Aurora worries about precedent set at golf course project still awaiting approval
Jasmeet Sidhu - Staff Reporter - Toronto Star
The Town of Aurora has filed several charges against a development company and its two owners after claims that more than 100 trees were destroyed to make way for a golf course before it was approved by the Ontario Municipal Board.
The town says 118 trees, including ash, pine, cedar, maple and oak, were injured or destroyed in the area of Leslie St. and Bloomington Rd., without a permit.
A resident complained June 17, the city says. After an investigation, nine charges were filed against West Hill Redevelopment Company Ltd. and its principals Joe and Wilf Lebovic.
The allegations highlight a flaw in municipal and provincial regulations that often makes it cheaper for developers to pay fines for making unapproved land alterations and proceed with their projects, rather than go through years of applications and appeals.
The project in question was initially put forward almost 12 years ago and rejected by the town in 2008. That decision is being appealed before the OMB.
If convicted, the developers face a maximum fine of $100,000 for violating the town’s tree-cutting and zoning bylaws.
Aurora Mayor Phyllis Morris is outraged at the precedent this case sets for other developers.
“Once you cut down trees and the land is cleared, what’s left to a town council and a mayor who wants to have protected them? We believed in the moraine legislation; we believed the region’s tree-cutting bylaw, the town’s tree-cutting bylaw, and the TRCA (Toronto and Region Conservation Authority) oversight would have been sufficient to deter someone,” Morris says.
“We are concerned that if this becomes the normal practice, then doesn’t that negate a town trying to protect its environment? You just hope people would follow the rules.”
The project, an 18-hole golf course and 75-unit condominium complex on both sides of Leslie St. north of Bloomington Rd., has a long and complicated history with the town.
The property would fall under the provincial Oak Ridges Moraine Conservation Plan, but because the project dates back so far, it’s subject to the regulations in effect before the plan became law in 2001. The town says it will adversely affect ground aquifers and adjoining woodlots and wetlands. Many homes in Aurora use well water drawn from the deep aquifers below.
David Donnelly, a lawyer for Environmental Defence, a non-profit based in Toronto, says he has seen many cases where a developer is alleged to have altered land in advance of an OMB decision to quicken or circumvent the approvals process.
“It’s a rare occurrence but it happens commonly enough that I think we need to tighten the rules around altering subject properties,” Donnelly says.
“Cutting trees in advance of an Ontario Municipal Board hearing or a court process robs the decision-maker of the opportunity to hear a complete defence of the environment.
“Most importantly, it takes away from the public’s right to have the environmental laws that we have in place applied fairly.”
Maureen Carter-Whitney, research director at the Canadian Institute for Environmental Law and Policy, agrees: “I believe the penalty should be so high people aren’t willing the chance of committing these kind of offences. To me, it points out a huge flaw in the system.”
West Hill did not respond Thursday to numerous attempts by the Star to contact the company for comment. The corporation is expected to appear at a Newmarket court Monday.