Old-growth forest in Vaudreuil-Soulanges no place for health centre, nature groups say. An all terrain vehicle trail runs through the Chaline forest in the southeastern corner of St. Lazare that is being considered for the new hospital and cegep, Initial surveys suggest half the 650-hectare site is either too wet or unstable. Thursday, November 10, 2011.
"I do understand that (Vaudreuil-Soulanges) needs a hospital, but in terms of the long-term benefits this forest is providing, it just doesn't make sense to tear it down and build a hospital here," said Jean-Patrick Toussaint, Science Projects Manager with the David Suzuki Foundation (Quebec).
"This is the very reason why we are pushing for the idea of a green belt in the Greater Montreal area - and not just a ring around the city but a network of connecting green areas and waterways.
"We have to protect what's left of these natural habitats and woodlands that are providing us with billions of dollars of eco-services a year."
The regional county municipality of Vaudreuil-Soulanges, a fast-growing suburb just off the southwestern tip of Montreal Island, is the only community in Canada with a population over 100,000 people that doesn't have its own hospital.
Environmental groups say the county has other options than to build the hospital centre - as well as schools and housing - in one of the largest intact forests in the region.
The 640-hectare forest, which has no official name and is currently zoned agricultural, is bounded by the CP rail line to the north, Highway 540 to the east, the CN rail line to the south and the municipal boundary between Vaudreuil-Dorion and Cèdres to the west. The Quinchien River runs through it, as do several creeks and streams.
Toussaint says the forest is biologically diverse, large enough and old enough to be considered regionally significant and be protected under proposed green belt legislation.
Quebec's health minister announced in 2009 that Vaudreuil-Soulanges would get its hospital, and in the spring of 2010 asked the county and its health services centre to recommend a location. They hired a private firm to do a survey of available lands.
The firm concluded there were no appropriate vacant sites in the county zoned for institutional development, but that if the forested area could be rezoned from agricultural, it would be wellsuited.
Most of the land is in the municipality of Vaudreuil-Dorion, while 60 hectares are in St. Lazare.
The land is privately owned. The MRC has requested an interim control regulation from the province, which means no development is allowed while the hospital project is being studied.
The county is requesting a zoning change and will present the Environment Department with studies in the next few weeks to back that request.
Meanwhile, the Montreal Metropolitan Community is in the process of drawing up a land-use plan that is likely to include a network of protected areas. That plan is supposed to be presented to the provincial government by the end of the year.
"Now is the time to shine a light on these dark places, and for the public to make it clear that projects like these have to be revisited," said David Fletcher of the Green Coalition, a conservation group.
Guy-Lin Beaudoin, director general of the MRC of Vaudreuil-Soulanges, said the proposal to build a "regional institutional hub" in that as-yet undeveloped part of the region is not without environmental merit.
He said 60 to 70 per cent of the 640-hectare forested area would be preserved under the county's proposal. In addition to a hospital, the MRC wants to build a high-density "regional institutional hub" on the site, including educational institutions (primary, secondary, CEGEP and university), a pharmacy, offices, housing and neighbourhood services like stores and cafés, all accessible by public transit.
"We are looking to balance the needs of the public - both health needs and environmental needs - and we want to plan this development with public transit and density in mind, in accordance with the new land-use plan," he told The Gazette last week.
He said the Environment Department will be looking at studies of the site provided by the MRC in the next few weeks and will likely order more studies to be done.
"And of course, if the (environment) minister says 'No way, José', it stops right there," Beaudoin said.
Toussaint points out the firm studying potential sites was restricted by the county administration to consider only vacant land of more than 25 hectares. There are built sites that size in the county that are currently underused, he said, pointing to an almost vacant 12-storey office tower surrounded by a vast parking lot at de la Cité des Jeunes and de la Gare Blvds.
Beaudoin said this site is not appropriate because it is not as accessible and is located near a gas pipeline.
Retrofitting an older building into a modern hospital would be much more expensive and complex, he added.
Environmental groups say that kind of thinking discounts the long-term economic and ecological costs of tearing down a forest.
Toussaint points to a 2008 Ontario study by the David Suzuki Foundation that estimated the economic value of protected green spaces and farmlands, in terms of the "ecosystem services" they provide. That study put the value of these services - including water filtration, flood control, carbon storage, waste treatment, wildlife habitat and recreation - at $3,571 per hectare annually.
"Whenever(politicians) see a site with no infrastructure on it, it is considered undeveloped and without value," said the Green Coalition's Fletcher. "But there very definitely is something there.
"This land is already developed, with an ecologically valuable forest. It's nature's development and it's exactly what we are sadly lacking."