Opponent cries foul over Maplewood Hall dinner meeting
The Hamilton Conservation Authority is being accused of showing bias at the outset of a two-month public consultation period on a controversial proposal to lease its former outdoor education in the Dundas Valley to a private school.
Dundas resident Joanna Chapman, who made an impassioned plea against the plan at a meeting of the authority’s directors last week, said she was surprised to discover the Strata Montessori Adolescent School held a dinner at the centre the very next evening.
The Artaban Road centre, presently known as Maplewood Hall, has mostly sat empty for the past two years because its septic system no longer meets regulatory standards for weddings and other large functions.
“The optics of the Montessori school using the building at this time are bad and it certainly appears to give a perception of a bias in favour of the school,” said Chapman, who counted 65 to 70 cars parked outside the hall on the night of the dinner.
“It would appear that they’re being given some kind of preferential treatment at a stage when the building isn’t available to anybody.”
But Chris Firth-Eagland, the authority’s chief administrative officer, said the hall has been rented out a couple of times in the past two years and he saw nothing inappropriate in allowing the school to do so for an annual dinner.
It made the request about two weeks prior to last Friday evening’s event, he said.
“It’s part of the Montessori school’s evaluation of the site,” he said. “In order for a proposal to be brought forward, there has to be some recognition on both sides as to whether or not this is a valuable and potentially successful relationship.”
Tony Evans, the school’s director, said about 80 parents attended the dinner, usually held at the school’s current home base in the former Central Park public school in Dundas.
“We have to move forward, explaining what we’re looking at doing with our community, in the same way that the Hamilton Conservation Authority are,” he said.
In a presentation to authority directors last Thursday, Evans said the hall is the perfect spot for what will be “a world-class school” because environmental stewardship is a central to its mission.
While a proposed 15-year lease would allow for up to 60 students in Grades 7 to 9 and eight staff, “realistically, we’d be ecstatic with 40,” he said, itemizing a number of ways the school hopes to limit its impact on the environmentally significant area.
These include having students walk to the site from the foot of Artaban Road, using compostable toilets and potentially finding alternate energy sources to allow the building to run on its own power.
“This is what our children are going to need to learn to survive in the new world that we unfortunately have set up for them,” Evans said, predicting the school will turn out the next generation of passionate defenders of the valley.
But Catherine Beattie, who lives in the area, said the objections that killed two previous plans to lease the centre – first to a yoga group, then to another private school – also apply to the Montessori bid.
She said urban growth in the past decade is putting more stress than ever on the valley, urging directors to heed a staff recommendation in February to demolish the hall, built in 1918 and originally headquarters for a Dundas Lions Club summer camp.
“The whole area is drawing more people,” Beattie said, citing an influx of large running groups and cyclists as examples. “The area is suffering the impact.”
Chapman said the school isn’t suitable, no matter how wonderful its students or goals, including because it will feature an organic garden with chickens and barnyard animals that will have to be fenced.
“I don’t that think you teach young people about nature and the value of the outdoors by going into an area, encroaching on nature and destroying it,” she said.
“I’m not trying to keep people out of the valley. I’m just saying this oversteps anything I’ve ever seen proposed before.”
Directors approved a public consultation process that hopes to see a decision made by the end of the year, but revised a plan to have the school co-host a meeting by directing staff to run it.
“I don’t want to be seen to be having the organization that has the interest in the property helping to run to the community meetings,” chair Brian McHattie said.
“Perceptions are always important,” he said. “It’s our property. It’s ultimately our decision and no one else’s, in terms of the process.”