Mark Clairmont | MuskokaTODAY.com
BRACEBRIDGE — Opponents of the Muskoka Royale private school proposal are claiming “a major victory for environmentalists” after Bracebridge’s town planner reversed course at an Ontario Land Tribunal (OLT) hearing this week.
In a release Friday, the South Bracebridge Environmental Protection Group (SBEPG) (“Bracebridge Wetlands”) is calling the about face “a dramatic turn of events.”
They appealed the Bracebridge’s approval of the college school on Lake Muskoka at the south end of town. They claim it would be located in a 179 hectare (approx. 442 acres) ecosystem covered in forest and significant wetlands.
It ends the first phase of the appeal.
SBEGP says that on Wednesday, Oct. 19, the ecologist for the town, Dr. Andrea Smith, reversed herself under cross-examination, admitting that it was preferable to have a uniform 30-metre buffer protecting the numerous wetlands on the site.
She admitted in her evidence she could not find scientific literature justifying either a 15-metre buffer, or the proposed 30-metre “average” buffer, which is not regularly recommended by ecologists in Ontario.
She recommended changing the proposed bylaw under appeal.
As a result, town planner Matt Holmes admitted under further cross-examination that the town would no longer be supporting the requested 15-metre buffer to protect significant environmental features like wetlands and wildlife habitat.
SBEPG called it “a major victory for environmentalists.”
Under cross-examination by legal counsel David Donnelly, Gord Nielsen ecologist for Muskoka Royale claimed the schools, dormitories, driveways, parking lots and sports facilities will necessitate the destruction of 36,000 to 50,000 trees. And destroy the vegetation on an area of 28 hectares (approx. 69 acres), equivalent to 33 CFL football fields.
“We’re thrilled with the results of the hearing so far and gratified that the truth has finally come out — that 15-metre buffers are not acceptable for sensitive wetlands in Muskoka, as we’ve been saying to the town all along,” said Michael Appleby of Bracebridge Wetlands who has been in opposition for years since the proposal emerged.
“We’re also extremely frustrated that it took an appeal and heavy cross-examination of these witnesses to speak the truth to the town. There’s never been any scientific literature of practice of using small buffers in Ontario. That should have been the town’s position from the beginning, not dragged out of their witnesses on the last day of their evidence.
“We’re paying for these witnesses,” said Appleby who kept track of the hearing held online.
SBEPG claims the “unevaluated wetlands” on the site are now the subject of a Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry (MNRF) review, as Bracebridge Wetlands has long suspected they are provincially significant wetlands.
And that despite numerous requests from Bracebridge Wetlands for this Ontario Wetland Evaluation System (OWES), “the town refused, even though the province’s Natural Heritage Reference Manual says “the planning authority (town) should ensure a wetland evaluation is undertaken.”
Under cross-examination, Nielsen admitted he thought the wetlands on site are provincially significant wetlands.
The SBEPG release continues saying that despite being one of Bracebridge’s largest-ever developments, town council did not have any evidence of how the loss of so many trees and vegetative cover would be consistent with the climate crisis.
Under cross-examination, Holmes admitted there was “no documentation” concerning climate adaptation, resiliency or mitigation provided to council before it made its decision to approve the massive complex.
SBEPG goes on to say that on June 29, 2021, Bracebridge council declared a “climate Emergency” and formally committed to “adding a climate action perspective on all decision-making, large and small.”
“Provincial policy and the official plans of both Bracebridge and the District of Muskoka all have strong policies on combating climate change, but none of these policies or climate change mitigation strategies were presented to either council, and that is shocking in this day and age,” said Donnelly.
He said: “The town’s own planner stated the development could potentially occur on one precinct of approximately 10 hectares, instead of on five precincts spread across 28 hectares, saving a lot of ecosystem damage that would also mean children could walk to school instead of taking a shuttle bus.”
The appellants say that in a “pleasant surprise for residents who care about climate change,” Nielsen a Bracebridge resident testified the proposed “Bracebridge bypass” to skirt downtown Bracebridge, would be “destructive to the town.”
SBEPG hopes the entire property will be saved from the proposed “Five Precinct” school proposal and new highway.
The highway, approved by a Municipal Class Environmental Assessment in 2005, is scheduled to pass right through the proposed elementary school precinct that would be used by school children.
Surprisingly, it says in its Friday release, all the experts for Muskoka Royale and the town were using the wrong map for years, which showed the bypass avoiding the elementary school.
Under cross-examination, the traffic engineer for Muskoka Royale admitted the wrong map was being used to calculate road safety measures.
Additional experts, including ecologists, servicing engineers and planners also used the wrong map.
The hearing is to resume in January 2023, when Bracebridge Wetlands will call their experts, including a retired MNRF biologist, traffic engineer and planner.
For more on the SBEPG and Bracebridge Wetland, see their website at BracebridgeWetlands.ca
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