BY LINDA MONDOUX
A project hailed as the “renaissance of Crystal Beach” is one step closer to reality following the latest court victory by the Town of Fort Erie, which has joined forces with a private partner on a multimillion-dollar development it says will get the ball rolling on revitalizing an area that fell on hard times after a popular waterfront amusement park closed in the 1980s.
“It’s been a very long, contentious battle and, hopefully, this will be the final hurdle,” Fort Erie Mayor Doug Martin told MyNewWaterfrontHome.com, adding he’s anxious to see the shovel get in the ground.
At issue in the most recent legal challenge — a lawsuit launched by a handful of predominantly American property owners — is the agreement the town signed in 2009 with The Molinaro Group to develop a 12-storey 87-unit condominium building on a portion of the four-acre Bay Beach property the town acquired in 2001 from a private owner. As part of the zone change permitting the condo on the undeveloped non-beach portion of the property in the Crystal Beach community, the Burlington-based developer would provide the town with “benefits” valued at $3.45 million, including:
• Year-round multi-purpose community pavilion
• Beach accessible washrooms/changerooms and concession area
• Large outdoor public event space and beachfront promenade
• Open space improvements (landscaping, walkways, seating and other park furniture, lighting, etc.)
• Reconstruction of Erie Road and surrounding roads, including the installation of a gateway feature and parking lot improvements.
Round 1 in the battle against the mixed-use development was launched by the Fort Erie Waterfront Preservation Association — a group of Crystal Beach landowners who argued the town had no right to give away public property to a private developer — when it filed an official objection with the Ontario Municipal Board, forcing a hearing. The town won its first victory when the OMB, after an eight-day hearing, ruled on Jan. 28, 2011, that the rezoning represented “good land use planning” and that “this proposed development demonstrates in the Board’s determination a persuasive step toward invigorating Crystal Beach.”
A motion by the objectors seeking leave to appeal the OMB ruling was later turned down in Divisional Court. In dismissing the leave to appeal, Justice P. B. Hambly said the OMB decision “raises no issue of law on which the Divisional Court could conceivably find that the Board’s decision is unreasonable.”
'Exciting development opportunity'
In a news release after that ruling, the mayor said: “Council adopted a new vision this term … a town proud of its past, excited about today and building for tomorrow. This is the second appeal that has been dismissed and it is time to move forward with this exciting development opportunity.” That wasn’t the final challenge, however.
A group of six citizens with ties to the Fort Erie Waterfront Preservation Association, along with a private land company, hired a Buffalo-based lawyer to file a lawsuit against the town and Molinaro on April 20, 2011, claiming the proposed project was illegal. “This lawsuit focuses on the crux of the issue … what we always knew in our hearts. It’s simply not right for the Town to be giving away Crystal Beach’s most valuable asset to a private developer … this prime waterfront property belongs to the public!” Marcia Carlyn, a spokesman for the plaintiffs, said in announcing the lawsuit.
Last week’s ruling on that lawsuit, which followed testimony in court in February 2012, is the town’s third major victory, paving the way for the development to finally proceed. The judge not only dismissed the claim on all points, he also awarded costs of litigation to the town in the amount of $78,524 and to The Molinaro Group in the amount of $57,250.
In announcing the latest decision, Ron Tripp, the town’s acting chief administrative officer, said: “This is very positive for the taxpayers of Fort Erie.”
As the town sees it, the joint venture with Molinaro — which will include construction of a single tower featuring a public facility with washrooms, a snack bar for beach-goers and a waterview-restaurant on ground level, with condo residences above, all built to LEED green standards — follows to the letter council’s intent when the Bay Beach property was purchased in 2001 for $2.1 million, because the town retains ownership of the entire 1,000 feet of beach, hailed as the best in the Niagara Peninsula.
“The Bay Beach project represents a first-class development combined with an accessible public beach, large public podium and enhanced public amenities,” the town says. “This will contribute to a fun and enjoyable beach experience for all.”
'We're on the leading edge'
The Bay Beach project implements one of the town’s longest-standing strategic objectives, which has been to increase access and accessibility to waterfront, including acquisition. The majority of the town’s prime beach areas are now in private, mostly American, hands. The town has visions of increasing the public beach by about three kilometres — from Crystal Beach along the entire sandy shoreline to the western end of Abino Bay — and developing this area with higher-density residential.
This is exactly what the Fort Erie Waterfront Preservation Association fears. “The Molinaro project is just the beginning,” the group says on its website. “It will serve as the precedent-setting catalyst for a host of other 12-storey high-density buildings all along the waterfront.”
But Martin says mixed-used developments on the waterfront “are the wave of the future.”
“We’re on the leading edge of it,” he tells MyNewWaterfrontHome.com, “and thus we get the criticism.”
When the town bought the Bay Beach property from the Rebstock family in 2001, the plan was to regain public access to that part of the waterfront that had been in private hands for more than 100 years, many of those as an amusement park, and sell off the property farthest from Lake Erie in order to recoup some of the cost and to stimulate development.
The joint town/Molinaro project is being promoted as a shot in the arm to the Crystal Beach neighbourhood, which consists of a mix of seasonal and year-round homes, with a main commercial core along Erie Road and Derby Road. For many decades, the development site, located on the south side of Erie Road, was used as a private commercial seasonal resort and beach, complete with dance hall and concession stands.
Crystal Beach began life as a summer resort community in 1888, when Buffalo entrepreneur John E. Rebstock purchased 30 acres of waterfront property and began developing a “Coney Island” style attraction on Abino Bay, complete with amusement park that he advertised in Buffalo newspapers. On the quieter side of life, Rebstock also developed a religious campsite in Crystal Beach, with today’s core area street pattern the result of that earlier plan.
Crowds flocked to amusement park
It was the amusement park and the big sandy beach that attracted cottagers and summer visitors, however, with Crystal Beach’s heyday beginning in the 1920s. Things began to slow down in the 1950s as other, larger attractions drew American tourists away from Crystal Beach. The gradual decline saw the area’s commercial core suffer, with the final blow coming in 1989, when the amusement park was closed down.
And while older cottages are being repaired and converted to year-round residences and the commercial core is starting to perk up, the town believes that Crystal Beach, which became part of Fort Erie in 1970, needs something big, like the Bay Beach project, to really get it back on its feet.
According to the mayor, the Molinaro project will help boost the entire village, because the condo’s residents will need to shop and want to go out to restaurants, which means existing businesses in Crystal Beach will benefit, with new ones moving in to fill the gaps. But to thrive as Crystal Beach did when the amusement park attracted both new residents and visitors, Martin says a “critical mass” is needed — what he calls “a captive audience for businesses.”
“We’re hoping that eventually, we will get the whole beach,” Martin tells MyNewWaterfrontHome.com, adding that while there is nothing on the table right now, he expects Crystal Beach property owners will be approaching the town with joint venture ideas that will see more commercial/residential projects developed on the waterfront. More projects means more people, and more people means vibrant once again.
“With waterfront restaurants and other shops, people can walk along the beach and stop in for a drink. It becomes a destination,” Martin says of the vision for the Crystal Beach waterfront.
With no more legal challenges likely waiting in the wings, the only thing that could possibly stand in the way of that first shovel in the ground — which Martin hopes will happen this fall — is an endangered toad. Molinaro is awaiting a permit from the Ministry of Natural Resources allowing it to build on Bay Beach, which is home to the Fowler toad, listed as a Species at Risk in Ontario. As part of efforts to minimize any negative effects the development will have on the toad, habitat areas will be located on public lands and roped off to restrict access. There is also the question of who will pay to maintain the toad habitat.
While the ministry ponders the toad permit, Molinaro is anxiously waiting for word that all is a go. According to information on the town’s blog in late 2011, people were already lining up for the condo units. If you want to join the lineup, email email@example.com.
MyNewWaterfrontHome.com — May 2012