As it stands, the City of Kenora’s plans to redevelop half of Central Park into housing have been stopped in their tracks after a decision from Ontario’s Land Tribunal.

The tribunal makes decisions on matters related to land use planning as well as environment and heritage protection. They’ve recently ruled in favour of Kenora resident Dawn Mitchell, who says the City of Kenora violated proper procedures when they rezoned Central Park last year.

“In essence, they tried to violate the official plan that was written in 2015 by passing that [motion] during the pandemic with very little consultation and community engagement,” alleges Mitchell. “The Tribunal has found that they did in fact violate their own official plan.”

Kenora city councillors unanimously voted in favour of rezoning Central Park from an open space to a residential space in March of 2021, as the city had plans to develop the western half of Central into housing units with the ball diamond, community club, rink and green space in the eastern half.

Mitchell says she appealed the city’s decision to Ontario’s Land Tribunal on March 29, 2021, alleging the city was violating parkland requirements, comparability with nearby railyards and could endanger wetlands in the Laurenson’s Lake area.

Mitchell’s team, which included a former land use planner, argued that Central was a significant green space in the community which facilitates a number of recreational activities, while City Planner Kevan Sumner argued the city has a greater need for more affordable housing units.

The Tribunal found the city was in need for more open spaces to provide for healthy active communities, and that need only grows as community’s grow, which Kenora is expecting to do by 2031 as estimated by the Smart Prosperity Institute.

“Based on the evidence before the Tribunal, with the development of the western half of the park and redevelopment of its eastern side, there would be considerably less greens pace left in the area. There are no other green spaces in the immediate vicinity of Central Park, apart from small parkettes,” stated the Tribunal’s report.

The Tribunal notes the City of Kenora’s Official Plan on Established Areas emphasizes that existing uses shall be preserved and promotes development that is in keeping with the character of the community, which as the Tribunal argues, parkland and open space are important elements of that.

“The need for additional housing is a real and pressing priority; however, parkland and open space is needed to help provide the public amenities and services required to support such housing,” adds the Tribunal.

As well, Mitchell’s team noted the proposed development is located within 100 metres of a Canadian Pacific Railway but the City’s Official Plan does not permit residential developments within 300 metres of a railyard, and the city did not complete an appropriate noise study beforehand.

The city, meanwhile, argued the neighbourhood has co-existed with the railyard for over 100 years without incident, and noted a noise study would have been completed at a later date prior to a development being approved.

Ultimately, the Tribunal ruled in favour of Mitchell’s argument in regards to parks and railyards, but did not support the appeal based on her wetlands concerns. But still, her overall appeal was successful with the Tribunal and the city is now forced to go back to the drawing board.

Essentially, the city’s rezoning decision in March of 2021 has been reversed, but Mitchell notes the city is able to appeal the Tribunal’s decision if they choose to do so.

She says she celebrated the decision on Canada Day with a victory march around Central with her bagpipes.

“This is still a public space. It’s wonderful for me that this will remain for future families, children and generations to celebrate the community centre and rink that’s being built. I hope the necessary upgrades will be made by the City of Kenora, and that it will remain a park for another 100 years,” adds Mitchell.

City Planner Kevan Sumner has explained that if the city were to hypothetically re-pursue rezoning Central, they would have to undertake studies related to noise and parks concerns before going ahead with any rezoning approvals, as per the Tribunal’s ruling.

“At this time, the city will be reviewing the ruling with our team to better understand the Tribunal’s decision,” stated Chief Administrative Officer with the city, Kyle Attanasio.

A developer for the potential housing project was never found by the city.

Mitchell has long-been fighting the potential development of Central Park. As well as appealing council’s rezoning decision, she also organized a rally at Central Park last September which included a 1,000 signature petition against the project.

Mitchell says while she agrees the Kenora community is in immediate need of new housing units, she doesn’t believe they should come at the expense of Central Park.

She adds she currently has a GoFundMe active to help recover costs related to legal fees, an estimated $6,000 she’s paid out of her own pocket. You can find the link to donate HERE.

Of note, Mitchell’s successful appeal against the rezoning of the western half of Central does not affect plans for the eastern half of Central, which is still the future location of a new Community Club.

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In April 2021, the community saw funding from the provincial and federal governments, as well as a $100,000 donation from the city itself, to finish off fundraising efforts to rebuild the Central Community Club.

Plans included two new rink areas, new boards along the rink with a repaved surface, a new bench area and more. Over the summer, residents will be able to enjoy road hockey and basketball on the new concrete surface, playground equipment, beach volleyball areas and a bocce ball area.

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The original clubhouse was torn down in 2018 as it was beyond repair. Volunteers with the Light Up Central Committee worked to raise over $100,000 afterwards, before governments stepped in to assist.

The new clubhouse and rinks were supposed to be completed by the 2021-2022 winter season, but crews ran into delays, pushing the project back to the winter of 2022-2023.