Napanee rail trail meeting bridges community differences (2023)

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Meghan Balogh

Published May 21, 2023Last updated 1day ago5 minute read

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Napanee rail trail meeting bridges community differences (2)

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Hundreds of local residents packed the Strathcona Paper Centre in Napanee on May 11 for a public meeting to discuss a municipally owned property containing a disused rail line that some in the community want to see converted to a multi-use trail.

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In February, members of the Napanee Active Transportation Allies made a deputation to council outlining reasons and ideas for converting the disused Canadian National Railway line into a trail that would tie into the Cataraqui Trail system only a handful of kilometres away in Strathcona.

Concerned about interruptions to farm operations on land that abuts the proposed trail, a local farmer made an “unsolicited offer” to purchase that land from the town.

Members of council decided at a council meeting on March 28 to surplus the old rail line land.

A background information document from the Town of Greater Napanee said the decision to surplus was made “in order to allow council to consider an offer to purchase the land.”

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That decision elicited a strong response from trail proponents and community members, and more than 1,300 people signed an online petition asking the town to reconsider its decision to surplus the land.

At the special meeting of council on May 11 — which was uploaded to the town’s YouTube channel the week following the meeting — members of town council listened to presentations from both sides of the issue, including 22 registered deputations.

“We’re here to listen tonight,” Greater Napanee Mayor Terry Richardson told the audience as the meeting began.

Tom Touzel, a member of the Active Transportation Allies and the first member of the public to speak, began his deputation by acknowledging that “emotions are high” surrounding this issue and apologizing to Napanee dairy farmer Dave Milligan, whose property the old rail line runs through, for past friction over the issue.

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Touzel brought forward the rail trail idea to friends just over a year ago. He described an idea that had gone from a discussion among friends to being included in the Town of Greater Napanee’s Recreation Master Planand causing divisive feelings between citizens in favour of the trail development and those protective of the Milligan family farm.

“We both said some things we now regret,” Touzel told the audience. “I don’t think either of us made enough effort to understand the other.”

Touzel said he now understands that the trail “is possible, but probably not possible in the route that I initially saw.”

Milligan and members of the Active Transportation Allies met in the days leading up to the meeting to discuss ways around the concerns expressed by two separate farming business owners along that trail.

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“Ultimately, Dave has proposed an alternative route that is exciting and workable and doesn’t go right by his barn,” Touzel said. “And my pledge is to work with the land owners and the farming community to make this happen. I think it’s completely possible.”

While “rhetoric heightened” in the weeks leading up to the May 11 meeting, Touzel said the journey has seen “an opponent become a friend and an ally.”

“From those discussions, I think we have a really good chance to build a series of trails in Napanee,” Touzel said. “We now really look to our political leaders to facilitate and lead and make this happen.”

Touzel believes work would likely begin on trail development opportunities in the town proper before efforts focus on the property north of Highway 401.

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Milligan spoke right after Touzel, acknowledging Touzel’s words.

“The way that this whole thing started was Tom had a vision, and I had a different vision, and that was for our family and farm,” he said. “I think as time rolls on here, we found out that we have a lot in common.“

Milligan explained his family’s fifth-generation farming operation, Mill Spring Farms, and its role as part of Ontario’s food system.

“We quite honestly strive to be better each and every day at what we do,” Milligan said, pointing out the growing scarcity of Ontario farmland.

“There are solutions for trails and recreational spaces that do not need to involve diminishing two local, multigenerational farms. I’m open to working with the other stakeholders and developing and seeing these projects through, as they are all in our best interests.”

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But, Milligan said, the current rail line’s path through the centre of his farm, close to barns and equipment storage buildings and used as a route for large farm equipment, “will just not work” as a public trail. He feels that the public route would open his business to potential theft, vandalism and trespassing.

“I think that there’s lots of solutions we could work towards that don’t have to have negative impacts for the community or the businesses that really need their security,” he said.

Mayor Richardson said it was encouraging to hear Milligan and Touzel express support and understanding for each other’s perspectives.

“This community is about working together and doing what’s best for the community, and I have to say, it made me very proud to be a member of the Town of Greater Napanee when I heard that,” Richardson said.

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“I think we’ve taken strides a long way forward … whether we make it happen or not, that will be what we find out in the future, but I can guarantee that this council and our staff are going to leave (no stone unturned) in respect to this.”

Richardson was encouraged by the meeting’s tone.

“I’m very, very encouraged by hearing the three words I heard tonight: communication, collaboration, co-operation,” he said. “In order to make this thing work, we need all three of those things working to move forward.”

Mike Sewell, another member of Napanee Active Transportation Allies, came away from the meeting feeling positive about “reasonable people having reasonable conversations.”

“Now comes the hard work, and that’s going to be waiting for council to make a decision,” he said. “I think they heard pretty loud and clear that a deferral would really make this situation better.”

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The agenda for council’s regular session on May 23 includes a recommendation that council “defer any further decision regarding the potential disposition of the land declared surplus” — the former rail line property — until council and community stakeholders have had time to review relevant information and options, and until “a good faith effort has been made to seek an alternative route for a trail that would not cause significant adverse impacts to neighbouring property owners and would be financially and operationally viable.”

The recommendation also suggests that council refer “the task of facilitating discussions and review the feasibility of an alternative trail route to the trail committee as a subcommittee of the Recreation Advisory Committee.”

The creation of a trails subcommittee will also be discussed during the town meeting on May 23.


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