When a group of more than 150 people gathered in Niagara-on-the-Lake on Nov. 18 to mourn the loss of around 250 healthy trees, it was a statement to developer Benny Marotta, owner of Solmar Development Corp., who plans to build a subdivision at 588 Charlotte and 200 John Streets and a hotel on the properties of the Randwood Estate.
The message was clear: NOTL cares about heritage preservation of its greenbelt, expressed by many who wore black armbands in solidarity for the loss of the acres of local Carolinian forest.
The rally was also a call to action to the Niagara Peninsula Conservation Authority and newly elected regional and town councillors to step up their game when it comes to environmental and heritage preservation in town.
The group assembled near the stone walls of the Randwood Estate and marched through the Commons, before stopping for a “wake” service which saw speeches from concerned residents and politicians from three levels of provincial government.
Many local residents believe the trees were cut down in a rush to complete the job before the newly elected council is sworn in, according to Niagara Falls MPP Wayne Gates, who attended the rally.
He said NOTL is one of few in Canada to harbour such profound history with regards to the formation of our country, and that he believes all levels of government should be stepping in to ensure its heritage is preserved.
“There were a lot of elected representatives there, which I think was good,” Gates said. “Because this is an issue that … is about making sure you’re working with all levels of government.”
He said he thinks developers need to work with the community and should understand that in NOTL some things are a “no go,” when it comes down to destroying heritage in the process.
“No matter what it is — whether it’s the development part of it; whether it’s trying to protect our heritage; whether it’s trying to protect our beautiful history that we do have in NOTL — my whole issue is that you have to work with the community … that’s where I think this all stems together.”
The rally was well-attended and “professionally done,” he said.
“I commend the town for coming together and trying to protect what quite frankly is one of the most beautiful towns in Ontario, maybe all of Canada.
“You know, Niagara-on-the-Lake is not a town that’s known for its rallies and its protests. So on a nice Sunday afternoon, to get, I would think 150, 200 people there … residents are upset.”
Gates said his show of support was not about being against development or the developer, but to advocate for “smart development.”
“It’s got to fall within the uniqueness, particularly in NOTL, of our culture, our heritage and our history. Once we lose our heritage, it’s gone forever,” he said.
“What do you do if you lose the tourism, and nobody comes to NOTL anymore because it’s not the most beautiful town in Ontario or in Canada? What does that do to the number of jobs that we currently have? … I don’t think we should be chopping down trees that are 150 years old, that have incredible history to them.”
Gates said he thinks some of the “players in the game” aren’t working together. “And I think that’s causing some real friction.”
One thing he knows for certain, he said, is that the town “doesn’t want a six-storey hotel.”
“It doesn’t take a rocket scientist,” Gates said, recalling public meetings about Randwood where there was standing room only.
“I have no idea what Benny’s done, as far as the procedures he’s followed,” Gates said. “But I do know residents are upset. My reason for being there is to send a clear message to him that I believe he’s got an obligation to sit down with the Lord Mayor and the council and go over the process that he feels he’s done right,” said Gates.
Also in attendance were Lord Mayor-elect Betty Disero and Regional Councillor-elect Gary Zalepa Jr.
Marotta, who was out of the country at the time of the protest, insists he’s followed the proper planning procedures.
The Town of NOTL recently issued a statement alleging the November cutting disturbed a part of a heritage-protected Dunnington-Grubb landscape on the Randwood properties.
Marotta denies the allegations.