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Donors convince authority to abandon valley lease plan

$213,000 in pledges to fund Maplewood Hall demolition, site restoration

By Richard Leitner, News Staff

An outpouring of financial support to pay for the demolition of a former Dundas Valley outdoor education centre has effectively killed a bid by a private school to rent the building from the Hamilton Conservation Authority.

The authority’s conservation advisory board voted unanimously last week to recommend Maplewood Hall be torn down after donors pledged $213,000 toward the project, which will also see the 13-hectare Artaban Road property restored to a natural state.

While the recommendation must still go to authority directors on March 6 for final approval, their OK is likely a formality because five of 11 directors were on hand to support the advisory board recommendation.

“It’s the largest single spontaneous outpouring of funds from one community I’ve ever seen in such a short time,” said authority vice-chair Jim Howlett, among the directors who helped make the recommendation unanimous.

“Money isn’t everything, but when the community says we’re really willing to put our money where our vision is in that way, that’s a really important thing and can’t be ignored.”

Dundas residents Mark Tamminga and Joany Verschuuren led the way by pledging $100,000 over five years. Retired judge Thomas Beckett, a former authority chair, has also vowed to raise $28,000.

Two other donors pledged $60,000 and $25,000 apiece.

Chief administrative officer Chris Firth-Eagland said although some donors wish to remain anonymous, he met with all of them on Sunday and they are “absolutely resolved” to following through on their commitments.

He said the donations are nearly equivalent to the net revenues the authority would have garnered from leasing Maplewood Hall to Strata Montessori Adolescent School over 10 or 15 years.

“It’s a win-win situation really for the conservation authority and the environmental community,” Firth-Eagland said.

“The best thing environmentally is being done by demolishing the facility and restoring the site. And the other side of the coin is the conservation authority now is in a position to receive the funding to undertake the work and the full restoration.”

Tony Evans, director of the Montessori school, said he’s disappointed but respects the decision to not proceed with a lease, calling the authority “a great organization” that gives Hamilton the best connection to nature in Ontario.

He said apart from the opposition the lease plan drew, the Maplewood Hall site posed some challenges for his school, including the steep access road.

“They have to do what they need to do to thrive and survive. $213,000, that’s a lot of money and I think that’s great. Good for them,” Evans said.

 “We’re OK. We’re looking at some place that might even be better for us already, so I’m glad it worked out for them and look forward to creating a great school moving forward.”

Dundas resident Joanna Chapman, a fierce critic of the lease plan, said she’s pleased to see the authority follow an initial staff recommendation to demolish the hall, formerly known as the Resource Management Centre.

She said she strongly opposes putting a private school anywhere on conservation lands.

“I just don’t think that what the conservation authority’s about, especially when there are all these schools hunting for tenants,” Chapman said. “It just seems completely unreasonable to me.”

Firth-Eagland said the authority has no other suitable properties for a private school and work will now begin on planning for the demolition project, which will be “modest in scope” and as environmentally sensitive as possible.

Apart from removing the hall, three other outbuildings and the septic system, key elements will include narrowing the access road to a pathway, restoring the forest canopy and possibly enhancing the stream, he said.

The project won’t disturb a chapel and gravestones, remnants from when the Anglican diocese owned the property, located in a provincially significant, environmentally sensitive area that supports several rare and threatened birds.

But it will likely provide “a very small” pavilion for hikers to rest and get a drink from an existing waterline, Firth-Eagland said.

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