Bradford West Gwillimbury council changed course and will allow a new cemetery to be constructed in the municipality.
Council voted to approve an Official Plan amendment and zoning bylaw amendment at its Sept. 20 council meeting.
The move means that the Ahmadiyya Muslim Jama’at Canada (AMJ) will be able to proceed with its plans for the property at 3999 Sideroad 10 — including a Muslim cemetery — without an additional statutory public meeting being held on the proposal.
The application was discussed during the Sept. 6 committee-of-the-whole meeting, where councillors ultimately voted to defer the decision on the proposal as there were concerns that, neither council nor surrounding neighbours, had all their questions answered, including environmental and traffic concerns.
That decision was reversed at the Sept. 20 meeting, with the recommendation from committee being changed to reflect the original staff report, with an amendment added that calls for “supplementary community consultation” to occur during the site plan approval process.
This was welcome news to the AMJ.
“Our community is going to be ecstatic,” said Asif Khan, national public relations director for AMJ Canada. “Back home, where many of us are from, where our members are from, we’re a persecuted community. Even our graves, sometimes, are desecrated. It’s an emotional thing, to know that perhaps my family members… could be buried in a graveyard where my great-grandchildren could come and visit me and other members of the family and pray for us.”
The cemetery proposal has been in the works for more than a decade, yet the application for the Official Plan amendment and zoning bylaw amendment wasn’t ready to be discussed at a statutory public meeting until 2020.
That public meeting was held in the early weeks of the COVID-19 pandemic and with Zoom meetings being in their infancy, public participation might have lacked in comparison as if it had been held in person.
That was seemingly confirmed during the Sept. 6 and Sept. 20 council meetings, where the open forum portions of the meetings were filled with those who had more questions regarding the proposal - if not flat out opposed to it - and those voicing their support for what the AMJ wishes to see happen at its property.
Coun. Peter Ferragine said those flaws in the process would be addressed with a second, in-person meeting.
“A lot of people are on some sort of dial-up or old school technology that wouldn’t allow for using Zoom, even if they wanted to,” he said. “But most of them didn’t know. Even when we had the 2020 meeting, there were a couple of people who called me and said, ‘what is this, I didn’t know it was happening?’”
A staff report was requested during the Sept. 20 meeting to look at ways at widening the reach of the official notice given for these types of applications beyond the 120-metre minimum standard outlined in the Province of Ontario’s Planning Act.
Ferragine, who represents Ward 5, where the property is located was one of the five councillors who voted for deferral at the Sept. 6 meeting. They agreed that it had nothing to do with the application — which would likely be approved — or the applicants. Rather, the concern was with the process followed in getting to this step.
An additional public meeting, it was argued, would allow for all worries to be calmed. However, that could lead to problems for the town, which is why Coun. Jonathan Scott put the eventually passed motion to approve the application on the floor.
“I wanted to be fair to neighbours who had legitimate concerns, but I also wanted to be fair to neighbours from the Ahmadiyya community who are legally entitled to a rational process, which means not changing the rules of the road 14 years in at the 11th hour,” Scott said. “You don’t start to change the process at the end of the game.”
Scott thought his amendment acted as a compromise as it called for additional community consultation with residents during the site plan application process. At that point, he said, the concerns about groundwater safety and the potential influx in traffic would be addressed in a more fulsome manner than would be before the approval of the application.
“All the meat and potatoes the town deals with of any development application happens at site plan,” Scott said. “That’s where traffic concerns can be mitigated, especially in this case, where the concerns about well water can best be addressed. Certainly, the look and feel of the project is at site plan, not re-zoning.”
However, as Ferragine argued, consultation during the site plan application won’t allow residents to influence what structures are constructed on the site, as the Official Plan amendment and zoning bylaw amendment approved allows for a multipurpose building, maintenance buildings and residences, as well as the cemetery itself.
As well, a supplemental consultation during the site plan application process isn’t a statutory public meeting under the Planning Act, meaning that any resident who wanted to appeal the issue to the Ontario Land Tribunal wouldn’t have standing to do so.
The compromise wasn’t sufficient for Ferragine, who suggested the meeting “won’t evoke any change at all.”
“Really the consultation meeting will be answering some of their questions,” he said. “It’s not even a public meeting. It’s a community consultation… which is just basically information for the residents to see what’s going to happen.”
He also lamented the decision made more than a decade ago to defer a zoning decision on the property that would have protected the land. Ferragine has campaigned on protecting the municipality’s prime agricultural land in every election he’s ran, but until council’s approval of the application, the parcel retained its 1970s Township of West Gwillimbury zoning due to a decision by the council of the day.
“It’s frustrating because of the way the zoning was handled on the property (and) when (council) changed the agricultural zoning to be protected - so that we didn’t just keep running over our prime agricultural land — a deferral was put in place on this property,” Ferragine said. “Because they were zoned deferred, then even though it’s a decade later, it still reverts back to if we were talking about it 10 years ago. The zoning allows for specific things that are no longer allowed on that type of zoning today at all."
His comments were echoed by many residents who spoke at open forum during the previous two meetings. Of the 23 people who went before council at the Sept. 20 meeting, 14 of them gave comments on this issue. While most remained civil, two members were cut off by Mayor Rob Keffer for being disrespectful or straight-up prejudiced in their remarks.
Khan wasn’t fazed by what he heard.
“We live in a society where people sometimes have views that are inappropriate or not very Canadian (and) that’s unfortunate,” he said “I can only suggest and say, to those members, if they should ever want to talk further, my door’s open. There should be no issues. We should love each other as brothers and sisters. We’re all in this together.”
Immediately prior to open forum, Khan gave a short deputation to council on the matter. Most of the questioning from councillors that followed surrounded a letter he sent following the Sept. 6 council meeting.
Khan’s letter indicated the AMJ would be held to an “unfair standard” if the town called for a second public meeting and requested the item be pulled and reconsidered at the Sept. 20 meeting. If council moved forward with the deferral, AMJ would consider all options it had in front of it to continue with the application.
The letter didn’t sit well with many councillors, including Ferragine.
“It was disheartening and offending… it wasn’t appreciated,” he said. “It was almost like a demanding letter with an underlying threat.”
The amendment passed by a 6-3 margin, in a recorded vote; the motion, as amended passed by the same total.
Coun. Ron Orr and Coun. Mark Contois were the two councillors who had voted for deferral at committee-of-the-whole who changed their minds when the vote was held at council. As they spoke in favour of the application, Orr relayed his experience growing up and then raising a family as an active dairy farmer while living across the road from a cemetery, never having an issue with any well water contamination, while Contois questioned if council would be even having this debate if it were a Catholic cemetery.
Keffer, Deputy Mayor James Leduc and Coun. Raj Sandhu joined, Scott, Orr and Contois to approve the application. Coun. Gary Lamb and Coun. Peter Dykie joined Ferragine in opposition.