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Community gathering and vigil to be held Sunday evening along Lafarge lands

Many are distraught over the forthcoming cutting of 1,950 trees on land long used as a neighbourhood green space

The development, or lack of development, of the dormant Lafarge lands along a strangely disconnected strip of the Silvercreek Parkway, is a dragged out and complicated subject, Guelph city councillor June Hofland said in a sit-down conversation Saturday. She is helping to organize a vigil near the property to be held on Sunday evening.

“This whole thing is very complicated,” she said. “There’s a lot of layers to it. It’s a complex case.”

Hofland, like many residents of the Junction and Onward Willow neighbourhoods, has a deep connection to a former gravel pit/concrete operation that has become a green space through a slow process of dormancy.

Hofland estimates it was last an active pit back in the late 1980s, and has been growing relatively wild since then.

The city has granted a permit to land owner Silvercreek (Guelph) Developments, an arm of Fieldgate Developments, to cut down 1,950 trees on the property. Work is underway to advance the tree clearing operation, including plowing out a boundary for the work and fencing it off.

Many of the trees in the inadvertent park are towering poplars, willows, and maples. Interspersed among them are more recently planted pines, various shrubs, and shorter elm trees.

Trees along the north and south end railway tracks, and along Howitt Creek will be preserved, as will a great bur oak along the Silvercreek extension. In recent years, the east end of the land was turned into a proper park, part of a development requirement.

While the large expanse of land has been on the books for a decade or more as development land, lack of development has left it open to opportunity for dog walkers, BMX bikers, joggers, and the occasional camper. It became a park in purpose, if not in name. Now, it is being turned back to development land.

Hofland and fellow neighbourhood residents have planned a vigil for Sunday evening, 7 p.m. on that disjointed strip of Silvercreek Parkway that comes to a dead-end on the north side of the property. The strip is often used for driver training, and little else.  

That dead-end zone, Hofland said, is part of the complexity behind the ongoing delay in developing land that has been approved for mixed residential/commercial/retail purposes since 2013. Plans were in the works for many years before that.

Until an underpass is constructed under the railway tracks, connecting the strip to the rest of Silvercreek Parkway, development can’t commence.

Hofland said without the underpass and the connectivity to Paisley Road and Slivercreek Parkway North, the development would be “landlocked,” and there would be a serious traffic problem through the Junction neighbourhood. Those gaining access to some 450,000 square feet of new commercial/retail space would have to take a circuitous route down side streets. The underpass was a requirement of development. 

That significant alteration at the tracks comes with a roughly $10 million development charge, Hofland said. But it is necessary in order to ensure an optimal traffic flow in and out of any future residential/employment zone.

“There is a lot of sadness around this,” Hofland said, adding she has been inundated with emails and phone calls about it. “There are lots of tears being shed.”

Hofland has spent 12 years involved in the proposed development of the Lafarge lands.

“I think that what has occurred is, the neighbourhood and the community at large have taken ownership of the property,” she said. “For me, it has become a green sanctuary, and a green oasis for many people. We just got very attached to having a green space in our backyard. It really has become a forest.”

Owner of Fieldgate Developments, Jack Eisenberger, has no immediate plans to develop the land, but Hofland believes the clearing of it is taking place to re-identify the property as development land.

“I think that he’s getting it development ready,” she said. “But there is no development application at city hall."

Hofland believes the land is being "staged for development,"  and she worries that it could be made ready and then sit for many years in a desolate, empty state.

“Why would you want to take the enjoyment away from the neighbourhood in a green space, to sit like a desert?” she questioned. “All I know is that he has applied for a tree removal permit and it was granted.”

That permit allows for nearly 2,000 trees to be cut down. Whether Fieldgate intends to bulldoze and grade the land is unknown at this time.

“In my view, he is doing a clear cut,” Hofland said.

Participants in the community gathering and vigil understand that the property is private. The strip of Silvercreek Parkway South is, however, public. That’s where the event will be held, to both mourn and celebrate the land.