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Call for ‘hard facts’ freezes Dundas Valley lease bid

Advisory board seeks answers on costs, regulatory approvals

By Richard Leitner, News Staff

A Hamilton Conservation Authority proposal to lease a former Dundas Valley outdoor education centre to a private school is on hold to allow for a more rigorous analysis of the financial implications and potential regulatory hurdles.

Members of the conservation advisory board referred the proposal back to staff after hearing from 10 delegations, all but two of them opposing a bid by Strata Montessori Adolescent School to rent the Artaban Road centre for 15 years.

The lease is one of four options offered for the former Resource Management Centre, now called Maplewood Hall, with the others being demolition, upgrading it as a rental facility and mothballing it for future use.

Advisory board member Duke O’Sullivan said there are still too many unanswered questions on the lease, including how it fits in with a 50-year vision for the DundasValley and whether it requires changes to city zoning bylaws and the Niagara Escarpment Plan.

He said the lease proposal also needs a more detailed cost-benefit analysis because a staff report only provides estimates on the other options, which range from $30,000 for mothballing to between $218,000 and $560,000 for upgrading the hall as a rental facility.

No financial breakdown has been provided for the lease proposal, although staff has estimated it will generate $400,000 in profit over 15 years. Demolition is pegged at $138,000, which includes $70,000 to convert an access road into a trail.

 “There are some really serious numbers there, but I don’t know if these are hard facts or if they’re guesstimates or estimates,” O’Sullivan said, asking why the school can’t use the Dundas Valley Trail Centre for outdoor education, as other schools do.

“Could we not negotiate with the Montessori that they utilize that facility for part of the week?” he said “That way our education component, again, is centralized and that area is being used for education, so it would sort of just expand on that.”

The unanimous vote to refer the matter back to staff came after several impassioned pleas to reject the lease proposal and demolish the building, part of a 13-hectare property acquired from the Anglican Church’sNiagara diocese in 1968 for $30,000.

Thomas Beckett, who chaired the authority at the time, said the diocese chose not to sell the property on the open market because it wanted the site “to be forever in the public domain as conservation land.”

To lease it to private interests, no matter how laudable, breaks faith with those wishes and conservation principles, he said, suggesting the deal will effectively transfer the land to the school.

“Once you’ve opened that door a crack, where does it end? Do you think that if they get this lease for 15 years and they’re successful, which we hope that they would be, that they won’t want to come back in 15 years and say we need to renew?” Beckett said.

“This is not a conservation use; it’s a school use, to a private enterprise. It’s simply wrong.”

But Tony Evans, the school’s director, said the lease will continue a history of outdoor education at the property, first developed as a summer camp by the Dundas Lions Club in 1918, when the building was constructed.

He said his school, to be limited to 60 students and eight staff, will conscientiously address issues like its environmental footprint and maintenance of the access road, calling them “distractions to the central question here.”

“I truly believe that these lands need these children and this school in order to survive and flourish for the next 50 years,” Evans said.

“This building has been used for children’s education connected to nature for almost a hundred years, so this is not really a major shift. This is a magical place with a long history,” he said.

“All of us here want the same thing, to preserve this valley and to protect this natural habitat. We need to be to bold and we need to be imaginative and we need to take risks.”

But Paul Smith, speaking on behalf of the Hamilton Naturalists’ Club, said the property is in a provincially significant, environmentally sensitive area that supports several rare and threatened birds, making it the wrong spot for the building, road and two parking lots.

Birds won’t nest within 100 feet of the break they create in the forest canopy, he said, and the road’s constant erosion also affects the quality of Sulphur Creek, the valley’s main spawning stream for rainbow trout.

Smith asked how the authority will convince others in the valley to manage their properties responsibly if, for short-term financial gain, it ignores an initial staff recommendation to demolish the building and naturalize the area.

“Please don’t burn the furniture,” he said. “Do what’s best for your most valuable, irreplaceable asset.”

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