UPDATE: On Nov. 27, 2019, Ottawa city council voted 14-7 in favour of allowing the subdivision around Kilmorie house at 21 Withrow Ave. Councillors Jeff Leiper, Keith Egli, Shawn Menard, Mathieu Fleury, Catherine McKenney, Rawlson King and Theresa Kavanagh dissented. Coun. Rick Chiarelli, the councillor for the area, was not present at council for the vote.
Nepean residents and a local heritage group trying to preserve a historic property that was once home to a Confederation Poet were dealt a “devastating” blow on Thursday when the City of Ottawa’s planning committee approved a developer’s request to build a subdivision around the heritage house on the site.
While the application for 21 Withrow Ave still needs to be greenlit by Ottawa city council and an approval could be appealed, the planning committee’s decision was still “quite upsetting” for the community, said Joan Clark, president of the City View Community Association and the Kilmorie Heritage Society.
“We have to meet and see if we can go forward, but it is a devastating day,” she said.
The two-acre property is tucked away just west of Merivale Road in Ottawa’s City View neighbourhood, southwest of downtown. It features large lawns, stands of trees and a farmhouse first built in the mid-1800s.
In 1915, William Wilfred Campbell — a Confederation Poet who was considered Canada’s unofficial poet laureate — moved into the home and named it Kilmorie house.
According to Clark, Kilmorie is the second-oldest stone house in Ottawa.
Clark and others have been trying to find a way for years to save the private property from development. They argue Kilmorie should be preserved as community centre dedicated to the arts and the grounds opened to the public as a park or gardens.
The application by Theberge Developments Ltd., which the planning committee considered on Thursday, proposes to build nine two-storey detached homes on the property as phase two of the 21 Withrow Ave. project.
Theberge has already obtained separate approvals for the first phase: four detached homes fronting Withrow Avenue. The proposed subdivision would be accessed through a private road off adjacent St. Helen’s Place and would be largely “shielded.”
Jonah Bonn of Holzman Consultants told councillors Kilmorie house “will remain showcased” in the enclave and will not be demolished. Rather, the developer plans to spend close to half a million dollars to make Kilmorie “habitable” again, he said.
The applicants “acknowledge and respect” both the public’s comments and the “highly unique” nature of the property,” Bonn added.
“We’ve done our best to address the concerns and we believe we’ve arrived at a final plan based on sound planning principles,” he said.
Kitchissippi Coun. Jeff Leiper was the only planning committee member who dissented on the application — which Leiper noted came to committee for a vote at a time when College Ward residents don’t have “full-time representation” on city council.
Coun. Rick Chiarelli has been largely absent from city business since the summer for what he says are health issues.
“Why proceed with this now?” Leiper said. “Theberge has properties all over the city that it is currently developing … why this property? Why now? Why not give these residents the opportunity to see what they can do in terms of saving it?
‘It’s going to improve the community,’ developer says
From Theberge’s point of view, now is the time to move ahead because the plans have been dragging on for four years, and sitting on the land has cost the family that owns the property tens of thousands of dollars every year.
“Honestly, we want to do it because I think it’s going to be a landmark site,” Joey Theberge, president of Theberge Homes, told reporters after the meeting.
“My question is: ‘Why not now?’ It’s going to improve the community. It’s going to improve this heritage home.”
Kilmorie house, uninhabited for several years, “needs a lot of work,” Theberge argued.
“It’s a danger,” he said. “People are getting into the house now. There must be kids going in there. It’s time to clean this house up.”
Asked if she believed things might have transpired differently if Chiarelli had been working full-time, Clark said, “I would hope so.”
She told reporters that Chiarelli had supported her group, which has so far fundraised about $60,000 towards possibly acquiring the property.
“He was working on deals and and trying to support us,” Clark said.
Theberge said “there’s no deal in place at this time” between his company and the Kilmorie Heritage Society.
Residents decry loss of green space
In her appeal to councillors to reject Theberge’s application, Clark argued 21 Withrow Ave. is a neighbourhood “landmark” that reflects “the history of the early settlers who arrived in Nepean.”
She and other residents voiced concerns about the losing the green space surrounding Kilmorie, even though it’s located on private land.
“It is this green space that is a symbol of what the Confederation Poets wrote about and what gives us a sense of self as Canadians,” said Ben Glossop of the local Poets’ Pathway Committee.
Withrow Avenue resident Mary-Sue Haliburton described the site as a “green, beating heart” within the city.
“To destroy this … will be an irreversible mistake,” she said. “We respect the private property but this new development would completely destroy any hope of people being able to visit the heritage property which we should be allowed to do.”
A staff report on the project noted that the heritage value of the site is “restricted to the house and does not include the surrounding grounds.” The planning committee heard that some trees would be removed in order to build the subdivision, but Bonn said “there will be preservation and rehabilitation to the greatest extent possible.”
Clark claimed it’s also important to protect the property because it’s “the last green space in a community that has the second-lowest ratio of homes to parkland in the city of Ottawa.”
“Once green space is gone, it is gone forever,” she said.
City staff said they studied the distance from the property to “accessible parklands” and determined there’s “adequate access” to seven parks within a 1.5-kilometre radius. But several councillors and residents pointed out that the parks in the area are purpose-built for sports or have specific uses, and aren’t “community gathering spaces,” as Coun. Scott Moffatt put it.
The subdivision application will to go council for approval on Nov. 27. Clark said she plans to reach out to other councillors over the next two weeks, before the final vote.
“We’re squished, but we’re not dead.”