A day at the spa? Thoughts on the intersection of Battersea and Glenburnie Roads

The entrance to the construction site for Unity Inn and Spa, a project that goes before the City of Kingston’s Planning Committee on Thursday, Jul. 16, 2020. Photo by Robert Kiley.

I want to see our city grow. Not in a blind or wasteful way. Some things, like pollution, should not increase, nor should poverty. Both need to be reduced as quickly as possible. But smart, sustainable programs that create jobs and support environmentally friendly and socially responsible industries and initiatives in our area should move forward with the support of City Council and residents in the region. This is especially true, I think, of under-serviced or neglected spaces. Growth is best when it revitalizes and renews.

In fact, what if I told you that rural Kingston – a part of town that rightly feels long abandoned by the urban core – could see this type of growth? Growth that would:

  • bring jobs to the countryside (or in this case Countryside, as in the municipal district);
  • use solar power, geothermal, and other green technologies like water recycling;
  • make the most of farmhouse heritage;
  • produce, promote, and serve local food and drink;
  • create space for individual wellness and community gatherings;
  • and champion regional tourism and therefore cut CO2 emissions as folks have to travel, say, only 5 km instead of 500 km or 5,000 km for a getaway.

It would sound like a pie in the sky plan, right? Or maybe even an election promise!

In this case, it’s neither.

Rather, all of these good things are in a report before the City’s Planning Committee on Thursday, Jul. 16, 2020. Proposed by Ben Pilon Enterprises, the much discussed Unity Inn and Spa is an all-in-one place of tranquility and events, personal retreat meets collective celebration at the intersection of Battersea and Glenburnie Roads – a potentially dueling purpose that creates a tension quickly noted by neighbours.

If approved, once built out in full, the property could host nearly 300 people across cabins in the woods, restored farm buildings in the form of a hotel, restaurant and venue, and series of relaxation pools. The site would include agricultural uses such as a vineyard for making wine and apiary for the much endangered bee – vital to the produce to be grown on the grounds:  Purportedly employing 80 people at its peak.

To me, it sounds idyllic. Local food, local beer, and time in the outdoors. But like any human idea or scheme, it’s not perfect and it’s not without detractors. And that is good. It’s imperative that we – councillors and citizens – bring a constructive and critical lens to decision making. Those against the project say it will cause too much noise (that’s the tension between it being built for retreat and celebration), create light pollution, up traffic in the vicinity, and, most significantly, jeopardize the water supply, among other concerns.

I have given much thought to these points over the last 15 months. The Spa was first pitched to the planning committee, of which I am a member, in April of 2019. I have participated in hours and hours of public meetings; read hundreds of pages of documentation; walked the land with the proponent; attended a town hall with the opponents; spoken with the Mayor, staff, committee chair, and folks who live nearby; on the topic.

After careful deliberation I have decided, unless some earth shattering reason presents itself in the next 22 hours (the inspiration for this piece came Wednesday evening around 8 p.m. after a day of Zooming, phone calling, and reading more about it), I will support the Spa, despite my own reservations with the overall process.

My apprehensions are largely systemic. That is to say, I’m not sure if the structures that govern things from a planning perspective are necessarily the best. This is not a knock on the hardworking and honest professional planning staff we are fortunate to have in Kingston. It’s a comment about the framework the planning committee operates in. Most of it is dictated by the province with little room for councillors to maneuver around the legislation from Queen’s Park – even for the betterment of their jurisdiction – all under the threat that significant departure from these planning pieces, like the Provincial Policy Statement, could land us in the expensive and cumbersome Local Planning Appeals Tribunal (LPAT). Indeed, there were at least five Ontario laws mentioned in the staff report in question. They are not overtly bad, to be sure; it’s just that they are constrictive, sometimes helpfully so, sometimes not. I’ve written about the importance and limitations of local democracy in this outlet before. I would love to see greater autonomy, deeper democracy, and more robust public participation in all areas of municipal government.

In addition to the provincial context generally, this file in particular saw unfair and frankly spurious allegations made to the Integrity Commissioner against my colleague, the truly good and noble Councillor Gary Oosterhof, who represents the district under discussion. While we disagree about this issue, I find him to be upright, truthful, and earnest, always looking to serve his constituents. He is a man of integrity. Claims were wrongly made that Gary was undue in his opposition to the project. With no surprise then, the Integrity Commissioner found him above reproach. Not one accusation held up to scrutiny – A process that nevertheless left a bad taste in the mouth of us councillors and many residents.

So it is understandable, though unfortunate, that these structural and personal concerns have flavoured many people’s palate for what is before us. Because, in fact, despite the constraints mentioned, it fares well in my books. I’ve outlined the general reasons above: remember that idyllic scene? Think of reclining on a patio, overlooking the garden where your food and your beer came from, knowing that you could soon retire to a hot tub, followed by a quiet night under the trees and stars all while supporting the local economy. Okay, okay, I’ll stop with the dramatism.

More saliently, and the reason why I can currently get behind this development objectively, is that the concerns raised by residents have been adequately addressed by planning professionals and scientists. For that reason, the Spa is good land use planning. Here’s what I mean, in order of the concerns presented above:

“It will cause too much noise.” If anything is to create sound beyond the city noise by-law, it will have to be approved by council. The current rules in Kingston state that after hours, one dwelling should not be able to hear another. This is a high standard; one which I plan to uphold with a few rare expectations when requested (like the Glorious Sons Kingston Pen Concert of September 2019). More than that, for stationary sound like HVAC systems on the proposed restaurants, all audibility must be within Ministry standards. An illustration of when provincial guidelines are helpful.

“It will create light pollution.” This can be addressed through the Site Control plan, the next step should the project advance. Berms along parking lots, the guarantee of focused LED lights and other screening techniques could ensure both neighbours and guests do not suffer from unwanted visual intrusions and have been used with success across Kingston.

“It will up traffic in the vicinity.” It will, but it will not do so detrimentally, at least according to engineers at the City of Kingston. An illustration of where local decision making must be paramount. We have area experts who know our streets and have developed criteria to make these decisions. We should trust them and we should work to change the criteria if we have a problem with those standards. I also recognize that the Unity Inn and Spa is slated for a location where there is a church and school across the road on both sides. In other words, the intersection is well acquainted with hundreds of cars coming and going from big institutions on a regular basis.

“It will jeopardize the water supply.” I am not a scientist and I am definitely not a hydrogeologist. So I have to look to those who are to determine the truth of this claim. From my reading of the data the Planning Committee has been given, as presented by staff, there is no ultimate worry with the water table based on the best estimates of the studies that have been conducted in relation to this proposal. That information was peer-reviewed and is supported by the Cataraqui Regional Conservation Authority. Of course, reluctance about the Spa’s use of water is absolutely legitimate, particularly for rural residents who rely on wells. Like any industrial, commercial, residential, or even personal undertaking, we should examine how we conserve and care for water with great rigour, especially in light of climate change, which will and is leading to flash floods and droughts. Such investigation has now occurred. Those with the education to conduct this work, and review it, have assured us based on their experiments and expertise there will be no ongoing hazard. Plus, city staff have recommended an additional water monitoring program during construction and for the first two years of operations. This extra precaution is proactive and worthwhile, just to be sure. When it comes to that which sustains biological life, we must be diligent. The report has done just that. What Greta always says applies here: listen to the science.

“Among other concerns.” People have discussed the impact on animals at the horse farm next door, for example. I’m glad they did. Too often other species are neglected in our political discourse. This problem was meaningfully addressed, however. How? By requiring a setback of the adjacent Spa buildings that would still be suitable should the number of horses double. The smells, sites, and sounds are all part of the calculation that came up with this “Minimum Distance Separation.”

Likewise, multiple bodies (again, like the CRCA) looked into the impact on small wetlands in situ and recommended setbacks and other measures to attenuate any adverse impact. Wetlands are also often neglected. Not here. All of the parameters must be followed should the Planning Committee give the Spa the go ahead.

The last example in this category is that some would object to any deviation from the Official Plan as this site would require to legally build. More often than not, I’m in this camp. The city has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars and nearly as many hours in staff time in constructing a document that delineates how we want to grow based on tremendous community input. Why not simply follow it? Keep the rules consistent for all developers and community groups. Yet, this is an occasion when I think the Official Plan should change. Why? Because there is no designated rural commercial area in Kingston. That is to say, if you want any new, smart, sustainable growth (as the Spa is, in my opinion) in our municipal limits, the Official Plan will have to change. What is more, the OP actually contemplates such change and gives a list of undertakings which it should be modified for. In some senses then, changing the OP to allow for rural commercial is actually fulfilling the OP. And it’s benefiting the so-called hinterland. A win-win.

Couple all of this once more with the fact that, if all goes as planned, the project will create jobs, utilize state of the art technology, and do so in a way that reduces the potential carbon footprint of what will be (whatever is developed on the site) and what already is (long distance holidays); then all tolled, from my current vantage point, informed by science and reached after almost a year and a half of consideration, and I think the Unity Spa and Inn is good for Countryside and good for Kingston.

Robert Kiley is Kingston City Councillor for Trillium District and a high school teacher. He writes a monthly “behind the scenes” Op-Ed article for The Kingstonist. He tweets at @robert_kiley.

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