Editorial: Good call Muskoka Conservancy

Posted: 2021-06-19 10:15:50 By: thebay

Faced with public backlash over a proposed land swap featuring a portion of donated land, the Muskoka Conservancy backtracked this week and withdrew a planning application which featuring rezoning, land swap and severance requests.

Many in the community who were opposed to the land swap were happy to hear the news, and when looking at all the facts (yes, those still exist), it was a good move by the Conservancy. Yet, when looking at the situation, the move made sense on paper and could have provided more protection to the existing property.

The land in question was the Nelson Head Nature Reserve, which was donated to the Conservancy by Mrs. Aldine Head in 2010 to be protected. She wanted to keep safe the land her husband loved so much to honour his memory – we know because our friend Chris Occhiuzzi (then with the now-closed weekly paper What’s Up Muskoka) spoke with Mrs. Head and covered the story back in 2010 when the donation was made.

Her intention back then – and probably still to this day – was that the land to be kept safe from development and not to be used for the development and profit of a sole private landowner. 

Mrs. Head’s land donation came with the understanding that the land would be kept in its natural state and be undisturbed land for the townspeople to walk through. Motorized vehicle use is forbidden on the lot and only small walking trails would be the limit of use on the land. The Reserve still contains the old Head homestead which is part of the history of the area.  Additionally, it was requested that a plaque would be erected to share the history and identify the Nelson Head Nature Reserve.

When news of this situation broke recently, many in the town were upset; including Mrs. Head according to friends and neighbours who spoke with her. 

Opposition to the proposal was raised after the Muskoka Conservancy had agreed to sever a portion of the lot at 25 Town Line Road West with the intent of exchanging land with a private developer. The planned severance from the Nelson Head Nature Reserve would create a 0.8-hectare lot and the Conservancy requested it to be rezoned Residential. 

This would allow it to be developed into a residential home. In exchange, the Muskoka Conservancy would gain roughly 4.0 hectares of land severed from the lot known as 139 Brunel Road. The total size of the remaining lands under Muskoka Conservancy’s control would increase from 3.6 hectares to 6.9 hectares.

While there has been some bashing of the Conservancy recently, and specifically director Scott Young, let us remember on paper this looks like a good trade. Muskoka Conservancy’s mission of conservation of nature in Muskoka led to this proposal as it would increase the amount of land being protected. 

More importantly, the Nelson Head Nature Reserve would be rezoned to a Conservation Zone and would prohibit future development and protect the natural heritage of the area, a designation the Reserve is currently lacking. Both changes would have net positive results for the number of protected lands in Muskoka.

However, there were heated reactions by many in the community to the news of the project with little support for the proposal moving forward. In this vein, I’m wondering if Mrs. Head was being told the whole story or just what certain members of the public opposed to anything that resembles change were telling her. 

I wonder if she knew about the full benefits of this proposal, would she have considered it. 

Many members of the public felt it was their right to speak on behalf of Mrs. Head and raise questions about who was really profiting from the transaction and implied there may be some underhanded motives at play.

It reminded me a little bit of a witch hunt (of course done online from the safety of their keyboards); everyone looking for a villain where one really didn’t exist. It was just a conservation group trying to conserve more land and add more protection to the land it already is protecting.

That being stated, the Muskoka Conservancy made the right move in the end. While the mission of Muskoka Conservancy is to protect nature in Muskoka, trading away existing land is contrary to their mission statement.  

Even with the addition of new land to protect, the land being traded away will effectively have the natural habitat destroyed on it.  Scott Young has indicated the traded portion of the lot does not have any of the buildings from the old Head homestead upon it, but what about the trees and animal habitats?  The creation of a home would certainly result in the destruction of nature.

Trading away a portion of this gift, would have done a great disservice to Mrs. Head and her family's legacy. It also would have left many questions surrounding Muskoka Conservancy’s ability to steward the land in its care. Future land donors may have started to think twice and wonder what would happen if the right developer came along.  

By withdrawing the application, the Muskoka Conservancy has wisely chosen to listen to those in opposition and respect the wishes of the Head family. It has also shown it’s willingness to adapt, listen and reverse course when provided with a different perspective – perhaps saving their reputation from permanent damage.

Perhaps now the focus should now be put on installation of the plaque and rezoning the existing lot to a Conservation zone?


By David Caplan, for