Authority staff opposes project as ‘unacceptable’ safety risk
The owners of the former Dundas District High School site are promising to indemnify the Hamilton Conservation Authority against any liability for loss of life or flood damages in return for a permit to convert the building into 44 condominiums.
Brian Duxbury, lawyer for David and Mike Valvasori, offered the safeguard to address authority staff concerns the property will flood during a Hurricane Hazel-type storm, posing an “unacceptable risk” to people living there.
He said his clients will also outfit the building with “enhanced water-resistant windows and doors,” warn buyers of the flood risk and ensure the condo corporation pays for upkeep of a wall built at the western edge in 1994 to reduce flooding from Spencer Creek.
Authority director Tom Jackson, who sided with a 7-2 majority in rejecting a staff recommendation to refuse the permit, said he’s satisfied the project is safe because the site hasn’t had a history of problems despite being in a floodplain.
The Mountain councillor called the indemnity “a bonus” on an already impressive proposal.
“That is an amazing guarantee,” Jackson said during a formal, three-hour hearing on the permit application last week that saw directors retreat into closed session for more than an hour before making their decision. “That speaks volumes for me.”
In a staff presentation, watershed officer Darren Kenny said the King Street West property is designated as a one-zone floodplain by provincial policies enacted after the school was built and regulations don’t allow residential development there.
Hurricane Hazel – the 1954 storm that killed 81 people and led to the formation of conservation authorities – is the standard for flood risk and it would put the western side under up to 3.5 metres of water, he said.
“This places future residents and their property under unacceptable risk,” Kenny said, suggesting a park as a preferable alternative.
“If that (flood) wall gets overtopped, it’s the sheer volume of flow and depths of flooding that are occurring at the school property that are our main concern.”
But consultants for the Valvasoris said provincial policies give authorities broad discretion on such projects and a flood analysis prepared for their clients found the risk is 0.5 per cent.
They said of 15 entrances to the building, only three might be unusable during severe flooding, giving residents a dozen alternate escape routes.
Planning consultant John Ariens called condos “a perfect use” because they will preserve an 84-year-old heritage building while maximizing use of existing urban infrastructure.
“This is an important landmark to the Dundas community,” he said.
“As you come down from Webster’s Falls into Dundas, the first thing you see is this school building. It’s a gateway, it’s an entrance, it’s a heritage building. It deserves to be retained, it deserves to have a second life.”
In a deputation before the hearing, Dundas Councillor Russ Powers said the project is “a wonderful conversion of a heritage building” and he’s satisfied the flood wall minimizes any risk.
That risk hasn’t changed since 545 students went to the school and approval is overdue, he said. The city granted the project the necessary zoning changes in July 2010.
“It’s utterly impossible to flood-proof that particular site,” Powers said.
“If something was to happen, the Christie Dam would have to go, the CN embankment would have to go and the wall would have to go. And that would be the least of our worries because Dundas would be in Ward 1.”
Citizen appointees Dan Bowman and Maria Topalovic voted against issuing the permit without offering reasons for doing so.
But in the open session, Bowman, a Dundas resident, said as a former road superintendent he witnessed severe flooding off of the escarpment during less major storms and Dundas has plenty of experience with flooding along Spencer Creek.
“We’ve seen the power of nature,” he said.
But Flamborough Councillor Rob Pasuta, who voted in favour, said he’s walked the site and determined the school is at the high point, rejecting staff contentions climate change is bringing an increase in major storms.
“I think that’s your perception. We don’t know what’s going to happen. Particularly this year, it was supposed to be wetter. Last year it was supposed to be drier. We don’t know,” he said. “Engineers, specialists talk about it. There’s no guarantee.”