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Aurora council rejects controversial shelter proposal by 4-3 vote

February 14, 2024

Posted on: February 14th, 2024. Posted by: Joseph Quigley, Original Article.

‘It is disappointing this has polarized our community,’ mayor says after hundreds flood town hall to debate 55-unit regional shelter for homeless

Aurora council killed a proposed regional shelter project by a 4-3 vote after six hours of fierce debate at town hall Feb. 13. 

Hundreds attended a planning committee meeting to discuss the controversial proposal from the Regional Municipality of York at 14452 Yonge St. The 55-unit facility has been in the works for several years, with the region seeking a rezoning in the residential neighbourhood for the proposal to go ahead.

But after hours of delegations both for and against the proposal, the majority of councillors decided to reject it. Mayor Tom Mrakas said he did not believe the planning argument was good enough and said York Region should have provided a matrix of possible sites that were analyzed to ensure this was the best one.

He also stated that the proposal fails to meet the intent of the town’s official plan, with too much density proposed. 

“I refuse to be pressured into making a poor planning decision for the community that I represent just so some politicians can check a box, pat themselves on the back and claim they’ve accomplished something,” Mrakas said. “It is disappointing this has polarized our community when I believe we are all on the same side of this issue and support the need for transitional and emergency housing in Aurora.

“I believe the best planning decisions are based on fact and evidence, not emotion,” he added. 

The original motion to have the proposal proceed to the general council committee was defeated before the shelter was outright rejected, both by 4-3 votes. Mrakas, with councillors Michael Thompson, John Gallo and Harold Kim, voted to reject the application. Councillors Ron Weese, Rachel Gilliland and Wendy Gaertner voted in favour. 

York Region and its housing arm, Housing York, proposed a shelter near the sewage pumping station they also plan to build on the site. Located in a neighbourhood, the proposed site is meant to replace Porter Place in East Gwillimbury, which the region has said is too costly to upgrade and is not an ideal spot for single men experiencing homelessness. The region has argued that the Yonge Street site is well suited for the use, being in a residential neighbourhood with transit access and on property already owned by the region.

However, many residents took issue with the region’s site. From environmental setbacks to the proximity to both the sewage pumping station and train tracks, residents raised several planning concerns.

Council members echoed the concerns. Gallo said the proximity to the pumping station was his central reason for rejecting the proposal.

“Nothing would be built there. You wouldn’t put a Belinda’s Place there, it would be a non-starter,” he said. “Why would we put men there that are in need?

Gilliland questioned that reasoning and said many homes are already located near pumping stations in the region. She also raised the issue of the rejection happening in this manner, when the proposed site being known since at least 2021, and this could have been flagged sooner.

“The planning proposal meets those requirements (of the zoning),” she said, adding if the lack of analyzed alternatives is why this rejection is happening, “Then I’m really disappointed if that’s how we got here. As our regional council representative, I do hold you (Mrakas) accountable for putting the region, and this council and these residents, in this position today. If you didn’t support this location, then why did we move forward with this process? … We all knew that this was going to be here.”

Regional staff indicated the region has spent about $1 million planning for this location. 

Mrakas came out against the proposal before the meeting, posting and then deleting a video last week where he said a better site could be found. 

Blue Door CEO Michael Braithwaite responded with disappointment and said he endorsed Mrakas in the last municipal election, believing the mayor supportive of this shelter proposal.

“Tonight was not our night, but we won’t give up,” Braithwaite said after council rejected the shelter. “We realize what’s at stake and we’ll work closely with our community partners.”

He said he believed councillors went into the meeting with their minds made up. He added that the focus should have been more on the merits of this site rather than on the idea that there is theoretically a better one. 

“Unfortunately, we saw some NIMBYism (not-in-my-backyard) loud and clear,” he said. “We did see, on the positive side, I think we saw a lot of love and care.”

But many in the audience were delighted by the council decision, with a loud chorus of applause and cheers ringing out when the rejection went forward.

Richmond Hill resident Eric Wolf had advocated against the project based on his negative experiences living next to a shelter in Richmond Hill. 

“I’m pleased that Aurora got a chance to have another location selected,” he said. “The location, which wasn’t appropriate, gets chosen anew, and that’s the most important thing.”

He said those opposed are not against shelters, just “the mismanaged and misplaced ones … Common sense has been restored in my view.”

Council members did address the possibility of working with the region to find another shelter site in Aurora. Kim said the region should work with all municipalities on this. 

“I’m not talking about a long-term time horizon but a timeline with a sense of urgency,” he said. 

The evening began with a presentation by consultant Scott Arbuckle of Arcadis on behalf of the region. He discussed the site details and said it is the view of regional planners that the proposal meets all requirements, including the town’s official plan. 

The site is designated in plans as “cluster residential,” which would at least allow eight units on the site, according to Mrakas.

Many residents spoke in opposition. Shaheen Moledina said it is clear the location isn’t appropriate.

“We’re putting these men between sewage pumps and train tracks,” Moledina said. “York Region has been using these Band-aid solutions for decades.” 

Housing York chair and Newmarket Mayor John Taylor presented in support of the project. He said this proposed site was the best he has seen for a shelter in 17 years in municipal office. 

He further said that plenty of homes get built next to train tracks and pumping stations throughout York Region without garnering this opposition, and that it is not a legitimate reason to halt this development. 

Taylor beseeched council to vote in favour of the proposal.

“We all enter politics with higher ideals. With a desire to help people. With a commitment to do the right thing, even and especially when it is difficult. I am asking you and begging you today to stand on principle,” Taylor said. “Please vote to keep everyone living in our communities with dignity.” 

Several other groups presented. Community Legal Aid Clinic of York Region and PFlag York Region urged approval of the shelter, speaking to the intersections of their work with homelessness. Braithwaite also presented on behalf of Blue Door. 

Mayor Mrakas made clear from the outset that presentations must address planning matters, and he would cut off people who did not speak to that. Still, some presentations waded into negative stigmatization of those experiencing homelessness and homeless shelters, saying they can bring crime, or associating them with drug abuse, which Mrakas attempted to cut off. He did the same for a couple of presentations in favour of the proposal not addressing land use.

Council members asked regional staff about possible safety concerns on the property. 

Thompson said there should have been an agreement put forward, similar to a recent one made by the Town of Whitby and Durham Region about the responsibilities of each as the region opened a homeless shelter within the town.

“It talks about the measures that (the region) will implement for community safety,” Thompson said. “It talks about the issues of liability, conflict resolution.”

When asked by Gallo, regional staff confirmed there was not necessarily a “Plan B” at the ready if this site was rejected. 

York regional council voted in 2023 not to take Aurora to the Ontario Land Tribunal over the proposed facility. But that was after the town deferred and asked the region to do more work on the proposal rather than an outright rejection. 

In December, Aurora council adopted a motion by Gilliland for the town to commit to ending homelessness in collaboration with other levels of government.