'Last great piece of wilderness': Group fights to block sale of island in Lake of The Woods
Friends of Town Island worry untouched land is at risk of being turned into cottage lots
A group of cottagers and former camp-goers is trying to keep a mostly undeveloped island in Lake of the Woods from being sold and potentially developed.
The City of Kenora posted an expression of interest over the summer to find potential buyers for about 70 hectares of land on Town Island on Lake of the Woods.
But those who visit the island say it should remain public.
"It would be comparable to the City of Winnipeg selling Assiniboine Park and putting up condos," said Aaron London, who chairs Friends of Town Island, a group trying to protect the island.
"This is a really precious public asset and I think politicians have a duty to their citizens to ensure they maintain those."
The island is about seven kilometres southeast of the small northern Ontario city, which is about 200 kilometres east of Winnipeg. It's mostly wild, with only about a dozen public campsites and trails, and only accessible by boat.
The city sold about 12 hectares of the island to its only resident, B'Nai Brith Camp (BB Camp), in 2014. The camp has been there for 65 years.
Another camp on an island just south of Town Island, Camp Stephens, also uses public areas of the island.
"It's been used like that for 125 years, so to now think about selling it and splitting it up into cottage lots, it's unbelievable," said London, who attended BB camp, worked as its director and also sat on its board.
Adam Smith, the City of Kenora's manager of development services, said even if the land is sold, there are still provincial restrictions that would need to be addressed before any kind of development happened.
Friends of Town Island started a petition on Sunday to try to convince the City of Kenora to halt its efforts to find a buyer for the island and come up with solutions that will keep the land public.
"It's probably the largest wild island in the northern basin [of Lake of the Woods] around Kenora," said London.
"Between BB camp and Camp Stephens, there's probably 2,000 kids a summer who spend time on those wilderness sites on Town Island," he said.
As of Tuesday, the petition had around 1,600 signatures.
"This has been a historic public resource for over 125 years, and we know it's used, because we've got thousands of people telling us that," London said.
BB Camp has inquired about buying the rest of the island in the past, London said, but camp officials were told it would be transferred to a public trust.
Those plans fell through, he said.
Land worth nearly $3M
The City of Kenora had tried unsuccessfully to arrange a land swap with the province of Ontario for several years, Smith said.
The swap would have seen the island put into a trust in exchange for Crown land closer to the city.
"We just realized we weren't making any significant progress, so we decided to go in a different direction," Smith said.
The land is appraised at $2.9 million and Smith said any money earned from the sale would be put into developing land within the city's boundaries.
The island is outside of Kenora's taxation district, so the city will not earn any taxes on any developments that could be built there, he said.
'Last great piece of wilderness'
London said the Friends of Town Island aren't expecting the city to just hand over the land, but want to have a seat at the table to discuss its future.
"We're not saying give us the land for nothing, we're not saying put it into trust for nothing," London said. "We're saying let us help you find a way to solve this problem that meets your commercial needs, your public duty needs."
Smith said the city is happy to talk to any group interested in the land.
"We've met with a number of concerned groups in the past, and we'd be happy to do so moving forward to talk about any of these issues, however I think our direction is probably set at this point," Smith said.
The expression of interest closes in January.
London said more cottage properties aren't needed on the lake and believes protecting the area for future generations should come first.
"That area of the lake is so heavily developed and there's so many lots that are still available elsewhere for sale that are just languishing," he said. "It would be a true shame to take that last great piece of wilderness and pave it."