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Jul. 22, 2018 | Sunday
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RANDWOOD: Part 2: Stone walls
Part of the stone wall surrounding the properties of the Randwood Estate. (Richard Harley/Niagara Now)

The Randwood Estate story gets even more complex when the timeline is considered — Two Sisters Resort Corp. has a development application waiting for Town approval before it can proceed, and the Town is trying to get property heritage designation in place to help protect it before dealing with that approval.

Both sides of the coin — SORE (Save our Rand Estate), opposing the development as inappropriate on the historic property, and Two Sisters — have been frustrated, feeling they have been stone-walled.

The clock began ticking in 2017, when property owner Benny Marotta said he’d designate the estate himself — until June 11 of this year, when council made a decision to take over the designation process and have it completed before approving a zoning amendment for a six-storey hotel.

The town designation could cause further delay to the approval process, while Marotta said he would have liked to have a shovel in the ground this spring.

In some ways, he already did. Shortly after revealing an initial design plan to town council, he began preparing the Randwood property for development.

The Town’s decision to initiate designation should halt any work being done, though some residents opposed to the development have brought up the 2011 Romance Inn report, which mentioned conservation of the property, specifically a boxwood hedge buffer adjacent to the coach house and the Christopher Street properties.

Marotta admits nine boxwoods have been cut down, but said they were identified by a paid arborist as diseased and maintains any work he’s done has been to the specifications of the 2011 plan.

Some of the rules and recommendations for the property listed in the 2011 report were that:

· “Sufficient landscaping, buffers, and setbacks shall be provided to minimize the impact on abutting residential uses.”

· “No terraces or balconies above the second storey shall be oriented toward abutting properties. Any terraces or balconies shall be oriented toward the interior of the property … It is also expected the building will provide some noise attenuation between the Inn and the residential area.”

· “A tree preservation plan prepared by a qualified professional and subject to review by the NPCA shall be be submitted with a site plan application.”

· “The boxwood hedge shall remain and be properly protected and preserved to ensure its continued growth.”

SORE believes Marotta should not have been allowed to start work on the hedge without having a designated town heritage planner approve the report from the arborist. 

But a Town report recently released says the official plan protection of the hedge was never implemented, and short of heritage designation of the landscape, or an approved landscape plan contained in a registered site plan agreement, the policies of the official plan offer no effective protection of the boxwood hedge, or recourse in the event of its removal.

The hedge is deemed by some as historically significant because it is part of a Dunington-Grubb landscape planted more than 100 years ago. The property also includes a garden pond designed by Dunington-Grubb, who was a notable female Canadian landscape artist.

Marotta has also planted trees on his property, which are included in his new proposal, even though it has not received approval.

The property currently has an application in holding for a development of 57 feet — for context, the current mansion has a maximum height of 42.65 feet, according to a report prepared by Quartek Group Inc. for the Two Sisters application. Marotta is requesting a further zoning amendment for six storeys, which would generally be around 60 feet, though he plans to make the first floor the equivalent of two storeys according to design plans, bringing the amount he needs to around 23 additional feet.

SORE members have said it’s obvious Marotta is preparing the land for the Two Sisters development, partially because of the nature of the work being done, including moving the boxwood hedge back 10 metres.

Other concerns of SORE members and residents opposed to the development are an underground garage, the traffic impact resulting from a large conference centre, and the privacy and living comfort of neighbouring residents.

With regards to additional traffic, the 2011 report suggested the current roads could the increased volume, “even with addition of the proposed development."

The whole Randwood issue has caused many SORE members to be frustrated with some members of council, especially ones they feel to be in support of the development, or allowing it to happen for some other reason — namely councillors Martin Mazza, Paolo Miele, Maria Bau-Coote, and Lord Mayor Pat Darte.

SORE members said it’s clear town residents are not supportive of the currently proposed development and believe designation is one way to potentially preserve the property and ensure whatever is built suits NOTL, and that certain councillors and the lord mayor appeared to be delaying the designation process, though apart from Bau-Coote, they all voted in favour of it June 11.

The group maintains that if people don’t want the currently proposed hotel — and if the developer and the Municipal Heritage Committee both agree the properties should be designated — council should have acted faster on approving a motion for designation.

The problem now is how long it has taken.

Marotta can now take the decision for the height amendment restriction to the Local Planning Appeal Tribunal — which has replaced the Ontario Muncipal Board to hear planning decision appeals — since there is little likelihood he will have his decision within the specified time. 

LPAT is in place to ensure developers have a fair trial when proposing developments, while respecting provincial legislation and municipal decisions.

Marotta said he’s still considering whether he will take the project to the appeals tribunal, but that he feels he has little other choice.

He said he views the people from SORE as “bullies.”

SORE members, who said they aren’t trying to prevent development entirely, but would like it to be sensitive to the town and its neighbours, also believe if the town approves the bylaw for six-storeys for Randwood, it could set a precedent that would allow every other developer to build six storeys.

Marotta said he doesn’t think the property can be used as a precedent, because the amendment request is based on many factors that are unique to the Randwood property, including the stone wall that surrounds the property, a provincially conserved creek, rare old trees and historical buildings.

Town planning committee staff told the The Lake Report all planning applications are considered objectively, based on their merits, and that every site and context is unique.

The site plan for the proposed hotel also shows a plan for a future subdivision behind the John Street hotel, which would expand on the area behind Christopher Street and Weatherstone Court.

SORE members have raised concerns about the subdivision, though it is not approved as the land is currently zoned for low-density residential development. 

Subdivisions are defined as medium to high-density, so a separate amendment would need to go before council. The Town has said it has no application for the subdivision.

A division on council has trickled down into a division of residents, sparking various political efforts, including a social media group called FocusNOTL which advocates for a “new council.”

While many of SORE’s talking points have been used by FocusNOTL, SORE core member Lyle Hall said he wanted to make it clear the group is not affiliated with FocusNOTL in any way, and that SORE is not advocating for a clean sweep of council.

The advocation for a clean sweep by unregistered political groups has caused a further division among residents, as well as between residents and councillors.

Some residents support a new council, while many question if that is a good idea, calling into question the motives to run, particularly if it’s on a single issue.

Councillors themselves have noted the job of a councillor is a lot of work — more than just making zoning amendments.

Other contrasting groups have since formed in response, such as NOTL 4 All, intensifying the divide, as it seems some groups are actively pitted against each other on social media sites.

Some council members have also gotten involved.

Some social media comments accuse some councillors to be in the pockets of developers, and accusations have even reached councillors’ families via social media.

All councillors spoken to have denied the allegations, and at times family members of councillors have also come to their defence.

Paolo Miele is one councillor who sometimes gets involved in Facebook debates.

Miele, who runs two successful businesses, said any accusations of being in somebody’s pocket are insulting and that he just wants to see council follow procedure.

Further confusing the matter is the use of the term “third party designation.”

The designation, which was approved by the town Monday, is not outlined in procedure as “third-party designation.”

The (unofficial) term has been used to clarify a process in which a municipality decides a property warrants designation, usually with an unwilling property owner.

In the past, the Town has forced designation on properties of heritage significance, including 289 Ricardo St., which also contains a Dunington-Grubb landscape.

So far, designation of the Randwood Estate has been a slow moving process.

Marotta agreed to initiate designation of the property himself, and as a result council did not force immediate designation on the property.

Marotta, who said he still agrees on designation, would prefer to wait until the proposal is approved before designating the site.

Many residents and members of SORE have expressed concerns about why Marotta did not make the motion to designate the property right away and have accused Marotta of wanting to tear down buildings on the property, saying the reason he doesn’t want to designate is that it would prevent him from being able to do so if he changes his mind.

Marotta has been consistent in saying he plans on developing the site with heritage in mind, however, SORE members have asked why — if the case is he is going to do everything in his power to preserve the heritage features of the property — he hasn’t designated already.

He said regardless of his intention to preserve the property, some changes will need to be made, but they will be ones that are appropriate to the feel of the Old Town.

He said he feels he’s been attacked with regard to his development, and worries how much longer it will take to get started.

Marotta has given a number of reasons why he wanted to control designation, including that he does not want to be further limited with regards to what he can do, since there is already an approval which outlines building guidelines.

But a representative of his told councillors a detailed inventory of the property, buildings and landscape, has been almost completed, which is the first step toward designation.

Editor’s note: The paper has filed a freedom of information request for all email correspondence through town emails from all members of council (from June 2017 to June 2018) to Benny Marotta; Solmar Development Corp; Two Sisters and its lawyers; as well as core SORE members.

Part 3: The residents comes out in July.

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