GRAVENHURST - With the harshest of words Coun. Lola Bratty took the air right out of chambers last Tuesday.
Coun. Lola Bratty
Making no apologies as some of her peers gasped for breath, she said it is not time to mince words as the town moves forward with a campaign to alter Ministry of Transportation (MTO) long-range plans for Highway 11’s expansion that she says have already been beyond “destructive.”
“There’s a huge human interest factor here of people losing their jobs today; people who are trying to support their families,” Bratty said. “That’s the results of MTO’s actions on this highway corridor — it’s disgusting.”
With an expected 25-year horizon before all elements of the project are completed, the MTO ultimately plans to see six-lanes starting about 20 kilometres south of Gravenhurst up to Muskoka Road 169. Although the six lanes are contingent on traffic numbers warranting it by then, the MTO is securing property for that work and moving on with plans for work in the meantime that includes improving highway access and overpasses, eliminating uncontrolled access points and shoulder improvements as shorter-term solutions.
Staff had a prepared statement including several case studies of property owners in the municipality along the highway that are apparently already being impacted negatively by the MTO plans.
Pointing to one of the case studies of a business owner unsuccessfully attempting to open an operation due to ministry denial in the area as an example, Bratty reiterated “it’s just disgusting.”
“That’s Nazism at its worst in my opinion,” she added to gasps. “I’m vocal about this because I think it is a shocking set of behaviours on the part of MTO.”
“You cringe at the word but that’s basically what the bureaucrats have been doing. I’m not saying the minister, but the bureaucrats, and he (MTO Minister Bob Chiarelli) has to rein them in,” she added. “We’re not saying stop your project, we’re saying mitigate your damages and the harm you’re causing.”
Town community events facilitator and marketing and communications assistant Amy Taylor presented the document to council for approval Oct. 16, saying it’s a more intense and thorough study of the implications first presented to council in February of this year.
“We’ve provided a case, the background to the project, the impacts on the community and a summary of information,” she said. That includes “economic impacts, the lost jobs, the orphaned businesses and residences and as well, talking about displaced emergency services and restricted development of future or potential properties,” she added.
Taylor said the crux of the report is requesting a meeting with Minister Chiarelli to follow up on previous meetings with former minister Kathleen Wynne, who Mayor Paisley Donaldson said had a good rapport with council.
“Wynne was all on our side and very positive, but she left and that’s pretty much where it ended,” Mayor Donaldson said, adding hopefully the same positive connection can be made with the new minister.
Council is concerned about a lack of plans to mitigate the expected loss of the Kilworthy Fire Station, which is on land expected to be lost to the highway expansion, as well as the businesses and residences that are also expected to be paved over or have their access severed.
“We’ve (also) talked about the socio-economic impacts and put some thought into business relocation strategies. We do need support if these businesses are to be relocated,” Taylor explained of the town’s position.
“Basically at this time, we’re asking for three essential items: that the ministry recognize and acknowledge the impact of the design and that it is immediate; that we’re requesting immediate financial assistance be implemented for businesses that are going to be removed; and three, that we request additional information.”
“We’re trying to illustrate the human factor of this project,” she added. “It’s not just the technical or engineering; it’s actually affecting lives of our business owners and residents.”
Taylor said in developing the report, business owners and residents along the affected stretch have requested the town take a firm stance and lobby for changes in a more active fashion.
She said the information and requests being sent on is a start of that in a more formal and official way, but she will look to ways to further the cause.
“It’s a very destructive impact. It’s already affecting businesses and people that live along the highway. They are faced with the choice of lying down, submitting to the MTO jackboot or resisting,” she said.
“It’s costing jobs today, it’s not just costing jobs in the future, it’s costing tax revenue to the town and those are very serious to the town,” she added.
Some of those impacts highlighted by the report indicate that the MTO proposal could create a loss of about 5.5 per cent of the town’s total tax base, with 106 properties negatively affected, of which 86 are businesses.
The report goes on to state this could cause the loss of upwards of 400 jobs, as well as displacing homes, businesses and the Kilworthy fire hall.
Deputy Mayor Jeff Watson, who owns business property on Hwy. 11 in the municipality declared a conflict of interest for the discussion and did not partake in the debate.
However, after the meeting he did wish to publicly address some of the comments made by Bratty, saying he didn’t think they would be helpful to council’s cause.
“I think that whole conversation probably set council back by 20 years in our relationship with the MTO,” he said.
Council did support the document presented by staff and approved having it sent on to the ministry in the hopes of hosting a meeting with Chiarelli as soon as possible.