Environment Trumps Development

Tentative deal reached to protect David Dunlap Observatory Lands

 Noor Javed Staff Reporter

Richmond Hill has approved a tentative agreement that would see up to 60 per cent of the David Dunlap Observatory Lands returned to the town and protected from development.

The deal, reached through a six-month mediation process at the Ontario Municipal Board, marks the near end of a fight to preserve the lands lauded by local residents as one of the last big green spaces in the community.

Town council voted 9-0 to ratify the OMB-mediated settlement after an in camera discussion Thursday.

“It has been a long process, but we’re really pleased with the outcome,” said Deputy Mayor Brenda Hogg. “To have all of that property protected for the public forever — it is quite significant.”

The park-like 77 hectares near Bayview Ave. and 16th Ave. host a 19th-century farmstead and the famed 76-year-old David Dunlap observatory, housing the country’s largest optical telescope — through which the first mass black hole was discovered.

The University of Toronto sold the property to developer Metrus in 2007, over public protest. OMB mediation began at the company’s request last September, after the town rejected its plan to bulldoze an old-growth forest to build a 833-unit housing development using most of the land.

Negotiations, kept under a strict gag order till now, involved the town, Corsica Development Inc. (a subsidiary of Metrus), York Region, the Toronto and Region Conservation Authority, and the community group DDO Defenders Inc.

“We are extremely relieved and honoured and proud to have been part of this process which has protected and secured approximately 60 per cent of this property. It’s remarkable,” said DDO Defenders chair Karen Cilevitz. “We are so grateful for everything that has occurred.”

But the group, which represents as many as 2,000 concerned residents, including Dunlap’s granddaughter, Donalda Dunlap Robarts, is determined to press on with its goal of protecting the entire site.

“This is just another step in the saga of securing the Dunlap legacy,” she said. The group will press the provincial Liberals to live up to their election promise to bring the four levels of government to the table to tackle the issue, she said.

Some details of the settlement:

• About 60 percent of the land, including most of what the town deemed to be part of its cultural heritage landscape, will be turned over to the town to be preserved and protected as public lands.

• No development will be allowed in that area, and all buildings and heritage features will be preserved.

• For the time being, Corsica will retain ownership of the observatory dome, administration building and the historic Elms Lea homestead, as well as surrounding land, but discussions continue about transferring ownership to the town.

• Corsica has agreed to pay $1.9 million to the town for regeneration, reforestation and enhancement of the wooded areas, including buffers to preserve the telescope’s functionality and the area’s unique character.

The lands have been the object of bitter debate between those who feel the green space should be protected and the observatory preserved, and those who feel the area is prime for development.

In 2009, the town designated most of the Dunlap lands as a cultural heritage landscape under the Ontario Heritage Act, citing the “remarkable astronomical research campus” as well as the century-old farmstead.

The agreement is still contingent upon approval by York Region and the Toronto and Region Conservation Authority. Other hearing participants, such as CN Rail and the Richmond Hill Naturalists group, have a right to object to the agreement.

With files from Laurie Monsebraaten