Michael McClelland, a heritage architect with SORE, presents the architectural history of the Rand Estate. Evan Loree, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

The dispute between Solmar and SORE over the future of the Rand Estate is now in the hands of the Ontario Land Tribunal.

Almost 300 people gathered at the Niagara-on-the-Lake Community Centre Monday night to watch the two groups butt heads over Solmar’s request for permits to alter and demolish structures on the historic property.

Solmar Development Inc., the Save Our Rand Estate advocacy group, interested residents and town staff spent almost four hours arguing the issue.

At the end of the meeting, council voted 4-3 to preserve all structures on the estate and refuse Solmar’s permit applications. 

Voting in favour were Couns. Tim Balasiuk, Gary Burroughs, Sandra O’Connor and Maria Mavridis whereas Couns. Wendy Cheropita, Nick Ruller and Erwin Wiens voted against.

“The two previous councils were very different in views and composition but they both recognized the unique heritage of this property,” O’Connor said during the meeting.

“I do not wish to change lanes now,” she added.

Solmar will appeal council’s decision to the Ontario Land Tribunal along with the rest of its development proposal for the historic property, said Sara Premi, the lawyer representing Benny Marotta’s company. 

Lord Mayor Gary Zalepa declared a conflict of interest on the issue at the start of the special council meeting because he lives near the estate. 

Coun. Adriana Vizzari was absent.

Entering the meeting, town heritage planner Denise Horne had recommended approval for the demolition of three structures, including the pool garden, the Calvin Rand summer house and the old stable house.

O’Connor suggested council dismiss those recommendations and accept the rest, which were to deny any request from the Marotta-owned company to demolish structures.

Wiens and Ruller expressed concern about taking the matter to the Ontario Land Tribunal, which resolves land disputes.

“We’ve gotten almost everything we’ve wanted from Denise Horne (the town heritage planner). I wouldn’t want to risk it at the (Ontario Land Tribunal) to get one or two more things at the risk of losing it all,” Wiens said.

The developer made changes to the demolition requests before the meeting in light of input from Horne and the municipal heritage committee. 

“We heard the municipal heritage committee loud and clear,” Premi said.

The Solmar planning team revised its plan to demolish the carriage house on the property after the town’s heritage committee suggested moving the building.

Ruller said he found it “troubling” that council would be unwilling to support a staff member who had spent a “significant amount of time” putting the report together.

“There’s a part of me that feels we’re abdicating our responsibility as council,” he said.

Cheropita agreed, saying, “We’re dealing with an expert (Horne) who is giving us advice, who is part of our staff.”

Premi said there was a lot of “common ground” between the opposing sides.

“These are lands that are designated, zoned and intended for subdivision,” she told the crowd.

To Premi, the disagreement comes down to a difference in opinion over where the developer should build the access point to the proposed subdivision.

Solmar proposes to build a private access road into the development from the entrance to the estate at 200 John St. E. 

SORE suggests building it at the entrance between 144 and 176 John St. E.

In fact, SORE and Solmar disagree on much more, including on how many units should end up in the final subdivision.

Solmar wants to build 191 homes whereas SORE proposes to build 71.

Catherine Lyons, a lawyer representing SORE, argued Solmar’s proposed access point would result in the destruction of three trees, rather than the nine the developer would have to cut down to build its proposed access road.

Two weeks ago, at the meeting with the town’s heritage committee, the Solmar team defended its choice of access point on the grounds that it did not own the access point proposed by SORE.

But Lyons said the proposed access point is owned by another Marotta company, Two Sisters Resorts Corp.

“When it’s convenient for the Marotta properties, all four municipal addresses in the Rand Estate are available for his use. But when it’s not convenient, they’re under different owners and they couldn’t possibly be used as SORE is proposing,” she said.

This was met by applause from the crowd, which was quickly berated by Wiens, who chaired the meeting after Zalepa left.

He called the applause “unacceptable.”

“Oh yes, it’s acceptable,” a voice from the crowd said.

Wiens was concerned the meeting would become as unruly as a similar gathering five years ago.

“In 2018, it devolved into something that was unseemly and it’s not going to happen again tonight. This is important,” he said. 

Rebutting Lyons’ assertion, Premi said the two municipal addresses were under two different corporate owners and that does complicate the access point. 

“I have never understood how it would be appropriate on any perspective — on a heritage perspective — to put a road between those two buildings. They are the jewel of the Rand Estate,” Premi said.

“Those are two properties that the Marotta family is committed to maintaining for heritage purposes,” she added.

Lyons also took issue with Solmar’s plans to build an emergency access point to the estate for fire trucks and other emergency vehicles.

“​​The fire department would never allow a little road to serve all those houses,” she said.

In her presentation, Lyons shared photos of Solmar clear-cutting trees on the Rand Estate in 2018. 

“Before the new council was seated, the Marotta companies moved a number of pieces of heavy equipment on to the Rand Estate and in one single day engaged in a wholesale clear-cutting of a vast swath of the estate,” she said.

Premi argued the cutting was legal and town staff had been given notice of the company’s intentions.

“It is simply unfair, time after time after time again that SORE shows those pictures. That’s not relevant to what you’re determining tonight,” Premi said.

Concluding SORE’s arguments, Lyons said the power for council to make a meaningful decision was no longer on the table.

“Solmar has taken that ball away from council and given it to the Ontario Land Tribunal,” she said.

The land tribunal is scheduled to hear Solmar’s appeal starting in March 2024.

By Evan Loree, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

Original Published on Apr 26, 2023 at 17:24

This item reprinted with permission from   The Lake Report   Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario
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