Public meeting to be held Wednesday regarding proposed nature reserve land swap

Public meeting to be held Wednesday regarding proposed nature reserve land swap

A proposed land exchange between the Muskoka Conservancy and abutting landowners Jeremiah Tillstra and Margaret Stead has area residents up in arms.

The exchange proposed would see the Conservancy sever about 0.8 hectares (1.977 acres) of land containing 105m of frontage at Town Line Road West from the Nelson Head Nature Reserve located at 25 Town Line Road West. In exchange, the abutting property owners at 139 Brunel Road would sever 4.0 hectares (9.884 acres) from the back of their property to be added to the reserve.

The land swap would enable the Brunel Road property owners to create a new building lot with frontage on Town Line Road West, while the Conservancy would increase the Nelson Head Nature Reserve from 3.7 hectares (9.143 acres) to 6.9 hectares (17.05 acres) with frontage on both Town Line Road West and Brunel Road.

In two letters submitted to the Town by the Conservancy, its representatives noted that the estimated two acres they would give up does not have as much ecological value as the approximately 10 acres the reserve would gain. In addition, they say the headwaters of a stream that runs through the nature reserve are located in the acreage the reserve would gain as a result of the land exchange.

In 2012, the lands where the reserve is situated were donated to the Conservancy by Aldine Head in memory of her husband, Bill, and father-in-law, Nelson.

Attempts to reach Head were unsuccessful. She indicated through a family friend, Mike MacDonald, that she did not want to go on the record. He said she was so distraught over the Conservancy’s proposal that she had asked him to speak on her behalf. MacDonald questioned why anybody would want to donate property to the Conservancy if their wishes aren’t going to be followed.

“They’re just doing whatever they see fit. They’re going against the donor’s wishes and doing whatever they want, is what it boils down to,” he said. He also questioned the intentions for the new lot, noting that it could be used for a multi-residential development.

When reached by Doppler, Scott Young, executive director of Muskoka Conservancy, said he’s surprised at the backlash. “A lot has changed during COVID, land values are changing rapidly. All I can tell you is that the land that we’re getting back in exchange for the land we’re giving up has more value to us,” he said, adding that a 200-acre swamp would be more ecologically valuable to the organization than say a perfectly level downtown property next to a parking lot.

“We value the land for its conservation value and the land that we’re getting in exchange is five times more than the land we’re giving up and it has higher conservation values,” he said, adding that typically people want more nature conservation. “We feel that the property that we’re getting in exchange for this is significantly better from a conservation perspective than the two acres that we’re giving up. Otherwise, we wouldn’t be doing this. I find it all surprising that people would be opposed to it.”

Young said despite Head’s wishes not to conduct the land exchange and leave the land as-is, the organization plans to move forward with the planning requests as the applications have already been submitted.

“We have indeed decided to go ahead anyway and just let the Town decide because the applications are already in, the meeting is already set, the public is already upset… if the Town decides it doesn’t want it, the Town doesn’t have to have it. The Town can say no, and if the good people of Huntsville decide that they don’t want it they can attend the meeting and write letters and tell them they don’t want it. From my experience, Huntsville gets what Huntsville wants,” he said, adding, “I totally respect her position, it’s just that the perspective changed… everybody can change their mind, right?”

MacDonald said Head has always maintained that she wanted the property to remain the way it was donated. He said she felt pressured by the Conservancy to accept their proposal but she does not want them to move forward with it.

A remote public meeting regarding the rezoning of the lands at 25 Town Line Road West to Conservation in support of the land exchange and lot creation is expected to take place on Wednesday, June 16, 2021, at 1 p.m. A link to the meeting and instructions on how to participate can be found here.

The staff report to be presented at the meeting includes eight letters objecting to the land exchange from area residents. Their concerns include the precedence such a land swap would create for future donations and concerns that the lands that were donated had not been rezoned Conservation in the first place. One letter writer went as far as questioning the optics associated with the planning department’s recommendation that the applications be approved, particularly since one of the landowners has a “Town Hall connection”.

Planning staff noted in their report that given the amount of opposition to the file, only once a decision on the zoning amendment has been rendered will the Town’s Committee of Adjustment consider the consent application (subdivision of land). The Town’s public notice is also requesting that all submissions from the public regarding the consent application be made prior to Wednesday’s meeting. But that process has come under fire by area residents who say public input should be sought first and separately on whether the lands should be severed.

You can find staff’s full report here.  

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