Sunday, April 26, 2015

The Ugly Battle over the David Dunlap Observatory

          By Glen Strom

Inside the DDO. Photo c/o Mark Girard from the DDO website.
Sometimes the real story isn't what's being publicly said.

An example of this would be the April 15th, 2015 Royal Astronomical Society of Canada (RASC) Toronto Centre (RASCTO) press release, "Dedicated Astronomers Given Canada's Largest Telescope." The group announced that Corsica Development was donating the David Dunlap Observatory (DDO) to them.

What the press release didn't mention was the conflict, the mudslinging, the pressure tactics or the broken relationships over DDO.

The observatory opened in 1935 in Richmond Hill, Ontario, a town just north of Toronto. David Dunlap, a mining executive, wanted to endow the University of Toronto (U of T) to build a new observatory. After Mr. Dunlap died in 1924 his widow, Jessie, went ahead with the endowment.

When completed, the facility housed a 1.9-metre (74-inch) reflecting telescope, at that time the largest in Canada and second largest in the world.

Several astronomers have done groundbreaking work at DDO. Astronomer and science advocate Helen Sawyer Hogg, a notable personality in a time when many universities would not award scientific degrees or offer academic positions to women, published the first of a series of major catalogs of variable stars and globular clusters. Sidney van den Bergh expanded the DDO catalogue with a database of dwarf galaxies. Tom Bolton was one of first astronomers to find evidence of black holes.

The view of DDO in 1935, with Observatory House and its three smaller domes visible in the upper left. Photo c/o the Town of Richmond Hill, Ontario.

Over time newer facilities surpassed the observatory, and local development closed in around it. The university announced in 2007 that they would close DDO and put the property up for sale.

That’s when the simmering conflict over the future of DDO boiled over.

As outlined in the July 13th, 2009 Globe and Mail article, “From stargazing to navel-gazing: Astronomers feud over historic observatory," the university sold the 77-hectare (190-acre) property in 2008 to Corsica Development, a commercial real estate developer and subsidiary of Concord, Ontario based Metrus Development.

The initial sale almost certainly contained a redevelopment component for the lands surrounding the DDO. After all, Metrus (now known as the DG Group as per the April 15th, 2015 Urban Toronto article, "Metrus Development Rebrands with Name Change to DG Group") has been one of Ontario's largest residential real estate developers for most of the last decade.

But, to be fair, the developer also expressed a public interest in having an astronomy group continue to operate the observatory and knew of two groups who wanted it: RASC, and a group of astronomers who called themselves the David Dunlap Observatory Defenders.

Corsica chose RASC.

In 1960, the nightly work of Dr. Donald MacRae, an astronomer at DDO, formed the narrative framework of the National Film Board of Canada (NFB) short film Universe, which was nominated for an Academy Award in 1961. Universe Co-director Colin Low eventually worked with Stanley Kubrick on 2001: A Space Odyssey as did Universe narrator Douglas Rain (who became the voice of the HAL 9000 computer), Wally Gentleman (who did optical effects for both films) and others. Graphic c/o NFB.

In response to the decision, the Defenders tried to block the opening. They said the telescope was a precious piece of Canadian heritage and expert astronomers should operate it, not amateurs as they claimed RASC members were. But their attempt failed and DDO reopened in July 2009 under the stewardship of the RASC.

Things then settled down into a period of snide asides until an article from The Varsity, the U of T’s student newspaper, raised questions about both the university’s motives for selling the land and their legal right to sell.

As outlined in the October 1st, 2012 Varsity article, “U of T and the Dunlap Observatory: 'A breach of public trust'?,” the U of T said they wanted to sell the property because light pollution made the telescope unusable for research. The Defenders disputed that claim. Both they and a Richmond Hill official said the sale was about maximizing financial return, not science.

The Varsity article also said the deal violated the terms of the endowment, which said that the land must be used for research or else ownership would revert to the Dunlap heirs.

Did the U of T have the legal right to sell the property? The university’s actions suggest it did not. Two of the heirs agreed to the university’s plan after a few months but the third, Donalda Robarts, held out. She launched a lawsuit. After four years of intensive lobbying by the university, Robarts gave in. Her lawsuit was settled and the records were sealed.

But the fighting continued over the next several years between the groups—the developer, RASCTO, the Defenders, the town of Richmond Hill and even a new group called the Richmond Hill Naturalists, which focused on preserving the unused land surrounding the observatory.

Graphic showing the outline of the 2013 OMB decision covering final usage of the lands associated with the DDO. Graphic c/o OMB.

Finally, after a five year battle and as outlined in the May 2nd, 2013 Globe and Mail article, “Fight over David Dunlap Observatory lands ends peacefully,” the Ontario Municipal Board (OMB), an independent adjudicative tribunal, got the groups to negotiate a settlement. (The 24-page decision is here).

In essence, Corsica Development could build 520 housing units on the site; the town of Richmond Hill would get ownership of the observatory and its surrounding land. The Naturalists were the lone official holdout to the deal. However, the OMB rejected their appeal.

The conciliatory tone of the Globe and Mail article suggested that the war was over—prematurely, as it turned out.

In a December 18th, 2014 editorial “Competing observatory groups should work together,” the website said the sniping continued in letters to them from some of the groups' members. The editorial ended with a plea to the groups to put aside the bad blood and work together.

Of course, that doesn't seem likely to happen anytime soon. As outlined in the April 22nd, 2015 follow-on article “Richmond Hill observatory donation by developer raises concerns,” the Defenders claim that, because RASC is a registered charity and not a public agency as the agreement stipulated, the surprise donation of the DDO to RASC on April 15th, 2015 violates the terms of the 2013 settlement and should be reversed.

Aerial view of the DDO taken in 2005 showing the slow encroachment of surrounding residential subdivisions and the potential lands still available for further development. Over time, the light pollution from the built up areas have degraded the capabilities of the observatory. Photo c/o the Town of Richmond Hill, Ontario.

Another lawsuit could be coming.

This is a familiar story: competing visions, elitism and a sense of entitlement, the tempting smell of money, hardening battle lines and a lengthy, exhausting process with no one coming out looking good.

Glen Strom
It’s too bad that in their winner-take-all battle over a reflecting telescope, the combatants didn't do a bit of reflecting of their own.

Glen Strom is a freelance writer and editor with a background in business and technical writing. He's also the editor of The Gazette Weekly, the newsletter of the Canadian Space Society.


  1. Now that much of the forest on the DDO property has been cleared, there is much less to "fight" about, although Metrus/DG Group is still suing the Richmond Hill Naturalists for OMB costs. One small point: the Richmond Hill Naturalists is not a "new" group, but is a 60-year-old community group that has been involved with many preservation and education projects. It was the RHN that initiated the original Conservation Review Board hearing after the DDO was sold.

  2. I lived on S. Paliser Cresent and could see the Observatory from my front yard. My best friend's parents (The MacDonalds) lived on the property as they were the grounds keepers.

  3. I am involved in this heritage conservation case, the weightiest in Canada, as a 2006-thru-2008 DDO employee. I founded the DDO Defenders late in 2007, but in the spring of 2008 lost my leadership position (I am autistic, and clumsy) to Karen Cilevitz (she is not autistic). I funded the Richmond Hill Naturalists for all legal actions except their (largely successful) 2009 Conservation Review Board case, and additionally settled out of court in 2014 with Karen Cilevitz (since the 2014 municipal elections, Councillor Cilevitz). I therein lost most of my life savings (500,000 CAD or 550,000 CAD or so; of this, most was spent on RH Naturalists, and 37,000 CAD or so paying the lawyer who helped me settle out of court with Karen Cilevitz). Your own figures are correct in essence, but we still should make one correction: not 520 homes, but 531, perhaps plusminus 1 or 2 or so. Of these 531, some are on McMansion-style lots, in some instance or instances with boundaries within 150 metres of the largest of DDO's three telescopes. - The DDO Defenders fought alongside the Naturalists for full conservation until 2010, after which Karen Cilevitz changed their stance. Full details on Councillor Cilevitz's side of the case are at and - The developer has some promo materials, urging purchase of the DDO homes, at - I would urge readers to look at all three Web sites, and to contact me if I can be of any help in clarifying anything: Toomas(dot)Karmo(at)gmail(dot)com; 647-267-9566. It is additionally helpful to sign up for the developer's newsletter via the interface provided at I would particularly urge those readers with a conservationist philosophy to sign up: let us be very polite to the developer, but let us keep well informed through all available channels, that unhappy newsletter included. (signed) Toomas Karmo

  4. I should post again, to make sure all the facts of the Richmond Hill Naturalists' (RHNats) legal work are on record. (1) In 2009, RHNats argued at Conservation Review Board (CRB) for Conservation Heritage Landscape (CHL) status, in the meaning of the Ontario Heritage Act (OHA), on 72-hectare DDO "Trapezoid". Oppoosing were Town (seeking CHL on approx 50%) and developer (seeking only OHA protection for key buildings and for greenspace immediately adjacent to key buildings). CRB decision recommended CHL on approx 75%. (2) In 2012, RHNats argued at OMB, calling to the witness stand Prof. Bolton to testify re light pollution. OMB decision favoured the developer. (3) In 2013, RHNats sought leave to appeal at Divisional Court, arguing that OMB had in 2012 paid insufficient deference to CRB. Judge rejected this argument, holding that in law CRB can recommend to OMB, and yet is powerless to bind OMB. (4) In 2014, RHNats argued again at OMB, this time (at my urging, as ongoing RHNats donor) calling to the witness stand two international light-pollution authorities (Luginbuhl, from Arizona, and Shore, from Italy). OMB decision again favoured developer. (5) In 2015 April, RHNats were represented by a pro-bono lawyer, as developer sought award of costs for 200,000 CAD against RHNats. In its decision, OMB awarded 100,000 CAD to developer against RHNats. It is helpful to check "Google News" for the various bits of press coverage, most notably in Richmond Hill community paper, "The Liberal". At CRB and Divisional Court, Defenders observed without arguing, and at 2012 and 2014 OMB, Defenders argued against RHNats. RASC has not argued in any of the various legal proceedings. - As a student of these various proceedings, I am surprised by failure of OMB to accord protection at least to the greenspace closest to the telescope. Is it in the public interest to have McMansion-scale lots so close? - As a private citizen, I urge (A) competent provincial and federal involvement in the DDO conservation file, and (B) (to prevent a heritage abuse such as DDO from recurring) OMB reform. (signed) Toomas Karmo PS: I am willing to face whatever law suit(s) anyone may (I write here in a pure hypothetical) one day try to bring against me, but am probably going to have to SELF-represent in court(s): lawyers are for the rich.

  5. Fresh news: according to a newsletter disseminated today by RASC-Toronto to its members, including me, Corsica has offered to donate the two key heritage buildings (which house the three telescopes) to the Town of Richmond Hill, rather than to RASC-Toronto. Town staff are, according to the newsletter, instructed to pursue long-term lease arrangements with RASC-Toronto. So RASC-Toronto, having been tenants of Corsica, would appear to be slated to become tenants of the Town instead, and NOT to become owners of property.

    This is a rather favourable outcome. It places ownership of the properties into public hands, opening that ownership up to public scrutiny through such mechanisms as the Freedom of Information legislation. And of course there is now no danger that RASC-Toronto will, in its financially constrained position, be some dark day tempted to sell the properties to private commercial interests such as Corsica or Corsica's commercial allies.

  6. Of course we still have to deal with the destruction of 32 hectares of greenspace. Let the work stop (I say), and let Corsica simply walk away, with some pipes laid, and much soil moved, but with the projected 531 homes largely or entirely unbuilt. Then let us, the citizens, somehow, with our own labour and sweat now work bit by bit to get topsoil and trees back, over
    a period of years - if necessary, toiling in deep poverty, if necessary toiling with the few hand tools we can afford, as opposed to the power machinery with which Corsica ravaged those 32 hectares in 2015.

    Corsica is the creature of the DG Group, formerly known as Metrus. DG Group is the creature of the De Gasperis family. De Gasperis family, and also the Muzzos, who with the De Gasperises are involved in this case: we have to sit down and talk the ethics through, in a properly Catholic context. I e-mailed you about this, both directly and thru Corsica lawyer D.Bronskill, this evening. - Toomas(dot)Karmo(at)gmail(dot)com 647-267-9566

  7. We now have good press coverage, via Richmond Hill weekly community paper _The Liberal_, for the transfer of the two key heritage buildings to the Town of Richmond Hill. Check Google News for this (headline "Disputed Richmond Hill observatory buildings now belong to town: Astronomy charity members fuming over developer's decision", dateline 2016-03-02, byline "by Kim Zarzour"), or else point your browser directly to the coverage, at .


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