Council votes against precedent of reimbursing engineering and legal fees

Pembroke -- A property owner in Head, Clara and Maria (HCM) is not happy with the expenses he incurred while trying to sever lots for his sons and recently asked Renfrew County council to reimburse him $3,890 for studies and lawyer fees.

His request was denied recently at council, with the sole person voting in favour being HCM Mayor Debbi Grills.

“Decisions on developing property and creating new homes are crucial in the smallest of municipalities like mine and in the largest as well and they bring in a lot of questions to council,” she noted prior to the vote.

Ernie Villeneuve Jr., who was deputy mayor of the municipality, was asking the county for a partial reimbursement of the cost for his severance applications. He asked for reimbursement of the engineering study, noting no other property owner on the road needs to do an engineering study before they build.

“Head, Clara and Maria is pro-development of new housing and encourages new builds in the municipality,” he wrote. “It seems that Renfrew County Planning is not pro-development, preferring to quote from an Official Plan which ignores the needs of a small municipality like HCM which up until recently was allowing residences to be built on property with no year-round road access and rural lots of half acre in size.”

The requirements of the zoning by-law and what the Official Plan mandated also was contradictory, he noted.

“This engineering study while maybe important in other areas of the county was certainly not required for this severance package and was in my opinion (and others) a waste of money,” he said. “A site visit may have aided in county decisions but to my knowledge never occurred nor did anyone actually have an in-person meeting with me.”

In a detailed correspondence with the county, which was included with the background information for all members of council, he noted his initial request to sever three lots became very costly and a lengthy process. When seeing it would be impossible to do three lots because of even more studies which included a hydrogeological assessment, he ended up severing two lots. This was because the recommendation by the county is for new rural lots to be 2.5 acres or one hectare with 45 metres of frontage. Smaller lots must have a hydrogeological study.

“The simple act of gifting my boys some property has to date cost me: $2,200 for application fees; $3,390 for an engineering study; $6,780 for surveying; $1,478 for attorney fees, all totaling $13,848,” Mr. Villeneuve wrote. “I will state that all of my correspondence with county personnel was professional and polite; the issue is the lack of what I consider to be common-sense and an Official Plan that stipulates a lot of unnecessary steps.

“I am asking that Renfrew County reimburse me for the cost of my Planning Justification and Aggregate Impact Study in the amount of $3,390.00 tax included. I also request to be reimbursed $500 of my attorney fees for preparing the Consent Agreement since it does not differ in content from what I submitted,” he said.

His request was brought forward to county council from the committee level with the recommendation to not approve the reimbursement of the fees. Prior to the vote, Mayor Grills spoke in favour of his request.

“We are in the people business,” she noted. “Every decision we make affects people, no matter what committee we sit on.”

Many of the planning issues came to candidates during the election, she added. She spoke to one family who was able to have the secondary dwelling allowance now who can have a dwelling for an elderly father, but she was told if they could not do it, they would do it anyway.

In dealing with Mr. Villeneuve, she said he had to pay for a study for the application which he felt was not necessary since other properties adjacent did not have to do a similar engineering study.

“He feels the process is flawed,” she said.

She said she did support the reimbursement request.

In his correspondence to the county, Mr. Villeneuve expressed his frustration with the process.

“In summary, a simple request to sever five acres from my 20-acre property has taken over a year to get where we are (the requirements for two studies) in order for this to proceed,” he wrote. “Having to have two studies done to enjoy what my neighbours already have seems ridiculous, especially since the property is posted for severance, the neighbours have been contacted for concerns, HCM council has approved, MTO has approved, HCM Public Works have approved and in the final stretch planning says ‘no, you need more paperwork’. I find this whole process to be extremely frustrating to say the least.”

Setting Precedent

Laurentian Hills Mayor Jed Reinwald questioned if this is normal protocol and if fees have been reimbursed in the past.

CAO Craig Kelley said there have been requests for the waiving of fees which have mostly been denied.

“We have heard the concerns before, but we have not been asked for a reimbursement,” he said.

“It is actually a payment to a public member,” he stressed.

Warden Debbie Robinson pointed out the reimbursement was not for fees that were paid to the County of Renfrew.

Admaston/Bromley Mayor Michael Donohue said he was concerned this would set a “Villeneuve precedent” for other applicants asking for fees to be paid.

“You don’t start down this road and not have a lot of individuals who have found planning processes frustrating that will be knocking on the door and sending correspondence,” he said.

It would be “memorable” if it was approved, he said. This sets a precedent which future councils would refer to as the new way of doing things, he said.

“That was way back in 2022 when the council decided that was a good idea,” he speculated future councils would state.

At the same time, Mayor Donohue said he was sympathetic to Mr. Villeneuve. The process of development is a challenge, and he wanted to gift property to his sons.

“Gifting is simple. Creating the gift is complicated,” the mayor said. “If the gift does not exist it is terribly complicated.”

There is a long-standing policy of 3+2 in terms of consent application, he pointed out. The report shows this would be eight severances. This shows the property has significantly exceeded the five severances, which drove the need for the justification report. The divergence of the zoning by-law and the new official plan which requires a larger land holding was part of the frustration, he acknowledged.

“The Official Plan has standing and it takes some time for the enacting through the zoning by-law amendments to make them consistent, so I certainly understand that frustration,” he said.

Mr. Villeneuve was able to get two severances, not the three he initially requested, he said.

Arnprior Councillor Dan Lynch questioned if Mr. Villeneuve was aware of all the requirements before he undertook the severance process. He was told he had been made aware.

Debbi Christinck, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Eganville Leader