorough review he’s ever been involved with.
“I know it’s an emotional issue, that the neighborhood would like to keep the open space and green space, but I guess that has to be weighed against what the economic value is and what’s the best thing for the city,” said Clarke.
But Woodland said she thinks the current housing market is already a concern.
“The Association of Newfoundland and Labrador Realtors says the oversupply of homes on the market remains historically elevated,” she said. “The end of November, there were 4,163 houses on the market in St. John’s. Do we really need another 95?”
Representatives with the organizations Ducks Unlimited and The Northeast Avalon Atlantic Coastal Action Program (NAACAP) also brought forward concerns with the proposed development.
Rick Comerford spoke on behalf of the local Ducks Unlimited chapter.
“We see… the most important functions of the Anglican Synod Wetland probably as flood mitigation,” he said, emphasizing that if the city had a comprehensive wetland policy it “would eliminate the need for this sort of a debate whenever a project impacting wetlands is proposed.”
NAACAP Chair Nicholas White also stressed the need for a wetland policy.
“We see… the most important functions of the Anglican Synod Wetland probably as flood mitigation.”
— Rick Comerford, Ducks Unlimited
Deputy Mayor Sheilagh O’Leary says a policy will be proposed in the coming months to give consistency to how the city treats wetlands. She says this would make things clearer for the city, residents and developers about where they can and cannot develop.
Another resident, Robert Leeman, appealed directly to the several councilors in attendance at the hearing, saying he asked many of them whether they agreed with the development back when they were campaigning during the election. He says they all told him they were opposed.
“I want to remind those people on council when it comes time to vote on this — don’t forget what you told me,” he said, as the room erupted with cheers.
Meanwhile, Clarke says he hopes councillors will consider the various reports conducted on the area over the past few years, which found no red flags for the environment or traffic issues.
“I hope that when the time comes that the report goes back to council and the councilors, that a deep breath is taken and the scientific facts — the reports that we’ve presented here this evening — be looked at in a fair and equitable position so that our application is given a fair chance to be approved.”
But residents continue to voice their concerns outside of Thursday’s hearing, with more than 700 online signatures for a Change.org petition asking council to reject the application.