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Wednesday, May 29, 2024

Part I: The Background

It wouldn’t be hard to write a book about the controversy behind the proposed development of Randwood Estate.

There would be a long chapter about boxwood hedges, and at some point one of the characters would give a metaphorical soliloquy about stone walls.

It would be a decent mystery novel — a timeless one where people debate who the villain is, even in the end, with the overall plot centring on how one development could manage to cause a fissure in a small town so deep it will likely shape the future of the town’s council.

You’d have to find out what happens in the sequel though.

In 2017, when Two Sisters Resort officially announced it was moving forward with a proposal for a hotel on John Street, a line was drawn between those opposed to it and those who are either supporters of development on that property or who don’t really understand what the fuss is all about.

In the last year, leading up to the municipal election, that line has grown thicker.

In December 2017, a local grassroots activist group called Save Our Rand Estate (SORE) began urging town residents to fight a six-storey development at Randwood.

The group does not have a leader, said core members Lyle Hall and Duff Roman, during meetings earlier this month.

Roman and Hall both said it started as a group of neighbours who found they share a common belief that the Randwood Estate should be preserved as a historical site.

By neighbours, they are referring to those living in the vicinity of the property who started meeting to discuss a development that could end up in their backyards.

Roman, who lives on Weatherstone Court, said his property line borders Randwood, and if the estate were to be developed, it would be less than 10 metres away from his yard.

The group began gaining supporters for their movement by knocking on doors, said Hall, and publishing a website called Sorenotl.ca.

On the website, the group claims to give people facts about the Randwood development, published through dozens of articles for which no one person takes responsibility.

SORE claims a six-storey hotel would destroy the heritage value of the Randwood property and, in turn, the heritage of the town.

Another concern is the impact the hotel would have on traffic.

But the main issue, Roman said, is that such a large hotel would be a juxtaposition to the historic Old Town.

“Imagine how it would look, peeking above the tree line.”

In other words, it would be aesthetically unpleasing.

SORE is currently not a legally registered entity, and although core members have been identified, to date no single person has come forward as the face of the SORE organization, and the group insists there is not one person that makes executive decisions. They say decisions are made by a collection of concerned residents who co-ordinate weekly group phone calls to discuss the path of SORE.

Hall and Roman said SORE is in the process of incorporating, but that the group is not sure who will be its president.

The Randwood Estate was, as the title reflects, once home to the Rand family, who purchased it in 1908.

Since then, at times it has been a school, a conference centre and an executive retreat.

The property eventually ended up in the hands of Trisha Romance, her husband Gary Peterson and a St. Catharines developer, with a proposal submitted to the town in 2011 for a three-storey hotel.

The property is considered by many to be a valuable heritage location in the town of Niagara-on-the-Lake for a number of reasons, including the former uses of the main estate house, a stone wall that surrounds the property, century-old trees and shrubs, and a protected stream that trickles through the property and into the nearby Commons.

In addition to the original estate home, there is also a coach house and a guest house known as the Devonian.

The property was sold to Benny Marotta of Two Sisters Resort in 2017. He is also the owner of Solmar Development, the company that developed the St. Davids subdivision called Cannery Park, and owns several other properties in town, including two which are neighbours of Randwood.

In 2011, when the property was still owned by Romance and Peterson, a rezoning application for a hotel on the Randwood Estate, which was then next door to their home, went before town council and was approved.

At that time, there was a similar heated debated about whether to allow the rezoning and what would be allowed with regards to development.

The Town agreed to amend its height bylaw to allow the back of the (then) proposed hotel to be four storeys, where the landscape sloped down. There was also to be a spa, a 106-room hotel, and a 200-seat restaurant. Shrubs on the property — the boxwood hedge — were to be preserved. 

The 2011 report said the new building should not “dominate and overwhelm the existing buildings,” that the property should be designated under the Ontario Heritage act, and that final designs and plans be subject to approval by the Municipal Heritage Committee.

To move forward with his proposal, Marotta needs a zoning amendment to allow for the height of his 145-room hotel. It’s currently zoned at 57 feet, which is considered sufficient for five storeys, but his plan is to build higher and within a smaller footprint of the Romance design, he said.

He believes he should be able to develop his own property, and maintains he thinks of Randwood as a “paradise,” one that needs to be preserved and refreshed, pointing out no one else has come forward with a plan or the money to do that.

Marotta said he believes his stance is in the best interest of the town, and said he has no interest in removing any of the historic buildings. 

He said he has received extensive criticism for cutting heritage trees on the site, but can personally name and point out several species he hopes to protect and has had extensive work done to preserve the trees, some which are more than 100 years old, planted as part of the original estate. 

He acknowledged they only add to the value of his property and future hotel.

He said he paid arborists $87,000 last summer to maintain trees on the property so they would thrive, and to identify emerald ash trees infested with borer beetles.

He has also planted some trees of his own choice on the property, which he said is a plan for the future, when the older trees inevitably die.

There are two sides to the story of the boxwood hedge, which is protected in the town’s official plan in a 2011 amendment — some SORE members believe a section of it has been cut down, and have photos they believe they support their claim, which Marotta disputes. 

Marotta said nine of the stumps are boxwood, but that they were not healthy enough to survive a move closer to the property line — which is his plan for the hedge. The rest of the stumps, he said, are cedars.

 A town report is in the works, which will hopefully clear up that particular part of the mystery.

Designation is another divisive issue — SORE has been fighting for historical designation at the Randwood Estate since December and failed to see any progress so far, despite Two Sisters having previously agreed to designation.

Roman said because there still has been no report on any efforts made to follow through — nor has council requested the designation — he wonders who the group is fighting.

However, council members have supported designation, but will not direct the town staff to move forward until they have the Municipal Heritage Committee’s recommendation before them, which is expected in June. 

Coun. Betty Disero attempted at the May council meeting to change the wording of the motion she’d made in April, but failed, as council members said it would not be procedural.

Disero, a seasoned councillor, was accused of grandstanding by Coun. Martin Mazza, who said he believes Disero knew she wouldn’t be able to amend the wording of the motion, but wanted the discussion to take place with a room full of Randwood development critics.

While some SORE members accuse councillors of trying to prevent historical designation of the property before it goes to the provincial tribunal, Roman and Hall admitted they are uncertain “whether it is collusion or just incompetence,” at the council level.

Marotta said he thinks Disero could silently be backing SORE, as a political tool for the municipal election, in which she is running for Lord Mayor — an accusation she vehemently denies.

Along the way, the group admits it has gotten advice from Disero.

Marotta said he believes many of SORE’s talking points have been organized by somebody with a deep knowledge of political landscapes, reminiscent, he says, of “Toronto politics.”

“(Disero) is a seasoned politician,” Marotta said. 

Disero, who was a Toronto city councillor from 1985 to 2003, said she doesn’t have the “time or money” to back any such campaign.

She said she’s been open about the fact she’s spoken with SORE members “as concerned residents” and has given them advice, and “would offer help to anybody who asked for it.”

Her support of Randwood opposition has caused a division on council. 

Disero claims other council members don’t even talk to her anymore.

She has voiced frustration that development has been removed from the hands of the town, while other councillors have voiced frustrations with her, saying she isn’t following procedure and is grandstanding — to the detriment of her own cause.

Coun. Martin Mazza said he believes her cause was never Randwood, but in fact, was a much larger ploy from the very beginning — one to become lord mayor.

Marotta said he’s waiting for the staff report, which will include the heritage committee’s recommendations, before he agrees to a town-initiated designation, or moves forward on designation himself. 

He said his preference is to wait until the site plan is approved, and then designate the site. 

There is a likelihood, if the rezoning process is not completed and approved, that Marotta will appeal to the Local Planning Appeal Tribunal, which has replaced the Ontario Municipal Board, and which gives more weight to decisions of the municipality and its committees.

Marotta said he wants to clear up some rumours he’s still hearing that aren’t true about the development — people have been coming up to him under the impression he is intending to demolish the buildings on the property.

That’s not the case, he said, and those accusations are “entirely false.”

He said he will not be demolishing any of the buildings on the site, and that he plans to renovate and maintain them, as well as the wall surrounding it, and the nature and history of the property. He believes he will be preserving the characteristic of the property while fulfilling his plan.

The project, he said, is meant to bring the hospitality of NOTL to a “higher level,” and that the design is intended to achieve a five-star hotel.

He said he would be happy to meet with anyone to address any issues or misunderstanding that has caused this negativity (regarding the proposal).

“It is important that people in the town understand the only way to achieve success is working together in order to protect a unique estate within the town.”

This is the first chapter of the Randwood story, intending to go over the background, with more to follow on the remaining unsolved mysteries, including a further investigation of the conflict on council and how it could shape the fall municipal election, the real story of the boxwood hedge, the likelihood of a residential subdivision bordering the property, and what could occur if (or when) the new planning provincial appeal tribunal deals with the zoning application before the town.

Stay tuned.

This story has been changed for clarification. To date, no single person has come forward as the face of SORE. To clarify, SORE members have identified themselves at council meetings, but no one person has taken responsibility for the group. Lyle Hall has come forward and said he would represent the group where necessary. However, articles — such as a response to this story — continue to be published without one person taking responsibility. SORE has told The Lake Report numerous times it wishes to be transparent. The Lake Report has in turn communicated its belief that in order to be transparent — and given that members have said incorporation is underway — articles should be published with author names and a firm leader should be identified. In the rebuttal, SORE also fails to mention the story is the first part of a multi-part series. The Lake Report stands by its journalistic standards, which are to seek truth and stay objective.

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