City giving wildlife protocol more teeth

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By Emma Jackson, Ottawa Community News

The debate over new wildlife protection standards is getting a little squirrelly as city planners prepare to bring their new construction protocol to council later this spring.

The Protocol for Wildlife Protection during Construction is the first update to the city’s strategy for keeping birds and animals safe on development sites since the regional municipality adopted a one-page guideline in 2000.

If passed, the protocol would apply a new standard condition of approval to all plans of subdivision, plans of condominium and site control plans that are located near wildlife habitat – defined broadly to include everything from tall grass to abandoned buildings, depending on what a wildlife survey finds on site.

To have their projects approved, developers would be required to complete a wildlife mitigation plan that outlines the project’s construction schedule – including any impacts on sensitive nesting and breeding times – and their plans to protect wildlife from injury and death while construction work is underway.

The mitigation plan would be considered a “living document” that gets updated as construction schedules change, according to the draft protocol released for public feedback in January.

City planner Amy MacPherson has been the lead on this file since council directed staff to update the guidelines in its 2013 wildlife strategy. The policy developed in 2000 is out of date, she said, and due to “competing priorities” after amalgamation never had the complementary guidelines and documentation developed to expand on its ideas.

The new protocol – now 19 pages instead of just one – is meant to close that gap.

Last summer, MacPherson and her team reached out to stakeholders for input on how the old protocol might be updated. But somewhere along the line the industry side got missed, so developers didn’t really get a chance to voice their thoughts before a draft was created last fall, MacPherson said.

“We had a bit of a miscommunication there, which I really do regret,” she said.

Councillor Jan Harder, chairperson of the planning committee which will consider the new protocol this spring, asked staff to extend the feedback period by a month to give developers more time.

John Herbert, executive director of the Greater Ottawa Home Builders Association, said the industry is now scrambling to retroactively address what he considers major barriers to construction – barriers that might not have been included at all if developers had been at the table all along.

“City staff didn’t have the benefit of industry advising them of what was manageable and achievable and what wasn’t,” he said.

He said the draft’s suggested site preparation timeline is a non-starter, because it encourages developers to do the bulk of their clearing and site preparation during a six-week window from late summer and early fall to avoid most nesting, breeding and hibernation periods.

The development industry is already restricted as to when it can build, Herbert said, through legislation like the provincial Endangered Species Act. That law restricts work during certain times if an endangered or at-risk species is present on site, or if the work affects its habitat. And the federal Migratory Birds Convention Act restricts the taking of nests (or trees which contain those nests) if protected migratory birds are present at the time.

The city’s current wildlife protocol also recommends avoiding construction between mid-May and the end of June.

With constant approval delays from the city always keeping developers guessing, he said it’s impossible to expect they wait until fall once they’ve finally gotten the green light.

But MacPherson said it’s a gross misinterpretation of the new protocol to suggest that it requires all construction work to occur between mid-August and the end of September.

“It is completely unrealistic to expect that all site-clearing in the city will only occur in the six to eight weeks in the fall. It can’t be done,” she said. “That’s the least disruptive time for most species, but at other times of the years, (the protocol says) ‘here are additional mitigating measures we expect you to be using.’”

That could include extra “pre-stressing” activities (making loud noises on site for a few weeks before work begins, for example), hiring a biologist to do a wildlife survey or setting up nesting boxes off-site to encourage wildlife to move out, MacPherson said.

That can cost time and money, too, Herbert argued.

Take the protocol’s stance on pipes, for example: it asks developers to avoid accidentally providing shelter for animals, suggesting workers block off open-ended pipes so they don’t inadvertently become death traps disguised as cozy dens.

“There are hundreds of pieces of pipes on a site every day,” Herbert said. “Do we want crews spending the morning taking caps off and the afternoon putting them back on?”

SENSIBLE MIDDLE GROUND

But environment committee chairman Coun. David Chernushenko called the draft “reasonable” – and dismissed any laments that “never again will a home be built in Ottawa.”

“That’s hyperbole that we have to be wary of,” he said. “It just seems to me its common sense practices and I hope that’s the way it will be seen and will come forward. There’s nothing draconian in it.”

The Capital Ward councillor added that the protocol could have been much more restrictive.

“It could have mandated windows instead of guidelines, it could forbid construction during certain periods in certain areas, but it doesn’t,” he said. “It seems like pretty sensible middle ground.”

And the protocol won’t even be enforceable in any measurable way; as a condition of approval the city can ask a builder to stop work if it’s not complying, or illegal tree removal may be covered under the urban tree conservation bylaw depending on where the development is located.

“A lot of the information in it is best practice and the only real mechanism we have to enforce it is through the condition of approvals,” MacPherson said. “We do not have a wildlife protection bylaw, nor were we directed to do that.”

She said staff will compile all feedback into a report for the planning and agriculture and rural affairs committees, which will likely come forward this spring.