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  • Writer's pictureESSEX FREE PRESS

Council asks developer to hit pause button on potential schoolhouse sale

- the proponents were ‘very disappointed’ and will think on it -

by Sylene Argent

After speaking about the Colchester Schoolhouse property for three-and-a-half hours during the Monday, January 18 meeting, the majority of Council voted in favour of asking potential developers of the site to give a deadline extension for the agreement to the end of March, with the matter to be tabled at the second meeting of that month.

  The idea was to let the newly released plans from the potential developers circulate with residents, who came forward with many concerns on the matter.

  Potential developers James Flynn and Kim Lewis attended the meeting as delegates. Flynn noted he was “very disappointed” with the decision. “We are going to have to consider and come back to you,” noting he was not sure if the project would move forward and said perhaps discussions could continue at a later date.

  At the beginning of the Monday, December 7 Essex Council meeting, Town Clerk, Robert Auger, announced Council had given direction to administration to disclose in open session the intention to declare 195 Bagot Street, also known as the Colchester Schoolhouse, as surplus to the needs of the municipality.

  At the Monday, December 21 meeting, Council discussed what it should do with the old Colchester Schoolhouse, and ultimately moved discussions to January 18.

  The potential proponents spoke as delegations during the meeting. They own The Grove Hotel in Kingsville, which was established in 1854. They ensured their intention for the Colchester Schoolhouse was to preserve and repurpose the original structure.

  The idea was to have year-round accommodations, staffed as required, as an extension of the Grove Hotel, which Flynn said would not make it the same as a short-term rental property. The lot would house 14, one-bedroom individual cottage units that would be around 500 square foot a piece. He said the property would be a high-end, boutique accommodation. He estimated the max onsite, at any given time, would be around 30 people. There would also be an outdoor common area and a staff building/storage area.

  The intention, he said, is to have little impact on the residential area. He has no intentions of hosting events there.

  Their proposal, Flynn said, would be a two-million dollar investment, and he estimated an addition one-million in economic spin-off for the community.   

  “We have the experience, resources, and drive to get this done, and done quickly,” Flynn said. “If we want to come out of this pandemic stronger and better than before, we need to make bold investments and support our community.”

  Council, he added, accepted a fair-market value offer on the structure, but had to pass corresponding bylaws on Monday as a condition of the sale, in addition to adopting zoning requirements by the end of March.

  The Proponents noted they would continue to work with the Essex Municipal Heritage Committee, and would do whatever was necessary to protect the Chimney Swifts. There are MNR guidelines they would have to follow to do so.

  “We want to be a part of the Colchester community,” he said.

  Councillor Joe Garon asked if the developers would be willing to “Designate” the 1881-built schoolhouse property under the Ontario Heritage Act to protect it in perpetuity. He noted they may not own the property forever.

  Flynn said he was not sure what that would entail, but would agree to enter an agreement that the property would be preserved in perpetuity.

  The Colchester Schoolhouse was “Listed” in 2016 as having significant heritage value. To “Designate” the property would take it one step further in its protection as far as alterations or demolition. Any alternation would come before the Essex Municipal Heritage Committee and Council for consideration.

  Councillor Sherry Bondy did raise concerns about sewer capacity. Kevin Girard, Director of Infrastructure, said there is a sewer capacity optimization study being conducted.

  At the December 21 meeting, Director of Planning, Lori Chadwick, said the proposed rezoning was for a short-term rental boutique. On Monday, however, she explained the property’s current Green District 1.2 could include campgrounds, fairgrounds, arenas, and golf courses. There could be an opportunity for the developer to piggy-back on the campground allowance with their proposal and staff would seek clarification of the seasonal campground definition for possible allowance for roofed structures.

  During the course of the meeting, some Council members noted they received a lot of public feedback on the matter, with concerns that the process was not transparent enough (though it was noted the information was made public as soon as Council was able to), the loss of the heritage site from public hands, and that it was not brought to an open market.

  Essex Mayor Larry Snively believed residents may have felt more comfortable with the proposal, now that they were able to hear details.

  “To me, this is a good proposal. To me it is a beautiful development,” Snively said.

  Bondy wanted to hit the “pause button” on moving forward with the development, to give residents a chance to learn about the project.

  Other delegations during the meeting included Laurie Brett, Chairperson of the Essex Municipal Heritage Committee, who spoke about that Committee’s meeting on the schoolhouse matter last Thursday (see the article “Heritage Committee sends requests to Council re: Colchester Schoolhouse” in this edition of the Essex Free Press). She also spoke about the three resolutions the Heritage Committee made and forwarded to Council for its consideration, which, in short, included deferring the sale, designating the property, and adding safeguards to the Surplus Lands Bylaw for public property with heritage significance.

  Councillor Chris Vander Doelen said he was opposed to all three recommendations as he saw them adding more bureaucracy, more delay, more government, and more cost. Councillor Kim Verbeek noted she agreed with the Heritage Committee, and Deputy Mayor Richard Meloche said the motions should be looked over by Town administration before Council considers them.

  Other delegation came from Lynda Leopold and Heidi Affleck, and Perry Basden.

  Leopold spoke of concerns, including transparency of the sale, loss of community space, and heritage resources potentially being under valued. She also spoke of concerns with short-term rentals.

  Affleck explained she built her dream home in Colchester and there are short-term rental units in the area. She said this past summer was difficult, with a lot of partying, excessive noise, and trespassing.

  Leopold collected data. Of 167 results from a survey, 74percent said Council should regulate short-term rentals. When asked if they supported short-term rentals, 23 percent said “no,” and 25 percent said “strongly no.”

  Flynn noted short-term rentals are not what his proposal is offering, as the intention is to be an extension of The Grove Hotel.

Basden spoke of concerns about wanting the site designated, the failure of the Town to consult with the Heritage Committee on the issue, and that he is still willing to be on the “Friends of Colchester Schoolhouse Committee,” as he has indicated in the past.

Snively assured there was no backroom deal and noted the offer was quite healthy. Bondy noted she wanted to take a pause on the issue. Councillor Bjorkman said the development is beautiful, but from what he has heard, it is not what residents want in their neighbourhood.

  Councillor Verbeek said she was uncomfortable with making a decision that night. She is not opposed to the development, but was opposed to pushing it through.

  Councillor Chris Vander Doelen said this was setting up for a case of “analysis paralysis.” The only way to reduce short-term rentals is to offer an alternative, such as the proposal before Council.

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