Limited construction approved for “protected” woodland

Paul Wicks points to debris he says neighbours dump on his property at 834 Lakeshore Rd. Sarnia has rejected Wicks’ proposal to develop six housing lots on the lakefront land. With him is realtor Mario Fazio. Cathy Dobson

Cathy Dobson

A local developer who wants to build six executive-style houses on a protected woodland says he’s reluctantly crunching the numbers to see if four will work.

Paul Wicks says he’s “totally frustrated” that council voted 5-4 to reduce his development to four houses on a 1.3 hectare (3.3 acre) wooded tract zoned for residential use along Lakeshore Road.

“I’m pretty much done with the city,” he said.  “They don’t want to do business.”

Wicks said he’s already spent $1.6 million to purchase the land, another $130,000 or so to complete numerous studies and he pays about $17,000 a year in taxes on it.

He said he had hoped to use the revenue from two of his lots at 834 Lakeshore Rd. to pay for the hundreds of trees he’s required to replace. Without it, he’s not sure the proposal is feasible, he said.

“But we’re going to try to make it work. To be honest, I’m getting tired of the fight on that property.”

Wicks’ attempts to develop the woodland have dragged on for years.

The property was designated as a protected natural area by the city in 2016, before he bought it. A large number of black oak grow there that are only found in southern Ontario and it’s an important flyway used by migrating birds. But Wicks said he was not made aware of the designation and it was not registered on the deed.

His initial proposal to build six houses was rejected outright in 2018 by council. On Sept. 14, Wicks returned with a similar plan and came away with approval for four houses. That was after he committed to replace trees that are axed with twice as many native species wherever the city wants them. Wicks also has to sell to “eco-friendly” buyers willing to sign an agreement to maintain the trees.

Council’s support for four houses was called a compromise by some councillors.

But that’s not how the neighbours and other objectors see it.

“I realize that council was trying to find some middle ground but this decision to allow construction violates the protection of woodland in our community,” said Peter Lynch who lives next door.

“This goes well beyond NIMBY (Not In My Back Yard).  My concern is both my backyard and protecting the significant woodlands in Sarnia,” he said.

Since council rejected Wicks’ proposal in 2018, a new council was elected and new staff at city hall reversed the planning department’s earlier position to turn Wicks down.

Stacey Forfar, the new general manager of planning, defended her recommendation to support development saying the woodland is in an urban setting, building houses on it is an “infill” project and the area is designated for growth. The St. Clair Conservation Authority doesn’t disagree “outright,” she said.

“The irony is that because it is residential zoning, it is not protected and could be clearcut.”

A subdivision agreement with Wicks can at least protect the rest of the site, said Forfar.

It was Coun. Mike Starks’ idea to approve building on the woodlot with a reduction in the number of houses.

Six lots will negatively impact the area, said Stark. But allowing four partially accommodates the developer and “cleans up” an area that Stark said is “run down.”

In a recorded vote, councillors voted 4-4 to support four houses with Mayor Mike Bradley breaking the tie with a vote in favour.

Wicks’ plans will be reviewed again in public if and when he returns with a subdivision agreement.