LIFE IN THE LOUD LANE
LAST SUNDAY MORNING, Cate Sanchioni rose early at a Mont Tremblant cottage, fixed herself a strong cup of joe and headed out on the dock to savour the dawn of a clear day – a rare luxury in this summer of monsoon rains.
She lay on her back, closed her eyes, felt the warmth of the wood on her skin and waited for the morning sun to peek over the trees silhouetted against a clear blue sky.
“It would have been a magical way to start the day,” she said later that morning. “If it were not for my inability to hear.”
As the high-pitched whine of car engines on a nearby racetrack exploded the peace like a million angry bees hovering around her head, Sanchioni cursed the man who, for her and other critics of the track, has come to personify the noise – multimillionaire Montrealer Lawrence Stroll.
A large, imposing, bronzed figure with a head of thick, greying hair, the fashion magnate has created some enemies in this tight-knit community since his family bought the 44-year-old racetrack for $625,000, renovated it and turned it into a popular playground for fans of fast cars, including Stroll himself.
Now, about 25 local residents have turned to the courts in a bid to rein in a man they say has no regard for the environment or his neighbours and has spoiled their enjoyment of this once peaceful area.
“It’s awful and takes over your whole weekend,” said Irene Otten, who has been going to Mont Tremblant for 36 years. “It just goes on and on and on and on all day long for two or three days.”
Supporters of the track, a 4.26-kilometre loop hidden behind trees so thick that, save for the noise, it could easily go unnoticed, say residents who bought or built nearby should have known better, since it has been there for almost 50 years, with Formula One Grand Prix races held in 1968 and 1970.
“Would you go build next to the airport?” businessman Sean O’Donnell, an old friend of Stroll’s, asks rhetorically. “Some people went and built there because they got a great deal on the land by the river next to the track, so don’t come back and complain now that you’re living next to a track.”
Stroll guards his privacy jealously and is reluctant to comment on the dispute. But in an email to The Gazette from his home on the exclusive Caribbean island of Mustique, he said of his critics:
“I can appreciate that some people are opposed to noise, and I can understand their desire for tranquility – in which case they should not move in next to racetracks, airports or ski hills. ... Once they make their decision to move in they should have the courtesy to respect the rights of their neighbours to carry on the activities that were there long before they were.”
The dispute has become a classic battle over conflicting visions for an area that has gone from quiet retreat to booming resort in a decade and a half. It’s also a clash of styles – between residents who want to enjoy the traditional delights of the country, and a man who loves Ferraris, his private helicopter and the lifestyle of the ultra-rich.
Back before 1984, when the Stroll family acquired it, the track was only nine metres wide and at times, run down. Tremblant and St. Jovite, the municipality it merged with, were relatively sleepy places until developer Intrawest rejuvenated the ski resort in 1991. Since then, condos, tony shops and golf courses have turned the place into what some refer to as Disneyland of the north.
If the track had remained as it was in the old days, it would probably still be acceptable to many residents; some admit they even attended races back then. The Stroll family has changed it dramatically by renovating the control tower, installing safety barriers and runouts and building new washroom facilities.
But what really grates on Stroll’s critics, and is the focus of one of their two lawsuits, is that the track was widened to 12 metres. That track widening brought the course up to the standards of the Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile, and opened the door to major racing events like the Champ Car race that Tremblant hosted in 2007.
The critics argue the town never should have approved the track widening, since it encroaches upon an environmentally protected flood zone.
“There is no vested right in our civilization to pollute,” said Marc Fortier, one of the complainants, who bought a house in 2004 about 800 metres across the Diable River from the track.
“Pulp and paper companies used to throw waste in the river but we no longer allow that. It’s the same with noise. Once it passes a certain level, it’s pollution.”
Local builder Jim Iredale, a leading critic of Stroll, added: “The litmus test is if someone came in now and said, ‘I’m going to build a racetrack,’ do you think they’d get a permit to do that? Absolutely not.”
Stroll’s friends call the legal actions against him and Circuit Mont Tremblant a “vendetta,” a sign that some people are simply jealous of a man who until recently was listed in Canadian Business magazine as one of the top 100 richest Canadians, meaning he is worth close to $500 million.
It has nothing to do with money, but rather Stroll’s behaviour, say his critics, many of whom are well-off themselves.
“Money doesn’t buy class,” said Michael Fuller, one of the residents who joined the lawsuits. “His arrogance is beyond belief.” Stroll’s actions, he and others say, leave a massive carbon footprint and not just in Tremblant.
Complaints were registered to Westmount city hall in the 1990s over blasting at his Gordon Cres. home for construction of an underground garage for his Ferrari collection. And in Tremblant, cottagers also complain about the private helicopter that flies him, his family and friends from Dorval airport to their $17-million Lake Tremblant mansion, then heads to park at the hangar at the track. The aircraft is also used to fly Stroll’s guests in to shoot pheasant.
In his email to The Gazette, Stroll said he was sorry to hear that the blasting in Westmount disturbed some people. He said it was necessary because his house is built on rock and “there was no alternative but to blast,” and he respected the city’s bylaws. As for the helicopter noise, he said, his pilot estimates that the helicopter accounts for about 15 per cent of helicopter traffic in the area, “yet the complainants attribute all of the noise to me.”
Sean O’Donnell, his friend of 30 years, shrugs when he hears the criticism. O’Donnell, a partner in Mont Tremblant’s Quintessence Hotel, said Stroll has a golden touch for business, making his fortune by backing clothing designer Tommy Hilfiger, and more recently, buying the upscale New York Michael Kors clothing line. And his presence in Tremblant has meant more business, and therefore, more jobs for the area. Stroll himself calls the racetrack “a world-class facility that adds to the international and world-class appeal of Tremblant.”
As O’Donnell spoke on his boutique hotel’s terrace overlooking Lake Tremblant, three shiny red Ferraris sat in the parking lot – their owners paying up to $1,500 a night for a room while in town for a two-day event at the track.
O’Donnell swears by the economic benefits of race-car fans, saying they account for about 20 per cent of his business. If the track were to close, he said, it would affect “all our businesses in a way that you have no idea.”
That may have been true before Tremblant was on the map as a world-class ski resort, say some residents, but with myriad activities like canoeing, kayaking, golf and hiking, a racetrack is no longer necessary to draw tourists. And, they say, one as loud as Le Circuit discourages people from returning once they get an earful of engine noise.
“We had friends up here golfing one day (when cars were racing) and they said no way they’d ever come back,” said Tiiu Fuller, who has retired to her home about a kilometre from the track. “The city doesn’t keep track of all the people they lose because of the noise, only those who say they come because of it.”
Despite a widespread fear of Stroll’s deep pockets, artist Holly Friesen and her husband, Jim Iredale, helped organize residents to take on Stroll.
“Everyone was saying you can’t fight him, he’s too big, he has too much money, you’ll never be able to win,” Friesen said.
“And we said no, this is insane, you can’t just come in and destroy our community. ”
Others, like Fortier, say their nerves are so frayed from the noise that they stay in Montreal rather than have to yell above the din, and chipped in at least $1,000 apiece to help cover the legal costs. Estimates of donors range from 80 to 200.
They perceive Stroll as an arrogant bully. But not one opponent interviewed for this story has actually met Stroll face to face, nor have they tried. Aside from hanging around with his wealthy buddies, they say, Stroll does not get involved in the community, preferring to stay behind the gates of his mansion or racetrack.
“He won’t let anyone get near him,” Friesen said. “He’s untouchable and just says, ‘Talk to my lawyers.’ ”
“I don’t know Stroll, but I know of him,” Fortier said. “If I judge by the facts, that he flies his helicopter extremely frequently, the conclusion I take from that is he doesn’t care about his neighbours.”
O’Donnell finds such talk unfair, especially from people who have never met Stroll, a man O’Donnell regards as a loyal and generous friend: “When we were kids, there were four of us called the falcons, and we said if one of us makes it, we’ll all stick together and we’ll all make it.”
Mont Tremblant Mayor Pierre Pilon acknowledges the track is noisy and disturbs people, but says the town has done all it can to make the facility as quiet as possible.
A few years ago, the town’s police force received about 150 complaints from residents, with some officers saying they had to yell over the motor noise to have a conversation with complainants.
As a result, council tried to get an injunction against the track ordering it to respect the town’s noise bylaw. But in November 2006, two months before the case was to go to court, a deal was struck with the track and a new noise bylaw passed.
It allowed the track to have 52 days a season of unrestricted noise – that is, race cars without mufflers – and during the remaining days, the noise level cannot exceed an average of 92 decibels over a one-hour period. (Ninety-two decibels is about as loud as a front-end loader.)
But, opponents argue, that means the noise could reach 120 or 140 dBAs – as loud as a gunshot – for part of that hour, levels that cause pain in humans. And the track is allowed to operate between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. at those levels.
Some cried foul after the town reached the out-of-court settle- ment, especially since it happened in the off-season when most residents are not around. They accused council of being influenced by promises from Stroll that he would bring riches to the community through such events as the Champ Car race. They also allege the chamber of commerce, whose president is married to the manager of the racetrack, lobbied council hard, convincing it to squander the peace and quiet of the area.
Pilon denies it, saying he never received a call from the chamber of commerce. The settlement, he said, was a realistic attempt to meet both sides’ demands.
Chamber of commerce president Mireille Bisson, who is married to track director Vince Loughran, said local business people simply wrote a letter to the town, urging both sides to “sit down and talk to each other” so that the lucrative 2007 Champ Car event wouldn’t be cancelled.
“But I didn’t sign that letter,” Bisson said, adding that she let chamber vice-president Marc Lamoureux handle the issue. “It’s not something I want to be involved in.”
The residents want Quebec Superior Court to order the track be returned to its original width, which would be too narrow for FIA-sanctioned competitions. This would mean such international races as Indy car events couldn’t be held there.
As it stands now, Stroll says, the track is rented almost every day to sports car clubs, driving schools and corporations, and it organizes special events like this year’s Ferrari Festival in July.
He points out the track made “enormous” concessions, agreeing to limits on noise levels, operating hours and special events. He says the track operates under more stringent conditions than any such track in Canada.
The track installed a noise meter at its own expense, estimated to be $200,000 so far, and noise levels are registered on a website accessible to only the police station and city hall.
Christine Dugas, secretary for the town, said since its installation in June 2007, Mont Tremblant has received about 30 noise complaints but the track has never been fined.
A log Michael and Tiiu Fuller keep at their house up the hill, about a kilometre away from the track as the crow flies, tells a different story.
“Disgustingly loud racing” says one entry, followed by day after day of entries about noise and racing. As the retired couple sit on their deck, the highpitched sound of racing cars drowns out bird calls or other sounds of nature.
“This is nothing!” Michael Fuller said. “Sometimes I’d sit out here with my headphones on and still hear it.”
Stroll insists the kerfuffle is “more about a handful of residents who think they are above the law or can try to make their own laws, without regard for the rights of other residents or businesses that do not share their point of view.”
But those listed on the lawsuit are putting their faith in the courts, which they say are supposed to treat everyone equally, no matter what their bank balance is.
“Nobody is untouchable,” Iredale said. “Everyone is accountable for his or her actions, even the poorest of the poor or the richest of the rich.”