The withdrawal ends a yearslong legal saga with developer Benny Marotta. Pictured is the entrance to the Randwood Estate property on John St. East in Niagara-on-the-Lake. Photo credit: Google Maps
After over four years, untold energy and resources, and thousands of tax dollars wasted, it appears an ongoing legal saga between the Town-of-the-Lake and Solmar Development owner Benny Marotta is finally over.
Back in September, an Ontario Justice of the Peace ruled that the municipality infringed upon Marotta’s Charter right to a timely trial, staying charges laid by the Town in November 2018 related to the removal of trees from properties collectively known as Randwood Estate in Niagara-on-the-Lake.
Under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, anyone accused of an offence in Canada has the right to be tried within a reasonable time. In waiting nearly four years to bring the case forward, the Town denied Marotta a fundamental guarantee that must be afforded to all Canadians – therefore, the charges were stayed.
The Town, still under the mayorship of Betty Disero at the time, initially decided to appeal the September ruling.
However, last week, now under the leadership of Mayor Gary Zalepa, the municipality elected to withdraw its appeal.
“The Town believes financial resources are better used in the interests of the public, and the appeal will not proceed,” read a statement from the municipality on February 14.
“When making its decision, the Town was also mindful of the high legal costs associated with an appeal on this matter without any assuredness of ultimate success.”
The Justice of the Peace was set to hear the appeal on Wednesday, February 22.
Council held two votes on the matter in the weeks before the case was scheduled to be re-examined. On February 10, members voted 5-2 to withdraw the appeal. Following an alleged “technical error/misunderstanding”, a motion to reopen the previous vote was supported by a 5-4 majority of council, but not the two-thirds required to take a second look at the original vote.
SORE (Save Our Rand Estate) – the primary community activist group that’s for years been opposed to the tree removal, and the redevelopment of the Randwood Estate site more broadly – put out a lengthy statement after the Town washed its hands of the case last week.
“Benny Marotta’s companies have been allowed to escape without a trial on the merits and without consequences for the deliberate and outrageous clear cutting of a designed heritage landscape at one of the most important cultural heritage properties in NOTL and Niagara Region,” read the group’s critique.
“SORE and its many supporters view the failure to properly prosecute these charges and the Marotta companies’ consequent ability to avoid responsibility for their actions as a travesty of the first order and a stain on the Town.”
Marotta purchased 144 and 176 John St. East in 2016 for $8 million. His initial intention was to build a six-storey luxury hotel complex on the site that would “preserve the integrity of (the) heritage property and enhance its already robust landscape for guests and the community to enjoy, while creating a beautiful establishment that would elevate hospitality in Niagara-on-the-Lake.”
However, after immense pushback from activist groups like SORE and former mayor Betty Disero’s council, Marotta grew tired of “dealing with the politics” and listed the two lots that make up Randwood Estate in late 2020 for $19 million.