Tree cutting is expected to resume on a huge, partially clearcut parcel in rural southeast Ottawa, after city staff determined that the partners behind the future suburb of Tewin did not require a tree permit because they say they intend to farm the property.
The City of Ottawa planned to lift a stop-work order Tuesday on the cutting of trees at the large property north of Piperville Road owned by the Algonquins of Ontario (AOO), according to a memo sent to city council by Don Herweyer, general manager of planning, real estate and economic development.
"The ownership group has indicated that the land is being cleared and being prepared for farming activities," Herweyer wrote of the area where the Algonquins of Ontario (AOO) and Taggart Group had previously put forward plans for a sustainable suburb. "Documentation in this regard has been provided to city staff by the ownership group."
CBC asked Herweyer to clarify which documents staff had seen to confirm they predated tree-cutting that residents say began more than a month ago.
He answered that the city was first told on Feb. 22 the AOO and Taggart intended to farm the property, and that they provided documentation that they were engaged in discussions with farm operators about a potential lease in early October 2022.
He said he had seen a preliminary lease agreement with an agricultural operation, which discussed tile-draining the land. Tile-draining is an agricultural technique that removes excess subsurface water.
Drone footage recorded by a neighbour and by CBC News has shown dozens of hectares of trees have already been cut and logs are being hauled away. The City of Ottawa had earlier confirmed staff were made aware on Feb. 17, after much of the cutting had already taken place.
At first, residents couldn't make out the work behind the buffer of trees at the roadside, and have been frustrated no one alerted them it would take place.
They eventually had to piece things together themselves after hearing heavy equipment working in the middle of the night and seeing large trucks carrying logs on their country roads. The answers they originally received in mid-February said the area was being cleaned up after the derecho storm.
Exemption for farming practices
Farming is one of the few relevant exemptions under the city's tree protection bylaw, which came into effect in January 2021 to preserve Ottawa's tree canopy.
While the bylaw mostly covers urban areas, it also applies to some lands just beyond the new urban boundary where the city expects future expansion of suburbs — including at Tewin. The bylaw allows for the possibility of unlimited fines for those who cut down a tree of 10 centimetres in diameter without a permit.
In his memo, Herweyer pointed to how a tree permit is not required where "the injury or destruction is a normal farm practice carried out as part of an agricultural operation by a farming business."
He also pointed to Ontario's Farming and Food Protection Act, which states that "no municipal bylaw applies to restrict a normal farm practice carried on as part of an agricultural operation."
Herweyer's memo says the property is zoned for agricultural use. Its zoning is "rural countryside," and it is also labelled an unevaluated wetland on city mapping so it has no formal provincial designation that would require regulation by a conservation authority.
Taggart writes letter to neighbours
When CBC News asked Chief Wendy Jocko about the clearcutting on Feb. 27, her emailed answer mentioned that the area had previously been agricultural land several decades ago but made no mention of future farming plans. Instead, she described the tree-cutting as necessary cleanup after last May's derecho storm.
Jocko is chief of Algonquins of Pikwakanagan First Nation, which is the only federally recognized First Nation within the Algonquins of Ontario organization set up to negotiate a land claim, a process separate from the Tewin development. Many other Algonquin chiefs and elders don't recognize the AOO and oppose both the land claim and the Tewin development.
On Feb. 28, Michelle Taggart, vice-president of land development for the Taggart Group, told CBC News that the company had been advised bylaws allowed for the removal of trees in preparation for farming in the rural area.
On Tuesday afternoon, Taggart sent a formal letter to neighbours — which was also shared with city council — apologizing "for the communication bungle on our end." It described how the property had been farmed in the past, but aerial photos showed farming had ceased by 1991.
She then laid out why she felt city staff had confirmed the tree-cutting was exempt under two sections of the tree protection bylaw (the memo from staff mentioned only one).
Taggart said its field staff had seen extensive damage on the property after the derecho, and included photos. She said the property had trees that "posed immediate threats to public health and safety".
As for the exemption for farm businesses, she wrote, "We received multiple written offers to lease this land for farm purposes and have signed a long-term farm lease with a local registered farmer." The AOO and Taggart asked that the stop-work order be lifted so the farm could be up and running by this growing season.
Taggart concluded her letter with a second apology to upset neighbours and offered to pay to fix the rink at the Carlsbad Springs Community Centre as "an act of goodwill."
City to monitor land in future
Herweyer's memo notes that "the onus of maintaining an exemption under the bylaw rests with the ownership group" and that the city will keep monitoring what's happening at the property to "confirm adherence with the farming exemption."
CBC News had spoken to a resident who had complained to the City of Ottawa about machinery working behind her house in the middle of the night. The bylaw department responded that officers hadn't observed tree cutting activity when they responded on Feb. 16 or March 1.
Herweyer said that after-hours work has ceased. His understanding was the owners wanted to remove the trees and brush while the ground remained frozen.
Ottawa's noise bylaw states construction is not permitted between 10 p.m. and 7 a.m., which extends to 9 a.m. on Sundays and holidays.
In recent days, Ecology Ottawa has begun a petition calling for the City of Ottawa to investigate the clearing of the lands and make the results public.