Days after kids across the city went back to school, rookie Ward 6 councillor Mark Grimes (Etobicoke-Lakeshore) returned to the high school where he graduated (Lakeshore Collegiate Institute) for a lesson in politics 101.
Grimes had the middle seat in a row of 11 city officials and consultants who faced a crowd of 150 residents angry that a salt dome and concrete-mixing factory on New Toronto Street in south Etobicoke will soon be grinding away a stone's throw from their backyards.
The 7-hectare site, a brownfield that sat vacant for years until Redi-Mix came along, is zoned for "heavy industrial." An attempt to rezone the site for mixed residential use was turned down in 1999 after the South Etobicoke Industrial Employers Association, representing CN Rail and Campbell's Soup among other companies, argued that residential would mess with the mix in the area and end up turning residents against the industry already there.
Last October, Toronto Redi-Mix, which owns Draglam Salt, bought the site, and within a month it was teeming with trucks, resulting in a flood of calls to Grimes's office.
When NOW contacted Grimes in early December to ask about the fuss - back then, the story being told by residents was that Redi-Mix had not gone through proper environmental assessment channels - the councillor's tone was that of a kindergarten kid caught tickling a napmate with a single strand of hair. "I don't know what's going on. I don't know. I really don't know." After he met with city representatives and Robert Zanetti, president of Toronto Redi-Mix, to go over the plans, Grimes continued his "I dunno" act with residents.
"They said they were putting a building here and that they plan to put this there, but I don't know anything because I haven't seen any plans yet." Residents quickly tired of the rhetoric. "Seriously, I do not believe that they could have sold the land in a community like New Toronto with this many people without consulting the councillor," says Jem Cain. "The only thing he told me was 'No plans, no plans, no plans. '"
To his credit, or perhaps in desperation, Grimes sent out a flurry of letters to city officials December 7 asking for help from building officials, licensing and standards, traffic planning, even the mayor.
Elaine Gurney, whose house backs onto the Redi-Mix site, still has many unanswered questions about noise and what emissions the factory will be spewing. Others wonder why a more ambitious mixed-use plan to spruce up the area wasn't given any consideration.
Zanetti, meanwhile, denies that his representatives tried to take advantage of the rookie councillor. "We're zoned. We can do what we want to do there, no problem. The reason the neighbours are freaking out is because they think we've already started building our [concrete-mixing factory]. What we're doing there is cleaning the property."
A consultant with the company has promised to consider aesthetic changes to make the factory look more appealing, but says nothing can be done about the emissions from trucks and the factory or the noise pollution.
And while Grimes says over and over that he doesn't want a concrete-mixing facility in his ward, he seems to be taking the rap for this one.