A comparison of Google Earth satellite images from 2014 and CBC drone footage taken on Nov. 15, 2023, of a four-hectare private property along the Ottawa River that was cleared to make way for a house. (Google Earth/CBC News)
An Ottawa couple says it doesn't make environmental sense for a woodlot next door to be clear cut through a sensitive floodplain, and the grade raised three metres, without anyone having to submit a building application or grading and drainage plan.
In Ottawa's vast rural boundary, you can clear cut privately owned woods on entire lots, even through floodplains and shorelines, without a permit.
You can also dump clean fill, significantly altering the grade of a lot and how water drains from it, before having to submit a building application and a grading and drainage plan.
It all seems a little backward to Goutam Shaw, who lives on a peninsula along the Ottawa River in Cumberland, as he watches it unfold on a private property next door.
About four hectares of woods were clear cut up to the water and truckloads of dumped fill have raised the grade outside the floodplain by about three metres, Shaw said — all without documented plans or permits.
Gita Chowdhury, left, and Goutam Shaw are concerned about the private parcel of land next to them being clear cut and regraded with hundreds of dumps of fill, which they say disrupts the environment and drainage of neighbouring properties. (Michel Aspirot/CBC)
"Rural areas [are] like a free-for-all. It's a wild west … nobody has any teeth," Shaw said. "Why [can people] do this kind of carnage and damage to the environment, and without any kind of consequences?"
With the hundreds of trees and other vegetation that absorbed water no longer there, Shaw and his wife Gita Chowdhury say more water ends up pooled on their property.
Even in the height of this past summer, Chowdhury said she couldn't walk through their woods to the shoreline because some parts of the path were in knee-deep water.
The city councillor said it's "frustrating" and the Rideau Valley Conservation Authority said the work has environmental consequences. Neither said rules were broken.
A bulldozer sits behind two felled trees on a lot in Cumberland along the Ottawa River last week. (Michel Aspirot/CBC)
'Where is the city?'
Shaw raised his concerns during an Oct. 3 committee of adjustment meeting about a minor variance request for the property. City planner Lucas Teeft said the trees weren't covered by the city's tree protection bylaw, "so there's nothing that can be done there, unfortunately."
"The issues with grading would be addressed in the building permit, which I believe hasn't been submitted yet," Teeft also said.
A perplexed Shaw later asked: "If the grading is already happening for one year, where is the city to make sure that it is done right?"
The city's site alteration bylaw states no one can change the flow of storm, rain, ground, surface or subsurface water in a way likely to negatively affect neighbouring properties, including by altering the grade of a lot.
City drainage staff believe there has been no violation of the bylaw at the property, "and no further action by the city is warranted," natural systems planner Amy MacPherson wrote in an email to CBC.
Shaw told CBC he was informed by officials that his only recourse is through court action.
'Quite frustrating,' councillor says
Orléans East-Cumberland Coun. Matt Luloff, who recently visited the lot, said that what struck him most "is that a site could be altered to this degree in absence of a planning application."
While it's legal, Luloff said, "for someone like me who believes in doing our best to protect this sort of natural heritage system, I find it quite frustrating as well."
The situation exposes a regulatory gap that city staff are working on, the councillor said, likening it to the clearcutting of trees at the future Tewin development.
In an emailed statement, senior forester Martha Copestake said the city is exploring possible changes to the site alteration bylaw to protect "natural heritage features in rural areas" and address regulatory gaps.
A report outlining those proposed changes is scheduled to go before the agriculture and rural affairs committee on Nov. 30.
As it turns out, those proposed changes — if approved — wouldn't address Shaw's concerns, according to the conservation authority. They would only apply to natural heritage features identified in the city's official plan, and the Cumberland properties sit right next to a significant wetland and natural heritage system core area.
Because the peninsula is in Ottawa's vast rural boundary, no tree removal permit was required. (Michel Aspirot/CBC)
'This is not our first build,' landowner says
The clearcut lot is owned by local highrise developer Carmine Zayoun, who said he's planning to build a forever home for him and his parents.
He stressed that he's not breaking any rules and is "going to apply for the regular permits" to hopefully get shovels in the ground next year.
"This is not our first build … I'm responsible for many projects that are being built in the city right now with regards to highrise projects and my job is construction," he said.
"I don't make the rules, I just try to follow them as best as I can."
Zayoun acknowledged the grade has been changed, but said a subcontractor filed a notice about dumping clean fill on the site with the proper authority out of an abundance of caution and the city needs places to dump fill.
As for clear cutting the lot, Zayoun said he needed room for a well and septic system, adding there weren't a lot of healthy trees on the site and he plans to plant some new trees, including apple trees.
He said Shaw is trying to get back at him for not paying for a damaged dock and shared laneway.
Shaw insists that's not the case.
"This is nothing against him, this is against the process of the city," Shaw said.
Conservation authority doesn't regulate this
Clear cutting trees "obviously" affects a landscape's ability to store and retain water, said Glen McDonald, the conservation authority's director of planning and watershed science.
The authority has no power to regulate trees in a floodplain, which is dictated by the province.
Situations like this show how challenging it can be to balance the rights of rural property owners with best environmental practices, McDonald said.
"It's a very sensitive situation in terms of what a landowner thinks they want to do on their property, and then what's best in terms of protecting the river and water quality."