Moncton councillors rejected a plan to cover part of Rabbit Brook in the north end to allow a restaurant to expand its parking lot, with councillors calling it a precedent-setting vote on how the city approaches environmental issues.
The 6-3 vote means Skipper Jack's Maritime Restaurant on Mapleton Road can't expand its parking lot over the small waterway multiple people described as devoid of life.
"It's probably not over," owner Robert Holmes told reporters after the vote Monday.
Staff told councillors that the rejection would still require sorting out a tangled history of land and legal issues since there's a requirement the city provide the business six to eight parking spaces to replace some lost to a previous expropriation.
The debate over the request touched on the city's approach to parking and the environment.
City staff recommended rejecting the restaurant's plans to install a 40-metre culvert and cover the brook because it would violate Moncton policies around protecting waterways. The city's planning advisory committee also rejected the plan.
The plan required city approval to rezone the land from community use and conservation to suburban commercial.
"If we do something like that, where does it place all other conservation land in our community," Mayor Dawn Arnold said. "Nothing will be safe."
More than 30 objections to the plan and two letters of support were received ahead of the public hearing. Eight people spoke at Monday's meeting against the idea.
Holmes told council his business needed to expand the restaurant to add more seats to accommodate its customer base and deal with physical distancing rules implemented because of COVID-19.
"It's critical for our proposed changes to materialize" for the viability of the business," he said.
After the vote, however, Holmes said, "it doesn't mean anything for our business, we just have to go with what we have."
Ahead of the meeting, the Atlantic Wildlife Institute has suggested the brook was habitat for wood turtles. The species is listed federally and provincially as a species as risk.
Andrea Kalafut, an environmental engineer with Hive Engineering Ltd. hired by the restaurant, said a survey around the brook found no signs of turtles or fish.
"That is not suitable turtle habitat," Kalafut said.
Lindsay Gauvin, executive director of the Petitcodiac Watershed Alliance, told council that Rabbit Brook is one of the few cold water brooks in the watershed and with water quality improvements it could once again be a viable habitat.
Holmes at several points suggested the restaurant's plan would improve the health of the brook.
"That environment where Rabbit Brook is right now is very despicable," Holmes said, calling it a garbage-filled inhospitable hole.
The plan would have required federal and provincial environmental approvals, though Kalafut told councillors she had been verbally told that would be granted if council voted to allow the changes.
She said the brook above the business already runs through culverts under a strip mall and other parking lots before running through culverts under residential areas of the north end.
"For the most part, the damage has been done," Kalafut said.
Several speakers said that while they support the restaurant, they don't think its plan is appropriate.
"We have the chance today to be proactive to save the stream that we have," said Claire Kelly, who recently ran for the Green Party in Moncton Southwest, which includes the brook.
Antoine Zboralsk suggested people use other parking spaces already built in the neighbourhood. He said to continue increasing parking spots and keep the car central to life "is a strategy of the past, it's a strategy of the last century."
Arnold and councillors Pierre Boudreau, Susan Edgett, Blair Lawrence, Charles Leger, Paulette Theriault voted against allowing the rezoning.
Deputy mayor Shawn Crossman as well as councillors Brian Hicks and Bryan Butler voted for the restaurant's request. Coun. Paul Pellerin declared a conflict of interest and didn't vote.
"I think it shows the direction we're heading in as a city and as a community," Krysta Cowling, one of the speakers opposed to the plans, said after the vote.
Cowling and Kelly both expect more people will speak out at future council meetings when councillors are considering proposals affecting the environment.