City rejects plan to turn Queen St. mansion into autism centre

An Oakville woman's plan to turn a Queen Street South mansion into a treatment centre for kids with autism was blocked by a city committee Thursday.

'This is a human rights issue,' lawyer for autism centre founder argues

The property, 403 Queen Street South, is heavily wooded and encircled by a wrought iron gate. (Kelly Bennett/CBC)

An Oakville woman's plan to turn a Queen Street South mansion into a treatment centre for kids with autism has been blocked a city committee.

A Hamilton committee set up to decide on minor exceptions to city planning rules on Thursday denied the exception needed for the plan to go ahead, saying it didn't seem to be "minor".

The meeting of the Committee of Adjustment drew a large crowd of opposed neighbours and the city councillor who represents them.

Proponent Lisa Stephenson is asking the city for permission to operate a so-called residential care facility out of the home, which she says will be the first of its kind in Canada.

"My goal is not to establish a full-blown mini-hospital," Stephenson fired back.

Lisa Stephenson attended a brief hearing at Hamilton city hall on Thursday for her proposed autism treatment centre on Queen Street South. (Kelly Bennett/CBC)

Distance between residential care homes

The issue on the table for the committee was whether to allow a residential care facility to open within 300 metres of another residential care facility, which would require an exception to the city bylaw.

But neighbours say her plan goes far beyond what typical residential care facilities are, and that she should have to submit to a full zoning process to see the building used for what they consider an institutional, not residential, use.

Representing Stephenson, lawyer Wade Poziomka argued that that distance requirement unfairly discriminates against people with disabilities.

He said just because city council has lagged on deciding whether the bylaw should be scrapped, that shouldn't stop the committee from deciding whether this project meets sound planning principles.

"This is a human rights issue, ladies and gentlemen," Poziomka said. "City council hasn't done what's right, but that doesn't mean that you don't have to do what's right."

'This isn't terribly minor'

Bill Pearce, a member of the city's Committee of Adjustment, said the project should instead be contemplated at city council as a zoning issue.

"When we have this many people showing up, and a half-hour presentation, this isn't terribly 'minor'," he said.

A photograph included in a 2015 real estate listing for the home showed its stately front. (Tom Vogel/Supplied by Judy Marsales Real Estate Ltd.)

Coun. Jason Farr said he's heard from and met with about 80 people who live near to the property.

He said he's not opposed to the city amending its bylaw regulating how far residential care facilities are from each other. But in this case, he sees the proposal as an institutional use, not a residential one.

The bylaw's recent history in Hamilton

The bylaw became an issue during a debate several years ago about the location for a mental health services centre called the Lynwood Charlton Centre.

The Ontario Human Rights Commission at that time wrote to the city of Hamilton, suggesting council "break down the barriers instead of building new ones" with an arbitrary distance rule. The city ultimately lost an attempt to block the centre moving neighbourhoods.

Farr admitted the issue doesn't come up as often as some other planning rules, but said he's asked city staff to bring a review of the bylaw for council debate soon.

"We'll probably want to deal with it sooner, rather than later, so that it's off the table as an argument and we can deal with the real crux of [planning proposals]," he said.

Poziomka said his client will now evaluate whether to continue to pursue purchasing the mansion and appeal the committee's decision to the Ontario Municipal Board.

About the Author

Kelly Bennett

Reporter, CBC Hamilton

Kelly Bennett is an award-winning reporter who lives in Hamilton. She grew up in Victoria and covered economics and arts as an investigative reporter in San Diego. She loves digging into great stories, hiking and playing the violin. Drop her a line anytime at