`Crunch time’ for Whistling Gardens

Botanical garden could sit idle for another summer

Darren Heimbecker is seen here leading a tour through the 20-acre Whistling Gardens property in Wilsonville. The owners of Whistling Gardens want to return to staging special events on their land. Whistling Gardens photo

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Norfolk council was called on this week to intervene in another long-running problem involving the county’s planning department.

This one involves Whistling Gardens in Wilsonville and its campaign to host weddings, concerts, receptions and hospitality events.

From 2013 to 2017, the county granted Wanda and Darren Heimbecker — owners of the 20-acre botanical garden — special occasion permits for events of this sort. Recent events included musical performances by Sarah Harmer and Ron Sexsmith.

Planning staff recommended an end to these permits after receiving an inquiry from a community member.

The Heimbeckers staged no events last year but would like to resume doing so this summer. Planning staff recommends an Official Plan amendment and zoning change to recognize these uses in the agricultural zone.

The Heimbeckers want to comply. To date, they have spent more than $50,000 on environmental studies but to no avail. They are some distance from meeting the county’s criteria with garden party season set to begin.

As a temporary solution, the Heimbeckers came to council Tuesday seeking a return to special-event permits.

“That’s for the short-term,” Darren Heimbecker said. “That’s the Band-Aid for the time being.”

The Heimbeckers also wanted to know why the county approved events like theirs as a right last year in the agricultural zone in the Lakeshore Special Policy Area. This is where many of Norfolk’s wineries and breweries are located.

Norfolk has flagged the lakeshore as a primary zone for agri-tourism. The county approved the Official Plan amendment and zoning bylaw along the lakeshore at the request of the Ontario South Coast Wineries and Growers Association.

“The proposal includes updates for restaurants, weddings, receptions and concerts to be permitted,” staff’s report on the change said last year.

“We just want to be included under the same umbrella they have,” Heimbecker said.

At Tuesday’s meeting, Mayor Kristal Chopp wanted to know why council couldn’t extend these privileges to Whistling Gardens, which is located in the north end of the county north of Waterford.

Harry Schlange, Norfolk’s interim CAO, cautioned that “doing policy on the fly” is not a good idea.

Senior planner Shannon Van Dalen noted that the Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing approved the creation of the lakeshore policy area and also approved the amendment that allows restaurants, hospitality events, concerts and the like in this area. A similar approval process is required, Van Dalen said, for similar approvals outside this area.

Windham Coun. Chris Van Paassen expressed frustration with a planning process that forces property owners to spend thousands of dollars and wait for years for permission to stage community events on their land.

“Someone is asking for permission for something they were doing for five years,” Van Paassen said. “They’re not here asking forgiveness for something that was illegal. And they have spent more than $50,000 on studies that, to my mind, mean nothing.”

Van Dalen promised council that Norfolk’s planning department will continue working with the Heimbeckers toward a solution. Port Dover Coun. Amy Martin wondered if that is the problem.

“The landowner has been working with the county,” Martin said. “My concern is we’re not helping.”

Council supported Waterford Coun. Kim Huffman’s request that staff come to next week’s council meeting with a road map for securing Whistling Gardens the same rights as wineries, breweries and distilleries along the Norfolk lakeshore.

“I hope we can appreciate the time sensitivity of this,” Mayor Chopp said. “The tourist season in Norfolk is even shorter than it is in other places.”

Huffman agreed.

“We are in crunch time,” she said. “It is the middle of April.”

In support of their request, the Heimbeckers have collected more than 300 endorsements from national, provincial and local horticultural organizations.

As for past or potential conflicts with neighbouring property owners, the Heimbeckers say there have been no complaints and that many of their neighbours attend their functions.