Six meetings and a split vote later, the octagonal viewing platform at the Woodchester property in Bracebridge has been given the thumbs up by council.
The vote during the March 8 council meeting was split with Mayor Rick Maloney tipping the scales toward approval.
The platform will be built east of Woodchester at the top of the river embankment and positioned to overlook the Muskoka River and the Lands Above the Falls at 10 Entrance Dr. It’s the option chosen was the one recommended by town staff.
The Bird family gifted a portion of the forest surrounding the property to the Town of Bracebridge in 1981. It came two years after the town purchased the Woodchester Villa from the Rotary Club of Bracebridge which had spent two years restoring the nearly 100-year-old property.
An agreement was signed with the Bird family with provisions for how the property is used. In an Oct. 2022 report, Jennifer Clancy, manager of economic development, and Yvon Gravel, engineering technologist, explain that the agreement called for the area to be called “Bird Grove,” ensure the land is used as a park “in the nature of a conservation area,” keep the area in good condition, and not allow camping or similar activities.
Prior to approving the platform’s location during the meeting, council voted against an amendment from Coun. Don Smith that would have seen it moved closer to the Woodchester Villa. Smith and Coun. Debbie Vernon, Archie Buie, and Barry Hammond voted in favour of the location change, which is considered the third option in Clancy and Gravel’s report, however, five councillors voted against the idea.
Peter Bird spoke to council prior to the vote and objected to the staff-recommended location. He said he preferred the third option as it would not violate the agreement.
Mayor Rick Maloney said he appreciated the “healthy debate” and being able to hear from Bird. “It’s never going to be perfect,” he said of the project. He called the property “a jewel in our community” and said this is an opportunity to allow more people to enjoy it.
While where the platform will be dominated the conversation, Buie, who is chair of the Accessibility Advisory Committee, explained his concerns with what he saw as a lack of accessibility at the staff-recommended option. “I want a viewing station that’s fully accessible,” he said.
However, Cheryl Kelley, director of planning and development, said the recommended option can be made accessible, according to standards set by the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act.
Buie, along with all councillors except Vernon and Smith, ended up supporting the staff-recommended option.
The other concern surrounded funding for the project. The town was approved for $47,500 in funding through Ontario’s Rural Economic Development program. The platform and storybook trail, which was unveiled in Nov. 2022, were two elements in the agreement. However, the work must be done by June 30, 2023.
One extension has already been granted but Kelley and Clancy were unsure if a second one would be.
“We’re treading on some funding shaky water,” said Maloney. He cautioned that if more changes and made and work is delayed, the town’s funding application could be rejected.
The cost of the platform is estimated to be $45,507 and would be part of the grander property improvements at the Woodchester.