After months of heated discussions about town-driven heritage designation for the historic Randwood Estate on John Street, including buildings and landscaping, councillors have moved forward to initiate the process rather than waiting for the property owner to proceed at his pace.
It's only a first step, and one council has to ratify Monday, but the vote was an indication to residents who are opposing a six-storey hotel on the estate that council is not as divided on the issue as they feared – the only dissenting vote was from Coun. Maria Bau-Coote, who said she doesn't support third-party designations – she believes a property designation should be undertaken by the owner.
Coun. Jim Collard and John Wiens declared a conflict, and Coun. Terry Flynn was absent.
Toronto heritage architect Michael McClelland, hired by the SORE (Save Our Rand Estate) group, encouraged councillors to accept the recommendations of the Municipal Heritage Committee to begin the process under the Ontario Heritage Act by announcing the Town's intention to designate three John Street properties and one on Charlotte Street, and have three members of the Town's planning staff and an outside heritage expert visit and inspect the sites to investigate what should be included in the designation. He told councillors he believes the property owner supports designation, but suggested council should “make sure nothing stumbles,” by gathering information to support designation before the hotel development site plan is ready for approval.
Opponents to the proposal are concerned about the height of a new, six-storey, 145-room hotel and conference centre, which they believe is out of keeping on the historic property with 100-year-old buildings and landscaping. The owner is looking for rezoning to bulid higher than the 157-feet currently permitted, and at issue is getting the protection heritage designation affords in place before the site plan approval stage.
Lawyer Tom Richardson, representing Randwood property owner Benny Marotta of the Two Sisters Resort, tried to convince councillors to reject the recommendations of the heritage committee and town staff to initiate the process and instead allow the property owner to proceed with his plans for designation.
Marotta, said Richardson, has already agreed to designation, agreed to preparing a heritage review of the property and to paying for a peer review,
But suddenly, “like that,” Richardson said, snapping his fingers, the municipal heritage committee “says designate the property. What happened to the process we were following based on the resolutions of the committee and this council?” he asked councillors.
If council were to allow the process to proceed directed by the property owner, “you will ultimately get to where you want to be,” he said. It may not be where residents want it to be, he added, but it would lead to the determination of which properties should and should not be designated and for what reasons.
The process the MHC has recommended, with the Town in the lead, will jeopardize council from “ever again following the same course of action in attempting to designate a private property without the consent of the owner,” he said.
Marotta was not at Monday's community and development meeting when the discussion took place, but had given Richardson a letter to read to councillors and the public, reitterating his “firm commitment to actively maintain and adaptively re-use” the existing buildings and landscaping on the John Street properties. He said he understands and sympathizes with concern over protecting Randwood and its heritage landscape, and he doesn't intend to “degrade the landscape or demolish any structures” of Randwood.
He objected to an “unwarranted and politically motivated” third-party designation of Randwood as unnecessary and hasty, and said consideration of designation of the third John Street property and the one on Charlotte, which are not the subject of any active application, would be “premature and not a co-operative approach.”
Marotta said although he has no problem with a transparent and accountable public process, he will no longer participate in a process driven by “untruths and political gamesmanship,” which does not benefit the Rand estate and ultimately leads to the public process being “sabotaged.” Instead he urged councillors to proceed along a path of trust and co-operation.
After objecting to the term “third-party” designation, which is not used in the Ontario Heritage Act, Coun. Betty Disero said she supports town-initiated designation. Over the last year, she said, the property owner has said “we're going to do this” several times, but she feels council should announce its intention to designate before the development comes up before a provincial review tribunal.
“We need to know what it is we want to protect,” she said.
“It's a matter of time. Why wouldn't we want to be in the driver's seat?”
Coun. Jamie King said although he doesn't usually support the concept of third-party designations, he was comfortable agreeing to this one. The process is taking too long, he said, and there is too much at stake to wait.
“The heritage committee wants to see us take a bold step, and I think we should take it,” King said.
He mentioned about Marotta's wish to proceed with truth and co-operation, and said, “right now, we're talking about building trust and collaboration with our community. This (heritage designation) is the piece that will build that trust and collaboration.”
If we're all on the same page, “let's not fight about how we can get there,” King added, suggesting moving forward on designation.
In a statement released after the council meeting by SORE, the group congratulated and applauded council and staff “on this long overdue initiative. We and the rest of NOTL will be watching carefully next week to ensure council follows through on last night's vote,” the statement said.
Coun. Martin Mazza voted in favour of town-initiated designation, but criticized the staff report on its lack of information, specifically any financial implications associated with the decision. He was assured that information would be available before Monday's council meeting when the issue comes up again for debate and ratification.