Fredericton — City council voted last night to accept an offer of $12.2 million for the Odell Park Lodge and outbuildings plus 2.78 hectares of surrounding land including the parking lot to help offset the recently announced cuts in provincial transfer payments.
“These are difficult times,” Ward 7 Coun. Stephen Chase (Odell Park/Parkside Drive) said as he put the motion before council. “Everybody knows the park has been a drain on city taxpayers for decades. It generates not one cent of revenue. And it’s huge — can we afford huge right now? We’re going to sell a relatively small portion of the park for the good of all city residents. This is a win-win for everyone.”
Chase says the income from the sale is equal to about 10 percent of the city’s annual budget.
Count. Dan Keenan, who seconded the motion, said the summer storm that knocked down thousands of trees in the park and across the city might have been a blessing in disguise: “With all those trees out of the way, this is the perfect time to get in there and do some digging, some building. That’s what progress is all about.”
Chase said the park makes up nearly a third of his ward, yet contributes nothing to the city’s coffers, has no eligible voters and is unfair to other city residents who don’t have a park in their own ridings.
“It’s been a one-sided relationship from day one,” Chase said, “but that’s about to change. We’re going to take a small piece of the park — the least ‘park’ piece of the park really — and we’re going to make it into one of the nicest places to live in my ward where I’ll be running for re-election in 2016.”
Depending on weather conditions, clear-cutting of the remaining trees in the land parcel could begin as early as mid-January.
“We’re thrilled that council sees the benefit of building on prime park land, giving ordinary people a chance to live in a place that used to be this amazing piece of nature right in the heart of the city,” Todd Moneyman, spokesman for Odell Park Estates Ltd., told reporters during council’s regular smoke break. “The tax revenues to the city will be considerable.”
The deal comes with a set of zoning variances that allow a low-rise condo development designed to look like a long string of identical wooden boxes to be called Odell Park Estates One. Moneyman said the developer promises to keep a 2-metre wide walking trail nearly as long as a tractor trailer overlooking land where trees once stood. “We’ll have those cute signs that show you what kind of trees were cut down,” he said. “They’re very educational, especially once the trees themselves are gone. We think it’s important to do that for our children and for future generations.”
Only Keenan and Chase voted for the motion. Four other councillors voted against while 6 abstained. Under the city’s voting rules, abstentions are counted as ‘yes’ votes.
“Two in favour, 4 against, 6 who abstained, so the motion passed by 8 votes to 4,” Mayor Brad Woodside explained in an interview afterwards. “Majority rules. It’s sad that so many people in Fredericton don’t understand how our democracy works. It’s something we need to address.”
The Fredericton Recreation Department announced on the city’s website this morning that walking trails will close on Dec. 24, and the site urged residents to take advantage of this last view of what it calls “the old park” while announcing an Odell Park Selfie Contest in conjunction with Fredericton Tourism. The best ‘selfie’ — a picture taken at arm’s length with a cellphone of the phone-owner’s face — will win a trip for two to Hyde Park in London, England.
In a related development, the proposal to begin fracking tests in upper portions of the park during the Christmas holidays was sent to the city’s Planning Advisory Committee for a thorough review before coming back to council for unanimous approval at next week’s regular meeting.
“Did you know there are more than half a million holes drilled in Canada already? So another couple of holes here in Fredericton aren’t going to make much difference in the big picture,” the mayor said. “Our initial estimates show there could be enough natural gas under the park to power City Hall for weeks if not months.”
Fracking — short for “hydraulic fracturing” — is a controversial method of driving natural gas from rock formations by blasting water and chemicals into holes drilled into the earth’s crust.
The new Liberal government led by Premier Brian Gallant put a temporary moratorium on fracking in New Brunswick. But a person close to the Odell fracking project who agreed to speak only on condition of anonymity, said that thanks to the annual 3- to 4-week provincial government shutdown over the holidays, “nobody in the Legislature will notice until well into the new year. We’ll have the gas flowing down the new Smythe Street Pipeline by then.”