Why Some Towns in Quebec’s Laurentians Are Pressing the Development Pause Button

Lena Measures loves taking her new puppy, Kuiper, for nature walks around her home in Morin Heights, Quebec. Her converted cottage is steps away from a quiet little lake. Birds and squirrels chirp and chatter from the trees on his property and last summer a moose roamed his patio.

Over the years, Measures has seen more and more people move into her community, cut down trees, build houses and cause premature wear and tear on road infrastructure and she “don’t like where [the town] going.”

“The development has gotten a bit too over the top,” she says. “People are building these monster houses, I call them McChâteaux and there is a lack of affordable housing.”

Morin Heights is just one of the small towns in Quebec’s Laurentians struggling with rapid development as former city dwellers move to the mountains.

In March, the city council passed an interim order to temporarily halt certain forms of development and give itself time to rewrite its planning regulations and reframe development. The nearby town of Sainte-Anne-des-Lacs reacted similarly to the development.

Booming population

Over the past year, Morin Heights has seen its population grow by nearly 13% to reach approximately 4,755 inhabitants. The mayor says that before the pandemic, there were typically 30 to 40 new homes built in the city every year. This number has almost tripled to 100 households per year over the past two years.

“We weren’t ready for that,” said city councilor Gilles Saulnier. “We were ready for development that was coming more slowly, so we would have time to adjust.”

Councilor Gilles Saulnier recently voted against a 21-home subdivision project in Morin Heights, Quebec. (Marika Wheeler/CBC)

In the fall of 2020, the city passed an interim bylaw that required developers to double the minimum lot size. Then came the March 2022 regulation to stop all new road development and all land subdivision in more than five lots.

Local elected officials hope that these provisional decrees will give them time to rethink their urban planning. They hope to complete the process by the start of the new year, after public consultations.

“We’re going to implement the vision the citizens gave us…and try to make Morin Heights the place people want to live,” said Mayor Tim Watchorn.

Mayor Tim Watchorn says Havre du Balmoral’s “small lot” style of development is what he wants Morin Heights to move away from. (Marika Wheeler/CBC)

find a balance

Finding a balance between land preservation, affordable housing and development is a challenge.

Watchorn points to a recent development called Le Havre Balmoral, which started five years ago.

Even though the city made sure the popular Triangle nature trail was protected in the development, lots are considered “small” at 2,000 square meters and there are few trees between properties.

“I don’t think that’s a model we’ll use in the future,” he said. “We tried…but in the end it looks a little too suburban.”

He wants to move towards larger land with more forest protection to preserve wildlife corridors and quality of life. The other side of the coin, he concedes, is the cost.

“Land is definitely a lot more expensive, but in the end I think we have to put the environment first,” Watchorn said. “All our DNA is outdoor activities and we want to preserve it for future generations.”

An analysis of property sites shows listings of properties in “large lot developments” the mayor prefers at $300,000, compared to around $100,000 for lots around 2,000 square meters.

Watchorn says more affordable housing could be built by densifying the central part of the city.

Mayor Tim Watchorn says he hopes the new planning regulations will come into effect early next year. (Marika Wheeler/CBC)

Project near you

The development project that measures are most concerned about is one that city council approved by a four-to-two vote just a day before the tentative bylaw that would have stopped it.

Permitting the project was necessary, Watchorn said, because if the council had blocked it — it had been underway since 2016 — the developer could have sued the city.

Measures fears the new 21-home development adjacent to the local ski resort and next to his home could be a license to party for disrespectful visitors, given that it’s in the only part of town zoned for short-term rentals.

Morin Heights recently passed a bylaw pausing development. (Marika Wheeler/CBC)

An active citizen who says she attends all the council meetings she can, Measures submitted a 14-page brief to the city’s environmental committee outlining ways the city could frame development in a way that’ ‘would work with nature and not against it and use nature’s solutions.’

Measures says the municipality is taking steps to improve the situation and she is eager to hear what the new planning regulations say.

“People come here for the recreation, the peace and quiet, the bucolic small town vibe,” she said. “The more people come here, the more you lose that. We don’t want to become a suburb of Montreal or Laval.