Town holding back on zoning for elementary school-decision could go to OMB

To zone or not to zone. That's been the question on town council's mind for quite some time now.

And it's the answer to that question that is causing confusion and disappointment in the minds of some Virgil parents.

At Monday's committee of the whole meeting, councillors decided not to give the controversial property at Line 2 and Niagara Stone Road an institutional zoning as recommended by town planning staff, choosing instead to leave it for residential development.

The decision came down to chair Terry Flynn making the final call after a split decision among the six councillors in attendance.

That decision, if ratified by council Monday, means that an Ontario Municipal Board hearing will decide the future of the property, unless the town and the school board can come to some agreement before the hearing, not expected until the new year.

The board wants to build a new elementary school to educate the students now attending Virgil and Col. John Butler public schools, both outdated buildings that need more work to bring them up to standards than makes economical sense to the board and province.

And parents, said trustee Lynn Campbell, are confused about what an OMB hearing will mean to the board's decision to build that school.

"Parents have a lot of questions about what is happening. They don't understand the delay. If the town would rezone and drop the OMB hearing it would speed things up." But the hearing will likely mean it will be September 2012 before local kids have their new elementary school, she said.

Some councillors have spoken against making the move easier for the board, when the new school could be built on NDSS property which the board already owns. That location has been seen by some as a piece of the puzzle that could have saved NDSS by turning the East and West Line property into a campus for Kindergarten to Grade 12, possibly with two new buildings.

But Flynn's decision was not made by a personal grudge against the District School Board of Niagara, he said, instead it was made due to the Town's original plan.

"I'm looking at the bigger picture. The DSBN said they want (the new elementary school) at the centre of an urban area, but most of the children who attend that school would be bused to the Line 2 location... I do believe potential residential lots could be beneficial and there are still other lands available to be zoned institutional."

Councillor Jack Lowrey voiced his concern with keeping the land residential, calling it the least appealing option financially. Lowrey said he believes the DSBN will take the decision to the Ontario Municipal Board, requiring the Town to hire planners, since the town planners recommended it be zoned for a school, for a case he feels the Town would lose.

"When staff makes a recommendation, the judge weighs that very heavily. I want to make sure everyone at this table knows the kind of costs we would be looking at," he said. "I don't share any confidence that we're going to win this with the school board."

Chief Administrative Officer Don Smith said there has been dialogue between both parties and the DSBN is worried about the potential delay of going through an OMB hearing.

"They left me with the impression that they would be happy to talk to the Town in trying to settle this."

Gary Zalepa Jr. said he was glad to finally get some attention from the school board and he too is worried about financial implications, but took a different tack.

"I would like to know the financial implication of losing a number of residential lots where the school would be," he said. "[The DSBN] has failed on everything else in this town in regards to schooling. Let's stick with our original plan."

Campbell says she continues to be a strong NDSS supporter, but would like to see a new elementary school built for the benefit of local students.

"I'd also like to see a new high school. I'd like to see a miracle. And I'd also like to see the elementary school as a separate issue. Right now, nothing good is happening for the students of NOTL. We have to play with the cards we're dealt."

The decision will be brought to council Monday, where it could change with councillors missing from the committee vote in attendance at council.

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