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Unofficial Prescott park feared in jeopardy after being declared 'surplus'

Luie Zelayeta lives kitty-corner to property behind Prescott town hall. The site is used as a park and Zelayeta and others in the eastern Ontario town say they're worried after it was recently declared to be surplus property. (Guy Quenneville/CBC - image credit)
Luie Zelayeta lives kitty-corner to property behind Prescott town hall. The site is used as a park and Zelayeta and others in the eastern Ontario town say they're worried after it was recently declared to be surplus property. (Guy Quenneville/CBC - image credit)

A green space that some Prescott, Ont., residents say has served as a park in all but name for decades is now the subject of spirited debate.

Last month, councillors in the town of about 4,000 people south of Ottawa voted 5-2 in favour of declaring the yard behind town hall "surplus" — a decision that potentially paves the way for the land to be sold.

Though the town and its mayor say things haven't reached that point and that community feedback will be gathered before anything further happens, some residents say the December vote came with little notice and that the process feels rushed.

"We really felt blindsided," said Luie Zelayeta, who lives kitty-corner to the yard and has a "Save the Park" banner pinned to his porch.

Save the Park banner on house kitty corner to green space behind Prescott Ont. town hall Jan 2024
Save the Park banner on house kitty corner to green space behind Prescott Ont. town hall Jan 2024

Zelayeta has a 'Save the Park' sign on his front porch. (Guy Quenneville/CBC)

Technically not a park

The land in question is about half a block wide and is behind the building housing Prescott's town hall and library.

Otherwise, the area is largely residential.

Some locals refer to the site as a park and say it's used by dogs and kids. There was a rink there in years past.

But it isn't legally a park. It has no sign, picnic table or bench (though the library has seating outside).

Ann Clarke lives nearby and was walking her dog Dexter by the site on Sunday. She wants it to remain untouched.

"It's got some beautiful trees," she said. "The library's right there, so you can sit outside and read books in the summertime."

Ann Clarke and dog Dexter in front of green space behind Prescott Ontario town hall Jan 2024
Ann Clarke and dog Dexter in front of green space behind Prescott Ontario town hall Jan 2024

Dog walker Ann Clarke would like the site to remain a green space. (Guy Quenneville/CBC)

Exactly what the town might like to do with the land is unclear.

Matthew M. Armstrong, the town's chief administrative officer and treasurer, declined to be interviewed but said via email that council is required to call land surplus "before it can consider if it wishes to divest of it."

At the December meeting, Coun. Lee McConnell, who voted against the surplus designation, suggested the town had housing in mind for the site, a scenario he called "foolish" because "it gives no thought to the local usage."

Mayor Gauri Shankar, who voted in favour of the designation, told CBC News the town was approached to look for properties "that would be available to help resolve some of the housing crisis" and that "an interested party brought forward an unsolicited offer."

"[It] never has been a park," he said. "I spoke to a town employee this morning [and] he said all we do all summer is pick up dog poop in that lot."

Prescott, Ont., Mayor Gauri Shankar poses for a photo at town hall in February 2023.
Prescott, Ont., Mayor Gauri Shankar poses for a photo at town hall in February 2023.

Prescott Mayor Gauri Shankar, seen here last February, says the town is still gathering feedback on what to do with the land, noting that it 'never has been a park.' (Rosalie Sinclair/Radio-Canada)

Shankar added the town is under pressure to increase its population and revenue in order to keep taxes low.

"We had a strategic plan a few months ago," he said. "Every one of our councillors stated that increased housing was the number one goal."

Prescott Ontario town hall and public library building Jan 2024
Prescott Ontario town hall and public library building Jan 2024

The site is behind Prescott's town hall building. (Guy Quenneville/CBC)

'People just feel ignored'

Besides wanting the land to remain a green space, McConnell and Zelayeta have concerns about how things got to this point.

Council agendas go online on Thursdays, McConnell said, whereas the meeting with the surplus designation vote occurred on a Monday.

That gave people too little notice, said Robert Haller, another concerned resident who spoke up at the Dec. 11 meeting.

That meeting was the first time the issue had been publicly discussed by council, Coun. Sue Lockett pointed out during the meeting.

Both Shankar and McConnell confirmed the land has been discussed during in-camera meetings. McConnell said those discussions had already gone on for weeks before the vote.

"There has been no public discussion or public awareness," Zelayeta said of how the process played out. "People just feel ignored."

Save the Park poster Prescott, Ontario, January 2024
Save the Park poster Prescott, Ontario, January 2024

Zelayeta held a rally over the weekend. (Guy Quenneville/CBC)

Shankar said the rules have been followed "to a t" and there are "no hidden agendas."

The town is collecting feedback until Jan. 26 and council will meet after that to "go over all the public opinion and decide on our next steps," Shankar said.

Zelayeta said the public consultation should have taken place before the surplus vote.

McConnell added that if the matter had been introduced on Dec. 11 and the vote put off to a future meeting, "there wouldn't have been so much controversy in town."