The Town of Niagara-on-the-Lake will initiate heritage designation of the historic Randwood Estate, despite a warning that adopting an “intrusive” and “punitive” approach would be at a cost to taxpayers and could take longer than allowing the property owner to continue a process that is already well underway.
Maurizio Rogato, speaking for Benny Marotta of Two Sisters Resort, told councillors Monday he had to ask himself why council would refuse Marotta's co-operative approach and his “firm, written personal commitment” to designate the John Street properties which are now the site of a rezoning application to build a six-storey hotel. The conclusion he came to, he said, is that it is driven by “continued and documented falsehoods,” such as that a year has gone by with no process started, and that council is now playing catch-up. Such statements, he said, are “simply fear-driven and aren't true.”
He told councillors heritage planner Leah Wallace, formerly employed by the Town and now a consultant for Marotta, has been working “with an urgent sense of importance” to catalogue both the interior and landscape attributes in support of designation.
He said it's detailed work and has taken time, but he sees an end in sight later this month. “The lands are going to be designated – that's a fact,” Rogato said. “I urge you to stay the course and adhere to the proper public process.”
Abandoning that approach, he said, would be unnecessary and unproductive, would delay the process as work already completed would have to be duplicated, and would cost taxpayers thousands of dollars.
It would also, he said, “drive a wedge” in the community, of which Two Sisters Resort is a member.
“Do not allow the politics of fear to intrude into your decision-making,” he implored council.
Councillors at Monday's council meeting were dealing with recommendations of the Municipal Heritage Committee to begin the designation 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. They had approved the recommendations at last week's planning committee meeting, and residents opposing the hotel development as inappropriate for a historic property were anxious to hear whether that vote would be ratified by council.
Paul Shepherd of the Niagara Foundation, which focuses on heritage preservation, encouraged councillors to move to designate the four properties of the Randwood Estate, saying all four addresses are significant cultural assets that are important locally and nationally.
“If the town can't manage to designate one of the signature estate properties in NOTL it is failing its responsibility to protect our heritage resources,” Shepherd said.
“It's time for the town to step up,” before entertaining any application for development of the property, he added.
St. Catharines lawyer Patrick Little, representing SORE (Save our Rand Estate), also reminded council of its responsibility to protect heritage resources, a process which exists separate from any development application, he said.
“It's a town process – you're just doing your job.”
He asked how the Town could deal with a site plan application without knowing what has to be protected on the site. “It is clear, logical and necessary for the Town to proceed with designation now.”
Trust between the council and the community has broken down over the handling of the Randwood proposal, he added, “and finishing what you started last week (moving forward with designation) will go a long way toward the process of repairing that trust.”
As at last week's meeting, Coun. Maria Bau-Coote was the only dissenting vote, saying she's against any town-initiated designation. This week, she questioned why the town would spend money to duplicate the work that is underway by the developer, estimated at a cost of $10,000, which would not include the expense of an appeal by the property owner if that occurs.
She asked town planning director Craig Larmour if he could confirm whether Rigato's statement about the work underway is true, and he said he believes it is.
In response to a question about timelines, Larmour said that while allowing the developer to proceed with designation might be a more co-operative approach, but with the need for a peer review by the town and a possible appeal, “I'm not sure you'd gain any time.”
Bau-Coote said she couldn't support having the town take over the process “when someone's already going ahead with this.”
Coun. Betty Disero asked her fellow councillors, with the public onside, the Municipal Heritage Committee, Town staff and even the property owner in favour of designation, “why wouldn't we go ahead with this?”
The difference in whether the Town or Two Sisters undertakes the designation, she said, is a matter of control.
Once the Town gives notice of its intention to designate, the developer can't move ahead with any work on the property, said Disero. Without that, the developer can bypass input from the Municipal Heritage Committee, and “we lose control.”
“The issue of control is fundamental,” agreed Coun. Jamie King.
Although there is a cost to the Town, “this is something residents want us to open the piggy bank for and in good faith we should be supporting the residents.”
Coun. Terry Flynn, who was not at last week's meeting to vote, said council shouldn't put “all of its eggs in one basket” based on the applicant's good faith.
The property was recommended for designation in 2011 when it was the site of an application for the Romance Inn, and it was flipped before that occurred, he reminded council.
Putting controls on the property now means that if that happens in the future, anyone considering buying the property would know what controls are in place ahead of time.
All councillors were present at the meeting, including Lord Mayor Pat Darte, and all except Bau-Coote voted in favour of the town announcing its intention to designate the property, which the exception of Jim Collard and John Wiens, who declared a conflict of interest and did not take part in the discussion.