Ste. Agathe Development Plan Meets Public Criticism

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The Riel Place Condominium in Ste. Agathe Brenda Sawatzky

On August 16, concerned Ste. Agathe residents gathered at the municipal office, filling the meeting room to capacity. They were there to voice their concerns regarding a local developer’s application to build a multi-family rental housing building. Council had received six letters of objection prior to the meeting, and these residents all got their opportunity to publicly relay their concerns to council. The concerns varied from improper drainage to the potential for declining property values and traffic congestion. 

Developer Joseph Sharobeem, a Winnipeg resident who purchased the empty lot in question back in March 2017, believes that his proposed rental units would fill a need in the community. He says he is willing to work with neighbouring residents to allay their concerns. 

“I am trying to build a development which will help the community to grow,” says Sharobeem. He notes that these will be Ste. Agathe’s very first rental units, and that they will be in high demand. “[They will] accommodate big companies such as Hemp Oil Canada [and] attract more employees willing to stay in Ste. Agathe instead of commuting every day to Winnipeg.”

Sharobeem also notes that the proposed buildings will blend in well with the style and appearance of the surrounding properties.

As of the August 16 meeting, Sharobeem’s plan included three separate buildings—two seven-plexes and one eight-plex of attached side-by-sides (22 rental units in all)—built in a horseshoe fashion with parking stalls in the centre. This development would face an existing 16-unit single-building condo development built three years earlier. 

The short history behind these two adjoining developments is a bit convoluted, taking twists and turns that have left area residents confused and frustrated. 

Poor Drainage and Weeds
One Ste. Agathe couple, who has asked to remain anonymous, owns a private residence just north of the developments. They claim that when they purchased their property four years ago, realtors and the municipal government assured them that the vacant lot to their south would remain the way it was. At the time, the lot had a natural coulee running through it, providing perfect drainage. The site had a baseball diamond and was used by the community for recreation and gardening.

Although they are not upset by the land sale and proposed developments, as they understand the natural tendency of communities to expand on their residential housing options, they wish the RM would take more responsibility to hold developers accountable to their development agreements.

According to the couple, the original developer, Martin Ritchot, relandscaped the large lot when he purchased it three and a half years ago, filling in the coulee and blocking a ditch. Ever since, the couple says they have been fighting rising water during the spring thaw and summer’s heavy rains. Water has crept dangerously close to their home’s foundation on numerous occasions, and they’ve had to take great pains to protect their investment. A row of mature trees along the south side of their property is perpetually underwater, and the trees are suffering the effects of too much moisture.

The couple adds that the weeds on the undeveloped portion of the neighbouring property have been, for the most part, left unattended. The reeds in the ditch are allowed to grow as high as seven feet before getting cut. The couple regrets that they’ve had to nag the developer and the RM to get things done. 

“We’ve had ongoing conversations with the RM and others and nothing’s being done,” say the couple. “Everyone assured us it’s being dealt with. We’re not opposed to them doing a development. We’re opposed to them doing it without taking care of the problems. And we feel that if they go forward and no one says anything then those problems are never going to be dealt with.”

The Original Plan
When Martin Ritchot originally purchased the vacant lot, he sought council’s approval for two identical 16-unit condo buildings, with a shared access and egress and a roadway between parking areas. The first of these structures, the Riel Place Condominium (RPC), was built along with the shared access and roadway. According to one resident living in the RPC, the municipality granted Ritchot permission for an “unphased” development, meaning he could proceed with the second condo building without having to reapply.

This condo owner, who also wishes to remain anonymous, says that all buyers in RPC were required by the developer to sign an agreement stating that they were aware of the “unphased” designation of the development. However, they were reassured that the empty lot would eventually be home to a mirror-image 16-unit condo building.

As is typical in condo developments, the residents formed a condo board to take responsibility for planning and collecting fees to improve and maintain their investment. According to this resident, however, the RPC board has had to take on costs that should have been the developer’s responsibility.

RPC, too, has a drainage problem. Every spring and summer, residents are faced with water pooling on their roadway and parking areas. In some instances, this has resulted in large ice patches which pose obvious hazards. They have also experienced water seepage into their building. The resident says that the RM requested the developer to fix the seepage problem, but they seemingly made no attempt to ensure that the repair was properly carried out to code. According to the residents, it wasn’t. This resulted in the RPC board finally taking matters into their own hands, having the water pumped from their property to the nearby ditch at their own expense.

“[The RPC board is] going to do it, because it’s not worth going after the RM for,” says the anonymous condo resident. “Every time they do, it becomes a legal problem.”

The Subdivision
Sometime after Martin Ritchot completed the first condo phase, the RM granted him permission to subdivide the property, turning the undeveloped second half into a separate lot. In the spring of this year, he sold the undeveloped lot to Sharobeem.

Area residents were not officially notified of the subdivision application. Mitch Duval, the municipality’s chief administrative officer (CAO), says that public notification isn’t a requirement on subdivision proposals such as this. 

According to residents, council put forth a condition earlier this year requiring Mr. Ritchot to address water drainage issues that were created by a soil berm he’d erected on the RPC lot. He followed through by moving the berm to the adjoining undeveloped lot which he’d already sold. This caused further problems for the couple just north of the property. 

“I was not aware about the drainage issues,” says Sharobeem. “It was all snow-covered when I put my offer to purchase in in February 2017.” Regarding weed control, he adds, “There was no designated person to maintain the property, so I got a call from the RM and the same day I hired a local company and the lawn was mowed. [The company] started to maintain the property on a regular basis and I have the invoices to support my claim.”

Shifting Responsibility
The anonymous condo resident says that responsibility for these various issues seems to bounce back and forth between the developers, the RM, and the municipality’s building inspector. Typically, a request for service from the RM results in months of wait time and a lot of bureaucracy. The last time residents expressed their drainage concerns to the municipality, council responded that they were, in one resident’s words, “waiting to find out what happens with the new development.” 

Homeowners in the area have other concerns as well. In their mind, council did not make enough of an effort to make residents aware of Sharobeem’s proposed changes to the development plan. Though they did receive letters in their mailboxes, one condo resident says that it didn’t arrive within the 14 days required by the Planning Act. Neither, this resident claims, was there a written public notice placed in any local public building or a sign placed on the property in question. 

Council disagrees with that claim. According to Duval, the municipality followed the minimum notice requirements as spelled out in the by-laws. This included mailed notices to affected residents within 100 meters of the property. These, he says, were sent on time. 

Additionally, Duval says that notices were posted in the Ste. Agathe post office, in the municipal office in St. Adolphe, and on the RM website, all of which are optional according to the RM’s understanding of the Planning Act. They have no responsibility to check if notices are inadvertently removed from public buildings before the hearing date. 

They admit that a sign was not placed on the site and suggest that this is not a requirement if notices are mailed to affected residents. It’s also not their standard practice except in rural areas where affected residents may live beyond the 100-meter parameter.

Regardless, some residents have been left to wonder at the effectiveness of council’s current notice strategy. With the outdoor mailboxes recently introduced in Ste. Agathe, fewer residents go into the post office and so are not likely to see such notices. They also argue that residents cannot be expected to visit the municipal office or its website daily for updates that might directly affect them. 

“It’s that age-old argument,” says Duval. “How do you please everybody?”

“Could we have done more to advertise it?” asks Mayor Chris Ewen. “Probably. But I also think there’s a thing about word of mouth. So maybe we need to work together with the residents and say, ‘Hey, if you know something’s happening, tell your friends and neighbours.’ And then we can get the word around. At the end of the day, it’s 50/50 [in taking responsibility] to get the word spread.”

Additional Concerns
As for the prospects of a 22-unit rental property being built facing the RPC, one affected resident says they aren’t too keen.

“I’m not saying that rental tenants are bad, they just don’t take the same responsibility as an owner,” says the RPC resident. “And because we are a condo and this is a shared access, I think we should have a lot of say as to what goes next door.”

The RPC board has established rules about what kinds of vehicles can park in their lot. But without an agreeable condo board on the second lot, they wonder how rules will be established and maintained between them.

“[The RM] did not take into consideration that the driveway [connecting the two lots] was shared and made no restrictions on the developer to put a written agreement in place between the owners of the two lots,” said the RPC resident in a recent letter to council. “This oversight of the RM cost the Condo Corporation substantial legal fees to remedy.”

The same resident told The Citizen, “We’ve been told not to talk to the developer [Sharobeem], even though we have to because we have a shared access agreement. Something’s going to go there and we don’t really have control over what it is but we need to work together.” 

Duval says that council makes every attempt to encourage developers to communicate their plans to affected residents before they file an application. Once the application is filed, however, communication is discouraged.

“Once they start communicating between the different parties [after the application is filed] it becomes an unlevel playing field,” says Duval. “And that’s why you need to stay away and everybody hears everything at the same time [at the public hearing].”

Second Application in Works
On September 6, council held another public meeting, indicating to Sharobeem that they had sought legal counsel and that it would be in his best interest to withdraw the current application and reapply at another date with an application that more closely reflects the public’s concerns. 

Mayor Ewen anticipates that Sharobeem will come forward with a similar rental unit proposal. “But with some tweaks,” he says, “to make sure that not only does the developer like it but we work with council, the municipality, and the adjacent [residents] to make sure that it all works out to everyone’s benefit.”

“I am still in talks with the RM and didn’t finalize any agreements yet,” says Sharobeem. “Depending on what the RM would agree on, I will start a new drawing and put in a new application. I am not frustrated at all. I understand it will take time. I was hoping to start this year but I am not sure at this point if I can do so. I hope that all should be ready next spring.”  

Once Sharobeem makes a new application to council, he will be required to go through the same conditional use hearing process once again. 

Drainage Solutions
Until that time, council wishes to reassure affected residents that their drainage concerns will be addressed in due time.

“Mike Dumaine [public works coordinator] has been there twice,” says councillor Jeannot Robert of the drainage problem affecting residents to the north. “It’s on his task list. As soon as he can get there, he’s going to clean it up and he’s putting in a concrete swale.”

As to the perpetual water backing up onto the condo parking lot, Robert says, “The parking lot is well done. It has a nice slope. There’s a little issue there that, when the water comes, it’s [blocked] by a curb. When Dumaine comes he’s going to address that. It’s about a 60-second job.”

Less than a week after these assurances were made, homeowners to the north of the undeveloped property say that work has begun on a drainage swale for the bordering lot.

Time until next issue
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