The Fate of Sandwich Lies with the Canadian Supreme Court

Supreme Court hearing to decide Indian Road, Sandwich Towne’s fate

DAVE BATTAGELLO, WINDSOR STAR

More from Dave Battagello, Windsor Star

Published on: April 20, 2016 | Last Updated: April 20, 2016 10:51 PM EDT

At the Crossroads

Is Windsor’s historic Sandwich neighbourhood poised for a revival or

will the proposed expansion of the Ambassador Bridge be a hurdle too

high to overcome? In this series leading up to a Supreme Court of

Canada hearing, the Star takes the pulse of new investors, long-time

residents, politicians and bridge officials.

Which way the pendulum swings on the future of Windsor’s historic Olde

Sandwich Towne could depend in large part on the bridge border

crossing that dominates its skyline.

The Ambassador Bridge Company owns several blocks of deteriorating

houses in the west-side neighbourhood in what was once a quaint,

family-oriented residential area known as the Indian Road district.

The bridge company plans to use the land to expand. It wants to

demolish 114 empty, boarded-up houses that were once homes to families

and university students.

The City of Windsor, which opposes the expansion, wants the

neighbourhood preserved. It has prohibited demolition in the area and

has tried to use its property standards bylaw to force the bridge

company to fix up the houses.

The decade-long battle arrives before the Supreme Court of Canada on

Thursday. The critical question the country’s highest court is being

asked to decide: is the bridge company a federal entity exempt from

city bylaws?

If the court decides the privately-owned bridge company is a federal

entity it would be “unique,” said Anneke Smit, a University of Windsor

law professor.

It would tie the city’s hands when it comes to land use decisions,

creating an official plan and enacting zoning bylaws in a community

that is already vulnerable, she said.

“There are signs of rejuvenation (in Sandwich) and the city could do a

lot of creative things to encourage investment, but with the

population loss and all that blight you might be fighting a losing

battle. It will be a challenge if you can’t enforce maintenance of the

homes (owned by the bridge),” said Smit.

“This is extremely important,” said longtime bridge watchdog and

Sandwich bake shop owner Mary Ann Cuderman. “I can’t emphasize that

enough. The city has to win this battle in order to control what is

going on in the west end.

“If they lose, it will give (the bridge company) free rein to keep on

destroying the neighbourhood and will leave us no chance to stabilize

anything at all.”

The Ambassador Bridge Company, controlled by Detroit billionaire Matty

Moroun, quietly started buying dozen of homes on Indian Road and other

nearby streets in the 1990s so it could eventually add a second span

and expand its plaza.

For years, the real estate transactions drew little attention. That

changed when Moroun started boarding up the homes and letting them

rot, one by one.

By then, he had acquired over 100 properties and the city had a crisis

on its hands as the neighbourhood near the bridge and University of

Windsor became an eyesore.

“The bridge company bought homes there for a decade and had the option

of renting those homes out to keep the neighbourhood vibrant until

getting permission for a new bridge,” said Windsor Mayor Drew Dilkens.

“They chose not to do that and hollowed out a neighbourhood.”

Concerned about how much more land the bridge company would take over

in historic Sandwich, the city refused to allow the demolition of the

homes and other buildings in the neighbourhood. The bridge company

also owns several apartment buildings and recently acquired what was

once the community’s only high school, former Forster Secondary

School.

As it battled with the city in court over whether it was immune from

city bylaws, the homes on Indian Road deteriorated. Walls rotted,

foundations cracked and porches collapsed. With the march of time,

could any be saved?

“If the city wins at least there is a chance something can be done,”

Cuderman said. “If not, there is no chance.”

She said it’s not a twin span that will hurt the Sandwich community,

but the large truck plaza that will come with it. Should the expansion

plan be approved, there will have to be a secondary truck inspection

area at the foot of the bridge on the west end.

The new truck plaza would force the closure of Huron Church Road under

the bridge and extend west over several current residential streets,

including Indian Road and Rosedale Avenue, possibly as far as Felix

Avenue. It would include several acres of former university

residential dorm properties off Mill Street and portions of the former

Forster athletic field.

“That is what will kill us,” Cuderman said. “It will mean the

destruction of the community in terms of families.”

In a separate legal battle, a handful of the remaining Indian Road

neighbours and property owners have sued the bridge company.

“We say (the bridge company) had a common law duty to keep up their

property,” said lawyer Sharon Strosberg, who is representing the

residents. “There was no disrepair and the houses were in fine

condition on Indian Road when they were purchased (by the bridge).

“The question is: were they obligated to keep them up or just let them

fall into disrepair with vermin, growth and fires?

“You might hear that they have special status, but everyone has a duty

to be a good neighbour and not interfere with other neighbours’

ability to enjoy their property. Instead these people have been forced

to live in a slum.”

Most of the buildings were beyond repair and destined for removal when

the Ambassador Bridge purchased them, company president Dan Stamper

said in a statement.

The bridge company’s efforts “to maintain, secure and expand its

facilities” are based on recommendations from consultants who carried

out studies over many years — some done by the city and others in

which it participated, he noted.

“All the properties were purchased for bridge use: maintenance of the

existing bridge, security of the border crossing and expansion of the

site for a new span,” he said.

He accused the city of using delay tactics and forcing a showdown

before the top court.

MP Brian Masse (NDP — Windsor West), who represents the neighbourhood,

said he believes the homes can be restored if the Supreme Court rules

in the city’s favour. If not, the consequences for Sandwich could be

devastating.

“It would allow block-busting and would be approval of far-reaching

consequences beyond this border project,” he said.

Everything remains in limbo until the Supreme Court gives its ruling.

That will come sometime after Thursday’s hearing during which the

city, bridge company and interveners state their cases.

“It’s the end of the line,” said city lawyer Wira Vendrasco. “They are

the final appeal court in Canada.”

Dilkens said the ruling will dictate the fate of much of the city’s west end.

“At least the highest court in the land will bring some finality,” he

said. “We are putting our faith in the federal process.”