Niagara Falls backs use of minister’s controversial zoning ordinance to expedite approval of major recreational development

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Niagara Falls City Council has backed a request for a zoning by-law from an Ontario minister to authorize what is called a proposed “world-class agritourism” recreational development for the southwest corner of the roads Mountain and Kalar.

An MZO allows developers to appeal directly to the Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing for planning permission, bypassing local zoning requirements.

At Tuesday’s council meeting, John Ariens and Julia Redfearn, of architecture, engineering, planning and technology firm IBI Group representing the developer, addressed the politicians.

Ariens said they were presenting on behalf of two area property owners, Hospitality Resorts Inc. (the DiCosimo family) and Walker Aggregates.

“Together they own two parcels of land side-by-side (totaling approximately 105 hectares), and what we hope to deliver is to create a world-class agritourism resort at the entrance to the town of Niagara Falls, just edge of the (Niagara) escarpment and the south side of Mountain Road as well,” he said, adding that the proposed development is approximately 300 meters from the QEW highway.

Ariens said a parcel immediately to the north is not subject to the MZO because it is within the escarpment development control zone.

“We will take these requests to the Niagara Escarpment Commission,” he said. “This parcel is approximately 150 acres (60.7 ha). It is wholly owned by Hospitality Resorts, and it is not in front of you today.

Redfearn said the land on the south side of Mountain Road between Kalar and Garner Roads is proposed to have agricultural vineyards, an 18-hole championship golf course, driving range, chip and putt, professional sports show, accessory structures, an inn and spa, villas, pool lounge, tennis courts, restaurant and nature trails.

The Escarpment Lands, north of Mountain Road, are proposed to include vineyards, a winery and farmers’ market, an equestrian center and riding trails, an amphitheater for intimate concerts with views of the Toronto skyline, hiker cabins and connections to the Bruce Trail.

“These developments will work cohesively where accommodations on MZO land may be used by tourists visiting the winery, or those visiting for a golf weekend may wish to spend an evening at a concert,” said she declared.

Redfearn said the “comprehensive” development is expected to generate 200 part-time and full-time jobs, with a planned investment of $100 million in construction and agriculture.

“The architect will use rural design principles to complement and enhance the character of the area,” she said.

Ariens said no development was proposed in the environmental features.

“It is going to have this rural and agricultural theme. It will be an agriculture-tourism type location,” he said, adding that the development “will not cause any negative impact on the farming community or the environmental characteristics of the properties.”

“Just imagine the vineyards as you drive down Mountain Road, with clusters of villas located in those vineyards.”

Redfearn said an environmental impact statement will be prepared as part of a site plan process to ensure adequate buffers against natural features.

She said that developers pursue an MZO instead of going through the typical planning process for several reasons, including for funding purposes.

Redfearn said an MZO would make it easier to build within a year, noting that the proposal coincides with the expansion of the urban limits in the city’s northwest quadrant.

She said an MZO would also maintain a partnership with the Antinori family of Italy who “patiently awaited the start of this partnership with Hospitality Resorts”.

“They have been in the wine business for over 700 years and will bring invaluable experience to the project. Their newest winery in Italy is carved into the mountainside with a rooftop vineyard to effectively integrate the built form into the natural landscape.

Ariens said an MZO is “not a green light” for development.

“If anything, it’s an orange light. It gives you land use permissions. We still have to do archaeological studies, we still have to do servicing studies, we still have to do the final environmental impact study.

Com. Wayne Thomson said the development “would be great for the town” and would like to see the municipality work with the group to complete the development.

Com. Mike Strange said the development would be a game-changer for Niagara Falls.

“Playing golf, going to a concert, hiking the Bruce Trail. We’ve always said what’s missing along the Bruce Trail is a place to stay,” he said. “I think a lot of people in that area will use it instead of going further. They will feel like they are on the outskirts, but only a few kilometers from the (heart of the city).

Com. Chris Dabrowski said Tuesday’s presentation “gave me goosebumps.”

“When I think of Niagara Falls, I don’t necessarily think of a resort town, but a tourist town,” he said. “We have the majestic Niagara Falls, but it would be a perfect complement to an almost perfect city.”

Com. Victor Pietrangelo said he “can’t think of a better location” for the proposed development.

“Being on the crest of the escarpment of a winery and having a great view of Toronto and all the areas below the escarpment,” he said, “I think it will really beautify the area . Golf courses are some of the most beautiful places in the world, as are vineyards, especially when you walk past it gives you a kind of natural calm.

Com. Lori Lococo, who along with Carolynn Ioannoni were the only councilors to vote against the requested MZO, said that while she thinks “it’s a great concept” that would be “great for the economy”, she has several concerns.

“My first concern is the MZO. For me, it’s the lack of notification to our residents of what’s going on,” she said. “It’s great that woodlots, significant woodlots and waterways are protected. But…it’s good general farmland and that would change now.

Lococo said official plan policies and zoning do not permit a golf course or resort.

“I understand that the MZO overrides that, but I have a concern there,” she said. “In a normal planning application, we would have received all these reports beforehand. We would have been given cards with stamps. The public would have known. Because of the MZO, all of that isn’t there, so I’m concerned about the information that’s not in front of us.

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