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Town of Bracebridge hosts second public meeting virtually to go into more detail on Muskoka Royale College

The setting was different for the second public meeting to go over the changes that need to be made for the proposed development of Muskoka Royale College to go forward.

This meeting was held virtually via Zoom, with members of Bracebridge council joined by members of the community both for and against the proposed private school. While no decision was made on the proposal during the meeting, if Muskoka Royale is to go forward, a zoning amendment and one to the town’s official plan need to be made to permit the operation of the proposed private school and for on-site living accommodations for staff and students, multi-use recreation facilities, servicing infrastructure, and other uses.

In a letter to the town on March 20th, 2019, Muskoka Royale Development Inc. (MRC) says the proposed school facility will feature a pool, arena, playing fields, multi-media and performance areas, research and resource facilities, modern, fully-equipped learning spaces with professional learning support, a staffed infirmary for primary health care, full culinary, cleaning and other support services, and robust teaching technology throughout. A summer camp is also included in the proposal.

Students and staff will live on campus. “A home-like atmosphere will support the social and mental health of students,” the letter reads. 

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The five-precinct school complex has been described as a “legacy project” for Toronto area developer George Chen.

The proposal put forward by Chen has been a hot button topic in the community. The Town of Bracebridge’s Senior Planner Jeremy Rand spent time at the beginning of the meeting going over the details of the proposal for the 450-acre property east of Stephens Bay. The school is proposed to take up around 61 acres. 

If the building of the proposed development project begins, MRC says the project can be expected to create 200 jobs over a five year period. The development team has also pledged to make use of local companies and services during the building period. “I remain committed to hiring local trades, contracting work through local providers, and hiring locally whenever possible,” Chen said in an October letter to council.

The proposed development will be done in three phases. One half of the secondary school will be built in phase one along with the entire multi-use sports completed and one half of the student and staff secondary school dormitory. Work on the secondary school will be continued in the second phase. The final phase will see the completion of the secondary school and the remainder of the dormitory. The elementary school and student residence will also be worked on during the third and final phase.

Once completed, it’s estimated by MRC say around 120 full-time jobs will be opened up for teachers and administrators. They say there will also be jobs in maintenance, catering, and housekeeping. 

In previous plans submitted to council, Chen and his development team’s goal is to have a student base of just under 2,000. In a letter sent to council in October 2020, Chen says to reach that “ultimate planned size” it may take 15 to 20 years. He estimates in five years, the student population will be at 500 and 1,000 after 10 years. 

At the end of Rand’s presentation, he said staff recommends the deferral of both the zoning and official plan amendments to go over what was said during this public meeting. That motion was voted on later on in the meeting and was carried. Director of Planning and Development Cheryl Kelley suggested that council could meet as early as December after this deferral, but a specific date was not decided on.

Speaking on behalf of Chen, Michale Robertson was the first to speak, she worked with her husband Barry on this project. The two are retired principals who live in Bracebridge. She explained that while Chen helped his daughter figure out where she wants to go for University, he thought up the idea of creating a school in Bracebridge. “This school will be an asset to the town, not a burden,” Robertson said, claiming there’s been a lot of “misinformation” spread in the community. She said direct benefits will be provided to Bracebridge for “decades” to come once Muskoka Royale is up-and-running.

Each presenter was given 15 minutes to speak with that time divided up between the multiple people in the group representing Chen.

The lead environmental consultant for the group Gord Nielsen spoke next. “I know that there’s been an awful lot of concern over the environmental concerns on this project,” he said, adding much of it has been spread by the aforementioned misinformation. Nielsen claimed to have walked the property “on fifty occasions” and that they have made sure the wetlands are protected. He said no development within 250 meters of Henry Marsh and there will be a minimum average buffer of 50 metres for other wetlands if they are near the development.

He said that their primary concern is making sure the wetlands are protected throughout the proposed development project. “We know that there’s opposition to this project,” Neilson said. “We’ve done everything we can to address their concerns.”

During the three-phased development, Neilson explained that every phase will be subject to a site plan control process. He said that will require more environmental impact studies to be done and no further development will be allowed until town staff are satisfied that all issues are addressed. 

Marie Poirier of Marie Poirier Planning & Associates in Huntsville was apart of a group speaking against the proposed development. She said she’s concerned about the potential impact of the proposed land use designation. She said going from open space to institutional which she called “one of the most intensive” zoning changes. She said a change like that “requires care and very good planning.” She went on to refer to the rezoning project as “patchwork zoning.” Poirier called for more peer reviews to be done before a decision is made on the project, including the planning and justification report.

Poirier said an economic viability study must be done before the proposed development goes forward. She said the proposal also doesn’t touch on the social impact. She wondered how the local services like the hospital or fire department will handle the influx of people for the private school. “I fail to see any support or recognition of how the town will support this build-up,” she said. 

The Stephens Bay Association have put out a statement on the project, later clarifying comments they made in the original statement with a follow-up. President Michael Hart told council that all members of the association are against the application. He echoed what was said earlier in the meeting and called for an economic viability study to be done and added an impact study should be completed as well. 

He says there are still “multiple deficiencies” in the analysis. He called for further evaluation of the wetlands in the area where the development is proposed. He said you can’t rely on MNRF’s opinion that a wetland evaluation is not needed. “They haven’t been on the property or done a detailed evaluation,” he claimed. He also called for an economic viability and impact study.  

He said the town does not have the necessary information to consider approving the zoning amendment from environmental protection wetland and open space to any combination of south Bracebridge institutional.

Protect Muskoka has been one of the loudest voices against the proposal. Thomas Tutsch spoke on behalf of them and the “thousands” of voices in the community that signed the petition put forth to go against the development project. “Prior to our formation, few in the community were aware of the rezoning proposed by the (George Chen),” he said. He said the petition they put forward has been signed by over 4,600 people who are against the rezoning of the wetlands for the proposed development. “They want to be consulted and know what is happening,” he said of the people that signed the petition. “They want transparency about this development.”

Tutsch questioned what will happen if the proposal goes forward, but ends up failing. He asked what a legacy project is for a “rich man” and why he chose Bracebridge. 

On top of the scheduled speakers, community members were apart of the Zoom call and voiced their concern. One of the people that informally spoke was the President of the Bracebridge Chamber of Commerce Richard Borland who voiced his and the Chamber’s support of the proposal. “We feel it will be very beneficial to our business community,” he said. Others that spoke were concerned about what they concerned lack of due diligence done by those putting forward the proposal and how the proposed private school could affect businesses in town. Others were frustrated that they didn’t learn about the public meeting until a few days ago.

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