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Developer frustrated by city’s rejection of woodland homes

Cathy Dobson A local contractor who had planned to build six executive-style homes in a north Sarnia woodland is surprised and disappointed city council rejected the proposal in a 6-2 vote last week.
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 contractor who had planned to build six executive-style homes in a north Sarnia woodland is surprised and disappointed city council rejected the proposal in a 6-2 vote last week.

Paul Wicks said had the city agreed to allow lots in the 3.3 acres (1.3 hectares) between Lakeshore Road and Lake Huron, conditions would have been written into the title on each lot ensuring most of the trees were preserved.

“Nobody is listening. The city is putting far too much weight on what the neighbours say,” Wicks said after about 80 residents opposing the development packed a Nov. 5 public meeting at City Hall.

The woodland is designated as a natural area in Sarnia’s Official Plan, and when the neighbours learned Wicks had applied for an amendment to subdivide the property they launched a well-organized campaign.

They handed in an 80-name petition, spoke to the media and lobbied councillors.

Wicks said he regrets now he didn’t do the same.

He bought the property for $1.6 million in 2016 and says he didn’t know it had been designated a natural area. Nor did the seller know, he said.

“There was no notice and nothing on the deed.  I just think that’s unfair,” Wicks said. “I feel like we were blindsided.”

His plan was to replace the single cottage on the property with six homes ranging in price from $2.5 million on the lake to about $1 million fronting Lakeshore Road.

When he approached the city’s planning department he was informed he needed to do a series of studies to determine what, if any, rare or endangered plants or animals frequent the woodland. He had to prove development would not impact the natural heritage of the property.

Wicks said hiring the experts, including a biologist, to study the property for more than a year cost him about $100,000.

“I feel like I was given false hope by the planning department telling me to do all this stuff,” Wicks said. “The planner said if nothing was found we could move ahead with construction with council’s approval.”

Council rejected the proposal after a staff report concluded the significant woodland would be impacted by new housing.

An environment impact study found no endangered species or habitat for species at risk. A provincially threatened bird called a chimney swift was observed during one visit, but likely lived elsewhere, the report states.

The St. Clair Region Conservation Authority (SCRCA) said it wanted more discussion before determining the impact of development.

Consultants that did the environmental impact study said Wicks’ proposal wouldn’t negatively impact habitat for migrating birds and bats, but the SCRCA wanted to talk more about Wicks’ commitment to mitigation measures like replacing trees and stipulating no fences be allowed on the lots.

The SCRCA report said it is “generally supportive” of the mitigation measures agreed to by Wicks.

Based on the various studies and opinions city staff recommended council turn down the application.

Wicks said he has since received three calls from buyers interested in purchasing the entire lot. He is seeking advice from a London lawyer to determine his next move, but said selling the land undeveloped is his last choice.

Appealing council’s decision or approaching City Hall with a new proposal with fewer houses are options, he said.

“I’m not walking away. It’s personal now. We want to develop it.”

Wicks’ realtor Mario Fazio said developers often prefer dealing with St. Clair Township or Plympton-Wyoming.

“I’ve been selling new homes for 40 years and I can tell you this is why Sarnia isn’t growing,” Fazio said. “There seems to be no compromise.”

He said Wicks’ proposal was designed to “keep everyone happy” and included replacing trees removed for construction.

“This is private property we’re talking about and Paul wants to protect the woodland and leave most of the trees there,” Fazio said.

“We feel that the planning department never intended to recommend it. We wish they’d be more upfront.”

The two councillors who supported Wicks’ application were Coun. Cindy Scholten and Coun. Matt Mitro.

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