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  • Writer's pictureTrevor Greenway

River group concerned about Burnett’s ‘renaturalization’

Residents, Low Down get mixed messages

on what’s happening with water access


An environmental group in Chelsea has serious concerns over the municipality’s “renaturalization” efforts to protect the shoreline at the end of Burnett Road, after staffers recently dumped topsoil and planted 23 trees. The group says the trees will die and the topsoil will wash away into the Gatineau River.


Volunteer Friends of the Gatineau River (FOG) member Patrick Henry said he was shocked to see how shallow the trees were planted at the end of Burnett Road, as the root balls on many of the trees and shrubs planted are exposed to the elements. FOG was also concerned to see that Chelsea dumped a load of topsoil on the inclined road leading to the Gatineau River — with no landscaping work to hold the soil in place.


“This ‘top soil’ and various fertilizers will absolutely be washed into the river upon first significant rainfall,” wrote Henry in an email to the Low Down. “The municipality recognized that, after receiving concerns from Burnett neighbours, and have since installed cloth fabric to try and block or trap the soil when it does eventually make its way towards the river. Suffice to say that is not a long-term solution — and don’t get me started on what the turtles think about this.”


According to Chelsea Spokesperson Maude Prud'homme-Séguin, the topsoil used did not contain any fertilizer and the municipality planted perennial seeds along the shoreline to “help retain the earth” once they sprout.


As for the trees planted with their root balls exposed, Prud’homme-Séguin said the work was done up to standards. “The municipality dug out and removed the compacted gravel making up the road structure in the work area. A mixture of black earth and topsoil was then added to fill in the dug up area,” she explained. “Indigenous species of trees and shrubbery, which are adapted to this type of area, were planted.” She added that the municipality will conduct an inspection next spring to “ensure all plants have survived the winter.” Any trees that die, will be replaced, she said.


Action Chelsea for the Respect of the Environment (ACRE) visited the site following the work and told the Low Down that some of the topsoil had “already begun to wash out toward the river under the fabric barrier.”


“With nothing holding the topsoil in place, a good rain will likely see it flushed into the river,” said ACRE member Allyson Quinlan. She noted that ACRE was not consulted about this renaturalization project. “At a time when Chelsea is beginning to experience more extreme heat events, care should be taken to protect our natural spaces, while also ensuring equitable access to the river.”


Chelsea installed giant concrete barriers at the end of Burnett Road last fall to prevent motorized boats from launching into the river, and although some residents said they found it difficult to access the water, most didn’t seem to mind. But in early June of this year, neighbours noticed that the municipality planted shrubbery and trees, which left no room for pedestrians to access the water in a non-motorized way — either by paddling or swimming.


“I bring my kids down here for a swim after dinner. We go paddling, canoeing. It was lovely,” said Burnett resident Molly Morse, who was trying to navigate her Stand Up Paddleboard (SUP) around the trees and shrubs and then over the vinyl barrier when the Low Down visited the site on June 21. She needed help from about three people so as to not damage the plants and trees. Morse said she’s lived in Burnett since 2016 and uses the river daily with her family. If her Burnett access remains closed, she’ll have to load her SUP into her car and drive to the Farm Point Community Centre — the only official boat launch in Chelsea.


When residents complained about the loss of the access point, they got mixed messages from the mayor and councillors, who initially told residents the work was done by mistake but then backpedalled.


“The plan was to renaturalize, while leaving space for non-motorized boats to be launched and for residents to use as a swimming area,” wrote Ward 4 Coun. Christopher Blais to resident Cathy Payne. “I visited the site this weekend, and the work completed does not match the plan, therefore the mayor and I are following up with staff who are responsible for the project.”


In a June 19 email to resident Barb Hogan, Blais wrote, “...it appears there was a mistake with the work.” The email goes on to state, “As for the renaturalization, they did not leave room to walk down to the beach as indicated in the plan.”

Mayor Pierre Guénard responded in an email to Morse that, “Indeed, a pedestrian access was planned for residents, also allowing [them] to carry and put a canoe, SUP or kayak on the water.” He said he would follow up with the director general.


But when the Low Down asked for an official response from Chelsea, Prud’homme-Seguin said that Burnett location is not an official access point for residents and never has been. While Chelsea will “tolerate” local pedestrian access, they still want to deter people from using the Burnett access.


“The work was not carried out by accident and there was no internal miscommunication,” she said. “Although we prefer access to the water via Farm Point, for the time being the pedestrian access via Burnett is not forbidden.”


Later that day, Blais emailed Hogan to tell her that the Burnett access “was not a planned swim area.”


Farm Point Coun. Rita Jain called the access point on Burnett an “obstacle course.”

“For decades, Burnett Road has been a public river access to hundreds of people from the neighbourhood and beyond,” said Jain. “I believe it is possible to design an esthetically pleasing access point that would slow down and filter runoff, while allowing residents to roll down their kayaks, strollers or even wheelchairs. I will continue to work with the Chelsea mayor and administration to try to make this happen. We should prioritize providing more public access to the river before removing any for whatever reason.”


FOG was also concerned about accessibility, as it would be “impossible to access the river if you are in a wheelchair, [pushing] a baby stroller, or trying to carry a canoe or SUP to the water.”


Prud’Homme-Seguin said that, following complaints from the public, staffers visited the site to widen the access point for residents.


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