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Accusations fly during Strawberry Island meeting

In Council Watch
Jun 16th, 2015
Speaker at Ramara meeting -Packet & Times photo

By Patrick Bales, The Orillia Packet & Times

Accusations of impropriety levelled at township councillors over the future of Strawberry Island echoed through the Ramara Centre Monday night.

Nearly 200 people packed the Atherley building for a second public meeting about the proposed official plan amendment to allow development on Strawberry Island. The meeting began with a lengthy update on the project, which calls for about 120 units to be built on the 25-acre island in Lake Simcoe, followed by a question period.

Two residents claimed an unnamed councillor and the deputy mayor were not acting in good faith with regard to the proposal.

A resident who spoke late in the proceedings voiced concern about whether Ramara Deputy Mayor John O’Donnell should remove himself from voting on the development because Trans America Group, which purchased Strawberry Island in 2007 for $4.3 million, and Phil Usprech, senior vice-president of marketing on the project, donated $750 and $250, respectively, to O’Donnell’s 2014 election campaign, according to financial records on the township website.

O’Donnell doesn’t feel he has a conflict of interest.

“I haven’t done anything wrong,” he said. “People are allowed to (donate) and I am allowed to take donations for my campaign. Everything is open and above board.”

O’Donnell said he told Trans America Group donations would not buy his support for the proposal.

“If everything is done right, I will vote for it; if it’s not, I won’t,” he said. “And I stand by that.”

The accusation an unidentified councillor had intimidated local residents has not been proven, nor had the alleged victims come forward prior to Monday’s meeting.

Trans America Group had four consultants speak at the meeting to showcase the work that had been done in preparation for the official plan amendment.

Perhaps the largest disagreement between proponents and opponents of the proposal is over the environment. Michael Michalski, of Michalski Nielsen Associates Ltd., spoke about the planning his company has done for the development. He noted a difference in guidelines governing the island. The Lake Simcoe Protection Plan states if a woodland is significant, no development can take place. That differs from the Provincial Policy Statement, which allows for development as long as the environment is not dramatically impacted.

The developers believe the woodland is not significant on Strawberry Island because, among other reasons, it has been “historically manipulated and disturbed.”

Pam Fulford, representing the Friends of Strawberry Island, disagreed with the findings of Michalski and the other consultants. She called the proposal a “perfect storm of cumulative negative effects,” highlighting the potential forest and wetland destruction, additional car and boat traffic and damage to 4,300 feet of untouched shoreline.

“It confounds the intellect that this super-sized subdivision sprawl has been brought forward and encouraged,” she said. “Not only is it too massive and destructive, but it is a dangerous precedent for our natural shoreline areas and the untested Lake Simcoe Protection (Plan).”

A professional biologist who has worked on the shoals of Strawberry Island in the past, Fulford presented a petition with more than 1,500 signatures calling for the development to not be allowed.

However, not everyone was against the development. One person who spoke in favour of the proposal during the meeting, joking he should have worn a flak jacket, was resoundingly booed when he finished his comments.

As he faced the same microphone troubles many other residents faced, the crowd began to heckle, with one audience member shouting multiple times, “Turn the speaker off,” to laughs from the audience and admonishment from Mayor Basil Clarke.

The rest of the 20 who spoke did not hide their disdain for the project.

“It seems many of the councillors see dollar signs with this deal,” said the first resident to speak during the question period. “I wonder if we’ll be able to hold you personally responsible when the damage is done. Obviously, you don’t care about re-election.”

Clarke reminded the audience several times council had not made up its mind on the issue, adding after the meeting he still considers the development “too large” for Strawberry Island.

Council is expected to consider the official plan amendment at its July meeting. However, Clarke said he wants council to have everything it needs to make the right decision.

“If we don’t have enough info, we’ll defer it,” he said.

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