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Globe & Mail June 3 2000, Sat. - by Renee Huang

Milton residents battle agency over sale of Land

Scandal-ridden Ontario Realty Corp. accepted down payment for property before it was declared for sale, citizens say

About 50 verdant acres of provincial land, 32 of them declared surplus, are the focus of a battle between residents and would-be developers in the town of Milton, west of Toronto.

The vendor is the Ontario Realty Corp., a provincial agency entangled in a corruption scandal related to other deals. The closing date for sale of the Milton property, long used as an unofficial park behind the E. C. Drury School for the Deaf, was May 31.

But a local group, Friends of E. C. Drury Park, alleges, based on documents it says it has obtained under the province's access-to-information law, that a down payment was accepted by the ORC even before the land was declared for sale. It argues that the sale should

be stopped and the site kept in public hands.

"It really is the only open landscape here in Milton," said Mel Cutler, chairman of the group and a 24-year resident of the town.

He calls it "our High Park," after the leafy expanse in Toronto's west end. "It would be stupidity to build on it. . . . This park will be more and more important as the population grows."

For Milton, a town with a population that may triple to 85,000 in the next 20 years, the land would be the largest urban park in the area.

It provides a safe space for students at the school for the deaf, a place where they can wander and explore without having to worry about cars and other dangers. A duck pond in the middle is surrounded by trees. Part of the Niagara escarpment looms in the distance. A few paths, worn by frequent use, cut through land that abounds with squirrels, birds and other wildlife.

The Friends have gathered a thick stack of documents on what they claim is a hurried deal, including a copy of a $25,000 cheque sent to Ontario Realty by the would-be buyer in April of 1998, two months before the land was officially on the market; and another for almost $188,000 sent on July 8, 1998, the day after it was declared to be for sale.

Although the role of the Ontario Realty Corp. is to sell surplus government lands to developers and buyers, in this case, the Friends are saying the agency acted a little too soon.

"There's vast evidence that they're walking merrily hand in hand with the developer, trying to make [purchasing the land] as easy as possible," angry Milton citizen and group member Richard Murzin said.

He and other Friends asked Ontario Management Board Chairman Chris Hodgson to intervene and delay the OMB hearing into changing Milton's zoning bylaws until the OPP and auditors finish their investigations of Ontario Realty, which began last fall.

Mr. Hodgson's press secretary, Karen Vaux, said he could not intervene in OMB matters. "He is unable to [interfere] given the OMB is a quasi-judicial body. . . . It would be inappropriate for him to get involved."

But the Friends want answers to the questions that have surfaced about the land sale.

Mr. Cutler says that when the group asked ORC officials about the procedures that they followed for marketing the Milton property, they were told it was listed in "local papers" for three weeks prior to the official sale in July of 1998.

He said the group looked in the local library files, however, and could find no such advertisements for the parkland.

Ontario Realty refuses to discuss the price to be paid by Leisureworld Inc., a nursing-home firm that wants to rezone the land for housing.

And they could not say whether Wednesday's closing date for the sale of the Milton land had been extended once more, as it has been with this and other properties in the past.

All internal files have been turned over to auditors investigating possible corruption of other Ontario Realty practices.

But an OMB meeting on Thursday set hearing dates for late September, and lawyers for the developer hinted that the sale closing date has been moved, once again, until later this year, said Mr. Cutler.

Although most Milton residents would like the park kept the way it is, Mr. Cutler said that the Friends have no problem with a developer who wants to build nursing homes on the property, "as long as it's done properly." He said that his main worry is that Leisureworld wants to build residential housing with no concern to the historical significance of the Milton lands and that the province will bend rules to allow the sale to go through at any cost.

Despite the news that the OMB hearing will proceed, Mr. Cutler said "nothing has changed."


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