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Council's Grape Island decision 'not fair to anyone'

Council seeks to form working group to find amicable solution within two years
2018-01-19 grape dock.jpg
This is the dock in question at Forest Avenue South. Neighbours have various concerns about the dock and its use by residents of Grape Island.

“Typical City of Orillia,” lamented a frustrated Grape Island resident after a contentious 70-minute debate at city hall Monday night.

The sentiment seemed to sum up the feeling of those who crowded into council chambers Monday night, hoping city council would put an end to a long-simmering dispute between neighbours over the use of Forest Avenue South as an access point to Grape Island and the use of a barge at that spot.

Council, they contend, opted not to make a decision. Instead, they asked stakeholders to form a working group and gave them two years to come up with an amicable agreement. In the interim, several restrictions will be placed on barging – limits that are unreasonable, said Peter Griffis, president of the Grape Island Property Owners Association (GIPOA).

“They’ve restricted barging, basically, which doesn’t work for us. The ice is in during the time we’re allowed to use it,” he said, scoffing. “It’s ridiculous. We’ve been barging here for 20 years and there’s never been an issue.”

Griffis’ family has had a cottage on Grape Island for 46 years. In recent years, he has purchased more land and now also has a permanent home on the island which lies 200 metres from shore. “We all pre-date the bylaw (the city) enacted in 2014. If they simply grandfathered us, it would solve all these problems.”

Those problems are concerns, primarily, from two neighbours on the mainland: The Hunter family and the Smith family. In the exhaustive report to council, those concerns were outlined. Essentially, the GIPOA dock was originally meant to be a drop-off point for islanders that has turned into a popular, often busy spot that the neighbours contend is more akin to a commercial marina.

The two sides had negotiated a deal with their ward councillors, Ted Emond and Sarah Valiquette-Thompson in the summer. “But then staff added a bunch of unreasonable conditions” that scuttled the agreement, said Griffis.

On Monday night, after much debate, after sifting through dozens of pages of background information that summarized five decades of use and five different options presented from staff, councillors decided on a different approach. They voted to create a working group – comprised of three Grape Island residents, three Victoria Point residents, Emond, Valiquette-Thompson and the city’s manager of real estate and commercial development – that would be mandated to “create an amicable solution to challenges within this area and report back to council within two years.”

Shelley Hunter, one of the neighbours in question, was not happy with council’s decision. “I think they are putting the onus back on us,” she said after the meeting. “We’ve gone through two rounds of negotiations and talks, engaging with the city and haven’t got to a (deal) so … it’s almost insanity. If you apply the same logic to the same problem, why do you expect to get to a different conclusion?”

The other frustration for both sides is that for the next two years, while the working group works on a permanent solution, the city will regulate the use of the temporary dock(s) at Forest Avenue. In addition, barging would only be permitted from Nov. 1 to April 30. Barging would be restricted to emergency purposes – the delivery of propane, concrete and septic vehicles – during that time unless permission was granted by the city.

In addition, staff would need to grant a licence of occupation to the property owners of 371 Victoria Crescent (the Hunters) for the stairs, dock, deck, boat lift and hedge encroaching onto the Forest Avenue South Road allowance. That would be subject to an approval of a minor variance, which could be appealed.

That concerned Coun. Tim Lauer, who said an appeal could lead to an Ontario Municipal Board hearing which could further confuse the issue; he urged council to seek legal advice. He was able to get his colleagues to include a provision for up to $3,000 for a legal opinion on the matter – something Griffis applauded, albeit with a degree of incredulity.

“(Lauer) asked the right question and I’m glad the city is getting legal advice finally,” he said. “It’s really surprising” they hadn’t sought legal advice earlier. “One way or another, if it doesn’t get resolved, it will end up in court. There’s too much at stake.”

Griffis, like others, has “huge money” invested on Grape Island, which is divided into 53 lots and is home to about 40 cottages and permanent houses. “Five people are prepared to build a cottage on the island and they won’t now. They will scrap those plans.”

But Emond, who has tried to broker a deal for several months, said he is “personally committed to the parties finding a long-term solution.” He said the idea is to find a “mutually beneficial” pact while in the short term, providing “assurances that Grape Island residents will not be without the services they require.”

However, Coun. Mason Ainsworth said council was just “pushing off” this issue to the next council; he urged council to make a decision. That’s what Hunter had hoped for. “We were really hoping that this wouldn’t be prolonged,” she said after the meeting. “It’s not fair to anyone. We really had hoped the city would take some leadership and make some tough decisions.”

Council’s decision requires ratification at Monday’s meeting. Residents were urged to communicate concerns to councillors prior to the meeting.