‘We can’t get parkland like that back’: Norfolk residents keep their green space after council rejects plan to sell parkland for housing

Norfolk County councillors got the message — the people want parkland.

Council voted not to sell four parcels of green space that could have been declared surplus and flipped to developers to build new housing.

But public outcry prompted councillors to preserve parkland in Port Dover, Vittoria and Simcoe — plus a woodlot in Delhi — during a review of county-owned vacant properties.

“We can’t get parkland like that back,” Coun. Chris Van Paassen said at Tuesday’s meeting while describing a 1.65-acre lot on Firefighters Lane in Vittoria.

Though admitting a grassy lot connected to Colonel Stalker Park in Simcoe would be a nice size for a house, Coun. Doug Brunton convinced councillors to preserve it as parkland at the behest of neighbours who use the space for recreation.

“I do not support selling any parkland,” Brunton said.

John Hagerman was among the Delhi residents who signed a petition asking council not to sell a woodlot off Hawtrey Road that serves as a buffer between their homes and an industrial plant and associated truck traffic on nearby Highway 59.

“The first homebuyers bought their lots with the understanding that this would be parkland,” Hagerman said in a deputation to council.

“Not everything should be about money.”

The process to review all vacant county-owned land — 511 properties in total — was started by the past council. The intent was for staff to recommend parcels that could be sold to generate revenue, save money on maintenance and insurance, and get more houses built in Norfolk.

That process involved “thorough” public engagement in the form of community meetings and online feedback, said Heidy Van Dyk, Norfolk’s general manager of corporate services.

“Staff understand that there are strong feelings within the community around this issue,” Van Dyk told councillors.

Those feelings were strongest about Percy Ryerse Park in Port Dover, which was donated by the eponymous Ryerse in the late 1950s with the understanding that it forever be a park.

Staff recommended carving out two sections of the well-used community park to build three houses.

But residents argued Ryerse meant for the land not to be developed.

Even though the county’s legal experts said the county is within its rights to sell part of the nearly three-acre park, as stipulations on land donations expire after 40 years, council voted to keep the park intact.

“It’s a contract that we have with the donor,” said Port Dover councillor Adam Veri.

“Do we think the Ryerses mean that they would donate this property so that at a later date, Norfolk County council could sell it?”

Selling part of the park could give current residents pause about donating land to the county for fear their wishes would not be respected once the legal window expired, Veri added.

“Does council honour the intent of past agreements, or does it look for ways to legally get out of them when it becomes beneficial to do so?” he said.

The vote to preserve Port Ryerse Park was unanimous, much to the relief of Dover resident Meg Palermo, who spoke at Tuesday’s meeting about the frequent use and sentimental meaning of the park to the neighbourhood.

“I feel very supported by all of council. For each of them to speak up and see the same value in green space and community is really encouraging,” Palermo told reporters.

Council decided to proceed with the sale process for nine of the properties staff identified as surplus to the county’s needs.

Coun. Kim Huffman asked that one property — a portion of a park in her Waterford ward — be referred to the mayor’s affordability roundtable for discussion of how the site could be turned into affordable housing.

As part of the land review process, nine other small parcels were previously earmarked for sale to adjacent landowners, and staff identified five unused road allowances that could be closed and sold.

Several councillors were disappointed that staff had not found out the value of the parcels in question before bringing options to council.

“We’re looking at selling things but we don’t even know how much they’re worth,” Huffman said.

In an interview, Van Dyk said appraisals would have come later, once the size and future uses of the properties were set.

Council also had to decide whether to have staff complete geotechnical studies and rezone any lands declared surplus or sell them as is, which would affect the appraisal.

“I completely understand that it would have been useful information,” Van Dyk said. “At this point in the process, it would have been challenging to get a definitive answer to that question.”

Van Dyk said the land review was a “useful and valuable process” to engage the public and understand what kind of properties council wants to keep.

“We’ve identified a number of properties that we can move forward with,” she said.

“I think it’s a very valuable discussion to have. They’re not easy decisions to make."

J.P. Antonacci, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Hamilton Spectator