Parking lot or park? Napanee Council must decide

It might not look like much, but this triangular piece of land between homes and a school parking lot has become a cause for heated debate in the Town of Napanee. Photo by Michelle Dorey Forestell/Kingstonist.

A piece of surplus land that has served as an extended backyard for some Napanee residents may be sold to the Town’s only Catholic school for an expansion to include a public daycare, but some residents want it declared a park.

At the regular meeting of the Council of the Town of Greater Napanee on Tuesday, Jan. 30, 2024, staff recommended that the Town accept the Algonquin & Lakeshore Catholic District School Board’s (ALCDSB) offer to purchase the land adjacent to J.J. O’ Neill Catholic School. But after a long, contentious, and somewhat confused discussion, the decision was deferred until the Tuesday, Feb. 27, 2024, meeting.

In their report, part of Town staff’s reasoning for declaring surplus this particular piece of land is that there has been an increase in active lifestyle service levels in the area, including a long-term lease of 32-acre Lennox Agriculture Society land known as the Fairgrounds, and a 580-metre path that connects the Napanee District Secondary School sports fields and courts to J.J. O’Neill, the Fairgrounds, and Winchester Park (4 acres).

Historically, the triangular piece of property was home to a baseball diamond and a swing set, but in 1992, the Town entered into a partnership with the Lennox Agricultural Society for the use of a portion of its 32-acre property as a community-based sports complex, directly behind J.J. O’ Neill. The Town built two ball diamonds and a playground there. A lovely place for a walk or a picnic, the site is home to a historic oak tree grove and hosts only a few events throughout the year, leaving it open for public use the majority of the time.

Google Maps gives a good view of the triangle at the top of this photo, above the current J.J. O’Neill school building. Green space on the other sides of the school are school play yards. The ball diamonds at the bottom of the photo are Town-owned on property leased from the Lennox Agricultural Society. The treeline adjacent to the triangle and extending diagonally across the photo is also a Town-owned walking trail. Image via of Google Maps.

Over the following 30 years, the triangle property fell into disuse, the backstop was dismantled, and the swing set removed. Then, in February 2022. the Ministry of Education made a funding announcement for the construction of an addition to the existing J.J. O’Neill Catholic School to create 331 student learning spaces in 14 classrooms. Three new child care rooms, which will accommodate 49 licensed child care spaces, are also being included in the build. 

Following that, in April 2022, ALCDSB announced that the province of Ontario, in partnership with Infrastructure Ontario (IO), had selected J.J. O’Neill Catholic School as a Rapid Build Pilot Project site as part of Ontario’s 2022-2023 Capital Priorities Program.

On July 12, 2022, following a Closed Session, the former Town Council enacted Resolution 357/22, declaring the triangle of land — described as Con 1, Part Lot 19, Roll # 1121 060 020 26700 — “surplus to the Town’s needs” and authorized staff to obtain an appraisal for the property.

Perhaps overshadowed in April 2023 (at a packed Council meeting concerning bag tags and the CN rail line trail debate) was a presentation to Council by the ALCDSB. At that time, Bryan Davies, Controller of Plant and Planning Services for ALCDSB, attended on behalf of the school board to provide information about the expansion to the J.J. O’Neill school with new classroom and daycare space. 

The current session of Council learned that ALCDSB had approached the Town with a proposal to acquire the vacant lot to the northeast of the school to assist with traffic flow and provide more on-site parking. At that time, Davies advised Council that the school board would be happy to participate in any consultation the Town might require. 

Since then, the ALCDSB took into account many of the concerns that were raised by community members and submitted an adjusted plan on Wednesday, Jan. 17, 2024, which was included in the agenda package for the January 30 meeting of Council. That plan reads in part, “in light of the concerns brought forward by the school neighbours, ALCDSB has worked with our consultants to adjust the design of a new parking lot on the proposed property to increase the offset from the property line.” (The new design was highlighted on the following page of that plan; see below.)

However, in their discussion on January 30, Council members seemed not to have gotten the memo about the changes.

Councillor Bob Norrie called the property a “green space for the subdivision,” saying, “every other subdivision has green spaces… We should just basically declare it a park and name it as a park.”

Councillor Bill Martin recalled, “My own children actually played in that space there 50 years ago, or whatever it was” and said he supported removing it from the surplus list. He also said he wouldn’t like the headlights from a parking lot coming through his back window if he lived next door.

“We hear constantly that there is nothing for kids to do, no place for kids to go,” said Councillor Angela Hicks. “I would say take it off the surplus list.”

In April 2023, the Algonquin & Lakeshore Catholic District School Board (ALCDSB) gave the Town this image as part of its presentation package. It depicts the board’s original plan for the triangle of land. Image via Town of Greater Napanee documents.

Councillor Dave Pinnell pointed out that J.J. O’Neill school offers much more green space, with many amenities such as playground equipment and sports courts where children are more likely to play, whereas “currently there is nothing on this triangle piece of land” — and that the large school yard is available to the neighbourhood, as are the Fairgrounds. Further, he noted, headlights aren’t a big problem in school parking lots since cars are mostly there in the daytime.

Councillor Mike Schenk eventually noted that the plans had changed since last April and wondered if the people living adjacent to the property had been notified of that. This appeared to confuse Mayor Terry Richardson, who asked acting Chief Administrative Officer (CAO) Brandt Zatterberg to confirm there had “been no changes since the April presentation.”

Zatterberg indicated that “a slight adjustment” had been made, “but it still requires a fair amount of the space to be parking lot.”

The letter and plan provided by the school board on Wednesday, Jan. 17, 2024, showed that the angle of the parking lot had changed significantly, and the new design would result in a minimum property [offset] of 17.3 metres (approximately 57 ft) with this offset increasing to the north to over 31.4 metres (approximately 103 ft) green space separation from the parking lot, and improved access to the adjacent walking trail. Again, the ALCDSB stated it was “willing to work with the municipality and neighbours to develop landscaping options that provide enhancement screening of the school property from their yards.”

The site plan submitted to Council in January 2024 shows a larger portion reserved for green space behind the Simcoe Street homes.

The ALCDSB also noted improving the parking on this side of the school was meant to make it safer for children and parents to park and access the newly constructed public daycare centre without having to contend with other vehicles and buses. They pointed out that their design options are limited in that regard, if the adjacent property is not sold to the school. Improvements to the surrounding road network in the neighbourhood are also part of the ALCDSB’s plan to “facilitate these site-related improvements and be able to create a distinct separation between buses, passenger vehicles for the school, passenger vehicles for the child care, and pedestrians.”

“We know that upon completion of this project, the lives of the Town of Greater Napanee families of the 380 children who will attend the school and child-care will be positively impacted by the proposed changes. The changes we make today to this school building and site will be felt in the community for generations to come,” the Board said.

Given the confusion among members of Council about the proposed amendment and updates to surrounding roads, that message may have been lost for many of those concerned about the matter. However, Council did vote to postpone its decision until its Tuesday, Feb. 27, 2024 meeting to allow more time for public comment on the matter. Council also decided that letters informing the adjacent property owners of the amended plan should be sent.

Heidi Lind has lived on Adelphi Street in Napanee for almost four years, and she opposes the sale. Reached for comment, she explained, “I am not confident that the school board truly needs this piece of land, nor am I confident in the education system’s planning processes, among other things.”

“Site Plan B”: if the ALCDSB is not allowed to purchase the Town’s surplus land, they will be extending the parking lot lengthwise along the property line, as seen here in a submission made in April 2023.

She said she feels there is a “historical significance to this property, albeit not a centuries-old one,” explaining that “this neighbourhood has a postwar legacy which now spans several generations. It all matters very much to the people who grew up there and those who live there now. The plot of land may not be huge, or even developed as an actual ‘park’ — but that doesn’t make it expendable. If it is sold, it can never be regained or returned to the community to use as it has been since the first streets and houses were built there.”

Lind acknowledged that “Town coffers are stretched, but I don’t think Napanee needs the money from this little plot of land. But I believe that we all need more green space, not less. And if we give it up, it should only be for a very good reason.”

Another opponent, Les Humphries, shared the letter he sent to Council in advance of the February decision. In it, he asserts, “There is a watercourse running underground along the easterly property line right behind the residences located on the west side of Simcoe Street. Any change to develop the surplus property would harm the water course resulting in flooding of the basements of those homes. This would likely expose the Town of Greater Napanee to citizens seeking to receive compensation for any damage from the flooding.”

Humphries isn’t the only person with concerns about flooding, according to Jeff Chestnut. Chestnut canvassed the area when he was running for Council in 2022, and he said the piece of surplus land was a top priority for the residents in that area. He listed flooding and other possible changes to the water table, as well as a sense of community ownership of the green space, as resident concerns.

“They’re very, very passionate about it,” said Chestnut.

On Tuesday, Feb. 6, 2024, the Town released a Public Notice seeking public comment on the matter. Further details on the proposal and how to provide comments are available by visiting the Town website.

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