Municipal regulation of noise caused by a long-established automobile racetrack

18 décembre 2013 | Luc Gratton

( Disponible en anglais seulement )

The Quebec Court of Appeal has recently rendered an important decision in the fields of environmental and municipal law, in the context of an important legal battle pitting a group of residents living in one of Quebec’s most renowned cottage communities against both a local automobile racetrack and municipality. The residents sued the racetrack and the municipality in order to have the bylaws by which the municipality regulated the racetrack’s activities struck down. According to the residents, the municipality’s bylaws were unreasonable because they allowed the racetrack to emit noise levels that went beyond what was both legal and reasonable.

The Court’s decision in Courses automobiles Mont-Tremblant inc. v. Iredale1  (hereafter “Mont-Tremblant”) deserves attention across Canada because it gives us new and important insight into how the Supreme Court of Canada’s teachings in Catalyst Paper Corp. v. North Cowichan (District)2  (hereafter “Catalyst”) should apply when municipal bylaws targeting environmental nuisances are challenged before the courts. At its most fundamental, the Mont-Tremblant decision addresses two questions. Firstly, how can a municipality regulate environmental nuisances? Secondly, how are Courts to judge whether such regulation is compatible with a general provincial legislative provision prohibiting the contamination of the environment?

FACTS

The story behind the Mont-Tremblant decision started in 1964, with the opening of the racetrack. At that time —and at all times since— the racetrack complied with the municipality’s zoning bylaw. For more than twenty years, the track operated without complaint, being located relatively far off from most of the dwellings in the area. Indeed, there were only three dwellings situated within 500 meters of the racetrack between 1964 and 1987.

In 1987, the racetrack announced that it would shut down and that its site would be used for residential development. The local municipality, then the Municipality of Mont-Tremblant, changed its zoning bylaw by taking into account the racetrack’s shutdown and the announced residential development of the area, and 26 new dwellings were built within 500 meters of the racetrack between 1987 and 2001. The racetrack, however, continued to operate during this period, despite the 1987 announcement, with a certain reduction of its activities.

In 1999, the provincial legislature amalgamated the Municipality of Mont-Tremblant with neighbouring municipalities, creating the City of Mont-Tremblant. In 2000, the racetrack was sold to new owners and, for a year and a half, the racetrack’s activities were interrupted for renovations. Racing activities started again at the end of 2001, with a certain increase, much to the displeasure of the racetrack’s neighbours. In 2003, faced with a number of noise complaints and with the necessity to adopt a uniform nuisance bylaw for the various amalgamated municipalities, the City of Mont-Tremblant adopted a nuisance  bylaw that generally declared as a nuisance any noise that troubled the peace, comfort, rest, well being or peaceful use of neighbouring property and that established uniform and objective limits for noise perceived from any residential property. These limits were applicable to any source of noise on the new City’s territory. At the time, the Cities and Towns Act, R.S.Q., c. C-19, did not allow a nuisance bylaw to contain noise limits that varied according to the noise emitting source or according to different parts of a municipality. The bylaw contained some exemptions, notably for celebrations, festivals or other special events, and also provided for penalties.

Although the 2003 bylaw did not specifically target noise emitted by the racetrack, its adoption was the source of tensions between the municipality, the racetrack’s operators and local residents. On the one hand, the racetrack’s operators considered that the municipality was unduly interfering with their lawful activities, and they refused to comply with the bylaw, even when it came to requesting the benefit of the exemption for special events. On the other hand, the municipality and local residents considered that the noise emitted by the racetrack constituted a nuisance that had to be curbed. What followed were demand letters, unfruitful negotiations, measuring of the noise emitted by the racetrack’s different activities and the City’s commissioning an expert report.

In 2005, the City undertook injunction proceedings against the racetrack and requested emergency safeguard orders for the 2006 operating season. After the City had won part of the requested safeguard orders, a new round of negotiations between the City and the racetrack operator led to a transaction and to the adoption of a new bylaw after the end of the 2006 season. This bylaw was adopted pursuant to the Municipal Powers Act, R.S.Q., c. C-47.1, which came into force on January 1st, 2006, and, contrary to the Cities and Towns Act, allowed municipalities to regulate by distinguishing different parts of their territories and creating different categories.

This new bylaw allowed the racetrack to operate within a new framework that distinguished the noise emitted by the racetrack from the noise emitted by other sources, and divided the racetrack’s activities into three categories: (1) regular activities, (2) special activities, and (3) trials. The bylaw established general norms applicable to all categories of activities, namely the maximum length of the season and daily hours of operation. In addition, each activity category was given its own parameters. In the case of regular activities, each vehicle had to be equipped with a muffler. Objective noise level limits were set, measured at the source: limits for every idling vehicle and limits for the vehicles taken as a whole at the noisiest point on the track. Furthermore, noise at the noisiest point on the track had to be measured via a permanently installed sound meter that transmitted its measurements in real time to the City’s police department, and the information thereby obtained was to be deemed as accurate evidence against the racetrack operator. A maximum number of vehicles allowed on the track simultaneously was also set. As for special activities and trials, they were not subject to objective noise level limits, but rather to norms aimed at limiting their impact via various restrictions on when these two categories of activities could take place, namely: maximum number of special activities per season; total number of days per season for each of these categories; total number of days and weekends when these categories of activities could take place during the months of July and August; holding of these activities on holidays; possibility of holding these activities on consecutive weekends; duration of trials during the same day, etc. For example, the bylaw limited the total number of special activities and trials to 52 days a year (out of a 194-day operating season). This was reduced to 36 days by a 2009 bylaw.

The evidence showed that noise complaints in the municipality diminished considerably in the years following the adoption of the challenged 2006 bylaw. However, dissatisfied with the compromise attained, a group of racetrack neighbours took action in 2007, seeking judicial review of the 2006 bylaw.

FIRST INSTANCE

The trial judge rejected most of plaintiffs’ many arguments, and found that municipal officials were in good faith throughout the events that led up to and included the 2006 bylaw’s adoption. However, the trial judge found part of the 2006 bylaw unreasonable because it allowed the racetrack to operate 36 days a year without any objective limit on the level of noise that could be emitted. This permission constituted, in his opinion, an unreasonable exercise of the City’s discretionary power to regulate nuisances. The trial judge therefore struck down all bylaw’s dispositions dealing with special activities and trials. The trial judge also added that the same part of the bylaw ran contrary to the general prohibition against pollution found at section 20 of the Environment Quality Act, R.S.Q., c. Q-2, which reads as follows:

20. No one may emit, deposit, issue or discharge or allow the emission, deposit, issuance or discharge into the environment of a contaminant in a greater quantity or concentration than that provided for by regulation of the Government.

The same prohibition applies to the emission, deposit, issuance or discharge of any contaminant the presence of which in the environment is prohibited by regulation of the Government or is likely to affect the life, health, safety, welfare or comfort of human beings, or to cause damage to or otherwise impair the quality of the soil, vegetation, wildlife or property.

[emphasis added]

According to the trial judge, not limiting noise 36 days a year amounted to permitting the emission of a contaminant —noise— into the environment in a way that was likely to affect the life, health, safety, welfare or comfort of human beings.

APPEAL

The Court of Appeal reversed the trial judge’s decision, considering it to be a judicial incursion into the City’s discretionary powers. Relying on Catalyst, the Court held that the bylaw fell within the range of possible reasonable outcomes that the City might choose from when considering the wide variety of factors before it —whether those factors be social, economic or political. Indeed, the City had considered and weighed all the relevant factors, and respected the required process for passing the bylaw. Furthermore, the trial judge found that all municipal officials had been in good faith throughout the process, and the bylaw had not been enacted for improper purposes.

With respect to the bylaw’s compatibility with section 20 of the Environment Quality Act, the Court held that in the absence of applicable provincial regulation, the City should be given deference in the means it chose to regulate noise emitted from the racetrack. The Court found no conflict between the general prohibition against pollution found at section 20 —described by the court as broad and context-dependent— and the City’s discretionary power to choose a means of regulating noise from the racetrack that did not include limits in decibels.

CONCLUSION

When it was rendered in early 2012, the Catalyst decision was welcomed by many as clarifying many questions involved in the standard of review applicable to municipal bylaws. But at issue in Catalyst was a taxation bylaw, not one dealing with the environment.

The Mont-Tremblant decision gives us a better understanding of the standard of review applicable to municipal bylaws dealing with environmental issues. In addition, the Mont-Tremblant decision demonstrates that despite general prohibitions against pollution enacted at the provincial level, local municipalities may retain a wide margin of discretion, which allows them to enact bylaws specifically tailored to the unique needs of their locality. Given the prevalence and variety of municipal bylaws dealing with environmental issues across Canada, and given that most provinces have enacted a general prohibition to pollute in terms similar to section 20 of the Environment Quality Act, the Mont-Tremblant decision could likely serve as a useful precedent for years to come.

An application for leave to appeal to the Supreme Court of Canada from the Court of Appeal’s decision was served to the City and the racetrack on October 7th, 2013.

1. 2013 QCCA 1348 (CanLII)

2. 2012 SCC 2 (CanLII)

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