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Nov. 19, 2018 | Monday
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Protesters gather outside Randwood Estate
Residents concerned about trees being cleared from John Street properties gathered in protest outside the gates of the Randwood Estate in Niagara-on-the-Lake Nov. 6. (Richard Harley/Niagara Now)

A group of about two dozen Niagara-on-the-Lake locals gathered in front of the gates to the Randwood Estate Tuesday morning to protest the cutting of trees on the properties.

The cutting began last week on the property behind the estate, and those who attended the rally, many who live in the vicinity, believe developer and property owner Benny Marotta was outside his rights to cut the trees down.

Dan Kelly, who lives on Weatherstone Court (which backs onto the Randwood Estate), said he’s been following the proposals for a six-storey hotel on the properties, as well as a subdivision behind them, and that many residents are against the proposed developments.

“We consider these two properties to be the premium estate properties in Niagara-on-the-Lake, if not Ontario, and feel that they should not be developed. They should be restored because the history in this community is very important to all the residents that live here,” Kelly said, noting many residents have been against the changing of the zoning to allow for a six-storey hotel.

The Town’s current bylaws allow for development up to three storeys, while a 2011 plan for the Randwood Estate was approved for four storeys.

Kelly said it appears Marotta is trying to clear-cut the properties before the newly elected council is sworn in.

“What we’ve seen going on here is basically just a clear-cutting. There are photos of massive trees that have been cut, and you can tell in looking at the photos that they were healthy trees. The diameter of these trees is about three feet,” Kelly said.

“I think as a resident of Ontario, as a resident of NOTL, all you need to do is come down and look at this property to realize that any attempt to develop it along the lines of what he’s proposing should just be completely unacceptable," said Kelly. "The design of the hotel is very reflective of chain hotels such as Embassy Suites. So we feel that there is no attention being made to try and integrate this into the architectural style of the town, and there’s an outright attempt to just clear-cut this area here.”

About a year and a half ago, Marotta invited neighbours of the estate, along with some town councillors and local arborist Buddy Andres, to walk around the Randwood properties. He assured them he would only be taking down trees that were diseased or dead, although removal of a small number might be necessary for development of the property. In that case, he would replant, he said at the time.

Protesters gathered at the two entrances to the estate on John Street and the one entrance on Charlotte Street. The largest group was at the main gates on John Street, where the vehicles of the tree removal crews were lined up to enter and begin their work. They chanted songs such as, “I don’t know but I’ve been told, Randwood trees are very old," but were unable to prevent tree removal workers from entering the property with chainsaws. 

Marotta, owner of the property, said the trees being cut down are only on 200 John St., and that he’s within his legal rights to clear the land. He noted there is no official development plan proposed for that property, which is already zoned residential, meaning he doesn’t currently require an arborist report on the trees. Once Marotta submits a plan for the subdivision he will need an arborist's report, but until that time he is legally allowed to clear the land.

Marotta said he expected people to protest the cutting.

“There’s a lot of people that have nothing to do, but rather cause problems and embarrass the town, trying to stop someone that follows the rules, follows the bylaws. So I just hope that they don’t break the law.”

He said the clearing of the trees is permitted by the Town’s bylaws and the NPCA, and that he “won’t allow” anyone to interfere with “what needs to be done.”

“It’s nothing to do with the Rand (Estate) … in the back we’re doing what is allowed under the bylaws and as per the conservation authority.”

“The official plan was approved by the Region, the Town and we’re just following the law.”

Marotta alleged some of the protesters were putting materials into the locks of the gates so workers couldn’t get on the property.

He said he’s unsure exactly how many trees he’s taking down. “We didn’t count them but whatever we feel needs to go down, we’ll take it down.”

“Whatever we do, it’s not breaking any rules or bylaws or anything like that.”

Several police officers were on the scene for more than an hour, including a Niagara Regional Police sergeant who was called in to make decisions regarding the rights of the protesters.

When Lord Mayor-elect Betty Disero arrived on the scene, she chatted with the protesters at a couple of the gates before addressing the police sergeant calmly and respectfully, asking him if he would agree this was a “lawful, peaceful protest.”

He agreed, and police left the scene without incident. When they left, the tree removal crew also drove away with their equipment, including a Bobcat excavator.

- with files from Lauren O'Malley and Penny Coles

 

This story has been edited.

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