After an immense public outcry, Niagara-on-the-Lake council has withdrawn an offer that would have let developer use part of the Upper Canada Heritage Trail to build an access road to the contentious Rand Estate development.
On Friday, Jan. 12, after a nearly three-hour private meeting with its legal advisers, councillors rescinded a Dec. 15 decision that offered Solmar Development Corp. access to the heritage trail.
In December, council met in camera with its lawyers and announced it was willing to give Solmar the right to use “a portion of its lands at Charlotte Street” for an entrance to its proposed subdivision on the historic Rand Estate.
Exactly what land might have been used remains unclear.
The subdivision is subject to litigation and scheduled for a hearing before the Ontario Land Tribunal in March.
“It’s the right decision to make,” Coun. Wendy Cheropita said of the change in course.
All members of council attended Friday’s private session, except Lord Mayor Gary Zalepa, who again declared a conflict of interest because he lives near the Rand Estate.
Town clerk Grant Bivol said the town saw the access through Charlotte Street as an opportunity to celebrate the heritage trail with a “gateway feature.”
The gateway design would have gone through a public consultation process, Bivol said.
The town did not respond to questions about whether it has received designs for potential road access to Solmar’s property at 588 Charlotte St.
Town planner Kirsten McCauley said she did not know the details of exactly where the proposed easement would have gone, saying it was being sorted out by a consulting planner working with the town.
She also said she couldn’t discuss particulars because of legal issues.
The town’s actions in December came as a shock to members of the heritage trail committee.
“It just caught us off-guard. Yeah. We knew nothing about what’s going on,” said Rick Meloen, who chairs the committee.
Meloen stressed he had not seen any plans from the town on what an access point from Charlotte Street would look like.
He speculated that much of the Rand Estate stone wall would have to be taken down along with trees on the heritage trail, if the developer were to build a road into 588 Charlotte St.
“This is my take on it. I have not seen any plans,” he said.
Meloen was thankful that residents stood up for the trail over news of council’s initial decision.
“I was very pleasantly surprised at the outpouring of support for this trail,” he said.
But he remains concerned the trail still could be at risk.
“When it goes to the tribunal, there’s not much that we can do,” he added.
Amid all the controversy, in a letter dated Jan. 8, Solmar formally asked the town for an easement to 588 Charlotte St.
Solmar’s letter was published by the resident advocacy group, Save Our Rand Estate (SORE), the next day.
Cheropita said she and Coun. Erwin Wiens met with residents of Weatherstone Court early last week to hear their concerns.
“It was a very emotional conversation,” she said. “They were very much against it.”
King Street resident Lyle Hall said the town used the “wrong method” when it decided in closed session it would grant the easement at Charlotte Street if asked by the developer.
“There seems to be better, and from a resident point of view, more obvious options,” he added.
Hall suggested the developer could build the access through the estate entrance at 144 and 176 John St. E., lots which Two Sisters Resorts Corp. owns.
For the access to go through the heritage trail, “A good chunk of that wall would have to come down,” Hall added.
“The decision to back off from using the Charlotte Street entrance was a good one.”
Though much has been made about the time and money spent fighting development on the Rand Estate, Hall said it’s worth it.
“For god’s sake, we’re making planning decisions that will affect the community for decades, for generations to come,” he said. “We’ve gotta spend the time to do this properly.”
Both Solmar and Two Sisters are owned by Benny Marotta, a fact pointed out by Kate Lyons, a lawyer representing SORE.
The group has been critical of Marotta’s refusal to use the access through the Two Sisters properties.
In an interview, Lyons said the tribunal could not force Solmar to work with Two Sisters to make SORE’s ideal access point a reality, but it could dismiss its appeal if it decided the proposed access would not work.
“They can say to Solmar, ‘Unless you go and make an arrangement, your appeals are dismissed,’ ” she said.
Lyons maintained that SORE does not support access through the heritage trail.
“We’re happy to see that the town has given a second thought to doing that,” she said.
The decision to rescind the town’s permission for an easement on the heritage trail was unanimously supported after council came out of closed session Friday afternoon.
Prior to the conclusion of that meeting, The Lake Report sent a series of questions to all councillors about why the town decided it was prepared to offer an easement on the trail in its closed session in December.
Councillors did not respond to the questions.
Coun. Sandra O’Connor again cited litigation issues as the reason for her silence.
And Wiens said he was waiting for the town to issue its formal public statement on Jan. 17.
O’Connor, who put forward the motion to rescind the original offer, said Friday’s meeting was called to hear additional information on the issue from town lawyers and planners.
“I thought the right thing was to take that heritage trail-Charlotte Street entrance off the table as one of the options,” she said.
“We didn’t want to do it hastily at that meeting, because it deserved considerable thought.”
O’Connor said the town’s lawyer will be able to negotiate on the municipality’s behalf at the tribunal in March.
Coun. Maria Mavridis said with the access at Charlotte Street “off the table,” the only options left are through the entrance at 200 John St. and the one proposed by SORE, between the 144 and 176 John St. E. lots.
“That’s one thing I don’t know that people realize,” she said.
Both SORE and the town have been critical of the access at 200 John St. because of its potential impact on heritage features in the estate, including the historic Dunington-Grubb landscaping, which fronts 200 John St.
“I will say that the Charlotte Street entrance has the least impact on heritage and I was asked to protect heritage and that’s why originally I said, ‘Of course, it’s an option,’ ” Mavridis said.
She said Friday’s decision instructs town lawyers to continue preparing their defence, but she would not share additional details due to the ongoing litigation.
“I would love to just tell you exactly how it is right now. But unfortunately, I can’t,” she said.
“We’re using taxpayers’ money to fight this. But they get no information? It is confusing to me, but that’s the rules,” she added.