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Conservancy member recalls decades of fighting development

Judy MacLachlan, one of the NOTL Conservancy’s founding members more than 30 years ago, recalls battles won and lost in its efforts to stop inappropriate development.
Judy MacLachlan, one of the NOTL Conservancy’s founding members more than 30 years ago, recalls battles won and lost in its efforts to stop inappropriate development.  (Penny Coles)

Niagara-on-the-Lake is a small community, with many pillars that have given it strength. Judy MacLachlan represents one of them.

On a beautiful morning sitting in the sun room of the Old Town home she loves fiercely, the 83-year-old isn’t much interested in talking about herself.

She is at ease talking about her family — she shows great pride in her two adult children, which she raised mostly in NOTL single-handedly, and her eyes light up when she speaks of her four grandchildren, now adults themselves with interesting lives and careers of their own.

In her quiet humility, she says she doesn’t feel she’s done much to deserve attention, but she is happy to reminisce about her friends Margherita Howe and Laura Dodson. The three women were founding members of the Niagara-on-the-Lake Conservancy about 31 years ago, and they were all rewarded for their efforts to protect significant heritage attributes of the town from development.

The fourth founding member, Peter Stokes, a renowned restoration architect, died in 2013.

The Conservancy hasn’t had a lot of victories to celebrate over its three decades, but the wins were significant, says MacLachlan.

“We lost a lot of battles, but in the process we became a name, a force. And we won some important ones. We had some good councils over the years, and we had some who were not supportive.”

One success that saw the group raising money for years to pay off legal bills, she recalls, was a decision at the Ontario Municipal Board, which after a long-drawn out battle against purses much greater than theirs, restricted the height of the King’s Point condominiums on Ricardo Street. The difference in what was originally proposed and what was eventually allowed to be built was not huge, but it prevented the two buildings from blocking the sight lines from Fort George across the river to Fort Niagara on the American side.

MacLachlan remembers attending council meetings with Dodson and Howe, and how differently they handled the many debates about heritage and development.

Howe was outspoken and irreverent. She would sit at council meetings in her regular spot behind the press table, cussing in the colourful language for which she was well-known — she used four-letter words with a regularity uncommon in women of her generation. They were directed to council members, when Howe thought they were wrong — which was almost always — in a voice just loud enough to assume she intended to be heard.

Beside her would be Dodson, who missed very few council meetings, and as MacLachlan recalls, was always very much the lady. She could be outspoken in her opinions and aggressive in her dedication to heritage preservation, but as angry as she might have been, she was always respectful. “She might have thought council was wrong, but she was so polite, they didn’t know what to do with her.”

MacLachlan’s role was more of a quiet behind-the-scenes one, the way she liked it, but was not without notice.

Howe died in January 2006, Dodson in January 2007, both having spent some time in the NOTL Hospital, which the three women also worked hard to save. Under the leadership of the late Gerry Wooll, they were successful in protecting it from closure, threatened under the Mike Harris government in 1995. Although services were reduced over the ensuing years, a small number of beds remained open until 2015, when the Niagara Health System closed the hospital doors for good. 

“I’ve visited so many people in that hospital. I was sent there from St. Catharines after I fell on my patio and broke my arm. It was such a relief to be back in Niagara-on-the-Lake. So many people have finished their days there, and received such loving care. Why they would close it is one of the mysteries of life for me. We thought it was a great little hospital for a small town.”

The other, perhaps greatest victory, she says, was saving the Willowbank Estate property from being turned into a residential subdivision, and preserving the historic building to become a school of restoration arts.

“I remember one day sitting with Laura, having breakfast at the Stagecoach, when she told us her dream of the Conservancy turning a building into a school of restoration arts. I said ‘Laura, we’ll never be able to do that.’ Within a month she was talking to a real estate agent about Willowbank.”

Dodson got the Bright family (former owners of the house, which was built for Alexander Hamilton in 1834) involved, and was able to purchase it for a little under $2 million, putting $300,000 of her own money into it.

Howe, remembers MacLachlan, warned Dodson it would be a bottomless money pit. “Margherita wasn’t keen on the idea, and she was right in a way. It always needs money, but look at what it does,” says MacLachlan, who was on its board from the beginning.

There is still a great core of volunteers involved in the estate and the school of restoration arts, she says. “It wouldn’t be there if it weren’t for the Conservancy and for Laura.”

MacLachlan has also been a long-time supporter and volunteer of St. Mark’s Church, but she says she doesn’t do as much as she used to. She is battling multiple myeloma, which she describes as treatable but not curable. She is being treated for it at the St. Catharines cancer clinic, with chemotherapy and medication, and although she tires easily, she says, she doesn’t have some of the horrible side effects others do.

She uses a walker, and still enjoys a walk from her home on Ricardo Street to the post office and grocery store, although not as often as she used to. The good thing about the walker, she says, is it allows her to sit and rest when she needs to. “I know some people who are reluctant to use a walker. I love mine.”

She also admits to being a shopper, mostly frequenting Queen Street stores. She’s always elegantly put together, smartly dressed, hair done — it’s what she does when she gets up in the morning, every morning. “Dressing is one of my joys in life, and even though I’m 83, I still love shopping. Especially shoes. I have way too many shoes.”

MacLachlan is so content in her home, she says, she plans to stay as long as she can. For that reason, she is desperately afraid of a fall, and uses her walker to navigate through the small rooms to prevent tripping.

“Every morning I get up, I tell myself, I can’t fall. I’m so careful. And I don’t walk as much as I used to, especially in the winter.”

She loves to start her day with coffee in her sun room, which faces the river. “I can look out my windows and see another country. I always think that is pretty special. And it’s such a peaceful way to start the day.”

If she’s not at the back of the house facing the river, she has a tiny, perfect little patio she enjoys at the side — that was how it was described when featured on the cover of a gardening magazine — or, depending on the weather, she may choose to relax on the front verandah and watch the world go by. She has a cat, Chauncey, whom she inherited when her friend Norm Howe passed away. Chauncey likes to go outside. He had been rescued by Norm’s daughter Louise, and he was accustomed to being outdoors, even though he had been declawed. MacLachlan won’t let him roam, but she does take him out onto the verandah on a leash, where he can curl up and keep her company.

MacLachlan is still on the Conservancy board, as secretary. President Gracia Janes is the one to go to council now to battle inappropriate development, she says. “She keeps track of everything. She goes to meetings, talks to town planners. She’s always at the core of everything.”

But members are aging, she says. “I can’t see what’s going to happen to the future of the Conservancy. We attracted a lot of people at our height, in the ’80s and ’90s. We had about 250 members, and since there’s no membership fee, we told people, ‘once you join, you’re a member for life.’”

She mentions SORE (Save Our Randwood Estate), and says its members are similar to the Conservancy, “deeply concerned about preserving heritage,” but focused on one building. “I love what they’re trying to do. I hope they’re successful. Our goal was the same, to protect the town from over-development or unsuitable development, but our focus was on the whole town.” It upsets her to see how much has been lost, she says. “It’s hard for those of us who remember the town and what it was.”

Now, one of the Conservancy’s main causes is fighting to preserve trees by supporting the Town’s tree bylaw, which is under scrutiny from residents who don’t support it. “We’re really behind that. I don’t know what’s going to happen with it — we can only hope for the best.”

MacLachlan, also one of the original members of the Niagara Foundation, was given the Foundation’s prestigious Living Landmark Award last year. It’s presented to an individual  who has made an outstanding contribution to the quality of life in Niagara. 

MacLachlan recalls when she woke up the morning after she had been told she would receive the award, she thought she’d dreamed it. When she realized she hadn’t, she was horrified to think she would have to make a speech at the event when the award was to be presented. “I thought, ‘I can’t do that.’ I’ve been to those dinners for other people who have won, people I admire greatly. Then I thought, ‘I’m 83. I can get up and talk for five minutes,’ and I did. I survived.”

She looks around her sun room, and says, “I feel so lucky to live here, in my funny little house.” Then, holding onto her walker, she cautiously walks from the back of the house to the front, to settle on the porch. “I’m not going to leave this house. I’m not going to fall,” she says, repeating the mantra that will allow her to stay.