David Dunlop Observatory and Park

ASTRONOMICAL DEVELOPMENT PRESSURE

Proximity to Yonge Street, recent sale to an Ontario property developer, and a half-hearted approach to legal protection has put immense pressure on this internationally significant scientific site.  

It is up to the Town of Richmond to decide whether to act on the recent Conservation Review Board report that recommends the designation of 80% of the 77-hectare property as a cultural heritage site. 

Why it matters

A cultural and scientific landmark and the home to Canada’s largest optical telescope, the David Dunlap Observatory and Park is directly associated with Canada’s international accomplishments in the field of astronomy. The 72 hectare park-like setting contains a number of architecturally significant buildings including the Observatory Building, originally known as the Great Telescope Dome (1935) to plans by Sir Howard Grubb, Parsons and Co. Ltd., the Beaux Arts Classical Administration Building (1932-33), designed by the noted Canadian firm of Mathers & Haldenby; the Radio Shack (1956) and the director’s residence, Elms Lea, a finely crafted farmhouse dating from 1864. A prominent cultural landscape in the history of Ontario, the site contains exceptional heritage values related to its agricultural past and scientific function. Examples include the arboretums designed to support the technical operation of the telescope by modifying the microclimate around it; the north-south axial line of the north star Polaris on which the Telescope Dome and the Administration Building lie; and the entrance road, Donalda Drive, carving a passage through the treed grounds to the astronomy campus. In 1950, a 12-acre parcel of land known as “the panhandle” was added as a southern entrance to the site. The rotating copper Telescope Dome with its 188-cm telescope saw a number of internationally important astronomical discoveries, including Dr. Charles Thomas Bolton’s confirmation of the existence of the first stellar-mass black hole in the universe and Dr. Helen Sawyer Hogg’s photometry of globular star clusters.

Why it’s endangered

Philanthropist Jessie Donalda Dunlap, widow of amateur astronomer David Dunlap, donated the property to the University of Toronto (U of T) in 1932, with the condition that it revert to the Dunlap heirs in the event U of T no longer required it for use as an observatory. However, after a controversial legal battle (settled out of court), the university succeeded in terminating the deed of gift, enabling it to sell the property to a land development company in 2008 for $70 million. Given the development pressure created by proximity to theYonge Street corridor, local efforts to ensure protection of the site’s heritage values have been intense. The Town of Richmond Hill declared its intention to designate only half the property as a cultural heritage landscape under the Ontario Heritage Act (OHA), leaving important features that contribute to the scientific, ecological and heritage significance of the site unprotected. In the meantime, U of T diminished the integrity of the site by removing valuable scientific and cultural contents commissioned, prepared and collected exclusively for the Observatory.

Where things stand

Three volunteer-led community groups, at various times over the last six years, have worked to preserve the David Dunlap Observatory lands — the David Dunlap Observatory Defenders, the Richmond Hill Naturalists and the Observatory Hill Homeowners Association. In fall 2008, The Hon. Lincoln Alexander, chair of the Ontario Heritage Trust, wrote the Minister of Culture calling for action to protect the site. In May 2009, a delegation of stakeholders met with federal Environment Minister Jim Prentice to underscore the site’s national significance. The same month the Conservation Review Board (CRB) recommended that the Town of Richmond Hill increase the protected area to 74% of the 72-hectare property. The Town of Richmond Hill accepted the board’s recommendation, and included a schedule to the amended bylaw depicting the surveyed limits of the larger cultrual heritage landscape. The Province of Ontario did not act on the CRB’s other recommendation that the site be designated as provincially significant. Immediately following the passage of the amended bylaw, the Town engaged planning consultants to lead a public participation process for developing the property, including within the protected cultural heritage landscape. Asserting that the bylaw did not prohibit development opportunities within the cultrual heritage landscape, the consultants delineated a smaller area for protection. At about the same time, Metrus submitted it Master Environmental Servicing Plan (MESP), including Official Plan and zoning amendments with a plan of subdivision for a total of 833 units of housing across the property. The company did not apply for a heritage permit application required under the OHA. Despite this omission, in October 2010, the company appealed to the OMB regarding the Town’s “inaction” within the mandated 180 day period to respond to the landowner’s applications regarding the lands.

Update 2011: In February, 2011, the Town held a special public meeting to discuss a staff report which called for the rejection of Metrus’ planning applications and included commentaries by peer reviewers and the Region of York and Toronto Region Conservation Authority (TRCA) regarding the failure of the Master Environmental Services Plan to address the need to preserve and protect the significant features of the Dunlap lands. In May, the Town voted to reject the landowner’s applications and instructed staff to proceed to the OMB to argue for the protection of the lands. At a pre-hearing conference, the Town brought a motion to adjourn until it had received and considered the heritatge permit application. The OMB chair asked the parties to participate in mediation rather than proceed to a hearing. Several parties to the hearing (Metrus Developments, the Town of Richmond Hill, the Region of York, the TRCA and the David Dunlap Observatory Defenders) consented to the mediation process conducted by the OMB and the Town’s motion was set aside. A settlement was reached in September, 2012 that allows for the construction of 530 housing units (rather than the 833 units called for in the original development plan). The Town would acquire 56% of the site: 35 hectares of open space, three hectares of woodland and 0.3 hectares for a small park area. To compensate for the loss of regionally significant forest, Metrus would plant new trees and improve native species diversity in the retained woodlands. The Richmond Hill Naturalists, who did not entered into the mediation, opposed the settlement agreement. As a result, the OMB held a hearing into the merits of amending the Town’s official plan to accord with the settlement.

Update 2013: On May 1, 2013, OMB Chair Karlene J. Hussey released her decision in favour of official plan amendment (OPA 270) which resulted from the multi-party settlement agreement. “It (Official Plan Amendment 270) is a collaborative and comprehensive planning document that achieves efficient use of the lands, protection and enhancement of its natural and cultrual attibrutes, and by the dedication of over 56% of the property to public ownership, it attains substantial public benefits. It also ends uncertainty concerning the future use of the lands.”

Although reported as a “uniquely successful” outcome, not all parties were satisfied. The Richmond Hill Naturalists requested a review of the settlement, which was dismissed in July, 2013. The Naturalists then sought a Motion for Leave to Appeal through the Ontario Divisional Court, which was dismissed this past December. In early 2014, the David Dunlap Observatory Defenders, as per the settlement agreement, supplied comment and input to the proposed zoning bylaw amendment to be presented to the OMB with the draft plan of subdivision for the Dunlap lands. The Naturalists are objecting to the zoning bylaw amendment which will be go before the OMB in June, 2014.

 

Location: Richmond Hill, ON

Top 10 Endangered Places List: 2009

Status: Saved

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