December 11, 2021
In this 5-part analysis of the Talisman properties controversy, John Butler explores the history of the lauded Beaver Valley resort and the many visions for its next chapter. His story documents the sordid details that have led to the situation currently facing the Municipality of Grey Highlands Council and the concerned community it represents.
BY JOHN BUTLER FOR SOUTHGREY.CA — On August 19, the Friends of the Beaver Valley (FBV) and representatives from the Escarpment Biosphere Conservancy (EBC), a leading Canadian land trust, held a meeting with municipal staff and with Mayor McQueen and Councillors Cathy Little and Tom Allwood to present a collaboration proposal entitled, Collaboration Proposal between Grey Highlands & The Escarpment Biosphere Conservancy. It centred on two initiatives:
On August 23, the Escarpment Biosphere Conservancy announced that on August 20, it had submitted a formal written offer to Grey Highlands to acquire the Talisman lands owned by the municipality, as follow-up to its June 11 letter of intent. Said EBC, “The offer is for an all-cash purchase at the appraised values of these two parcels based on an independent appraiser’s initial understanding of the development potential for these lands. EBC will investigate whether in fact there is any realistic possibility of developing these lands in the near term given their environmental importance and the lengthy regulatory approval process that would be required. Based on this investigation, the purchase price may be adjusted to reflect the actual estimated value of these lands to a commercial developer. The offer is conditional on EBC having a period of time to raise the funds to pay for these lands, which it is confident can be done.” The independently appraised value of the land came in at $2.8 million.
EBC Executive Director Bob Barnett said, “While Grey Highlands has been negotiating with a development group to build multiple residential and other units on the site, we expect that the Municipality will see that our offer is consistent with the strong views expressed by hundreds of community members in the recent Beaver Valley Visioning sessions, as well as its own official plan and Climate Change policies. Large scale residential and commercial development is not an appropriate use for these lands, which should be preserved in their natural state and managed to provide ecosystem services, available for use by the wider community… Several past attempts to develop these lands have failed to obtain the necessary regulatory approvals, for good reason. We do not believe that the Niagara Escarpment Commission, the Province and other relevant government bodies would permit the destruction of these public lands and their privatization.”
EBC received no response from the municipality to its offer.
In early September, a group of concerned citizens called the Protecting Talisman Lands Association (PTLA — owners of Protecttalisman.ca) filed a freedom of information request with the Municipality of Grey Highlands on the process related to the sale to Westway Capital. Said PTLA, “Since January 2021, Council has discussed the Talisman site seven times according to a review of minutes, all in closed session... During this period, the municipality decided to dispose of public lands at Talisman, to enter into a joint venture agreement with the current private owners at the site, to hire a private firm to market the lands and most recently, to conditionally sell the public lands to Westway Capital. While the Municipal Act provides for municipalities to discuss matters relating to a specific land sale in private, decisions related to the overall strategic direction for Talisman should be discussed in public, which has not happened.”
The group received a response from Grey Highlands in early November that provided little information. According to the response, no minutes were kept of the meetings between Grey Highlands and the investment attraction consultants, thinkCOMPASS, and no minutes were kept of the meetings between councillors and potential bidders.
On October 20, Stephanie Warner of PTLA made a presentation to Grey Highlands Council that included delivering a 725-name petition to Council opposing its Talisman actions, Warner’s presentation to Council highlighted the need for openness and transparency in the municipality’s dealings with Talisman properties. In response, CAO Karen Govan said, “Most if not all municipalities negotiate these kinds of transactions in closed sessions. The reason that is done is to protect the taxpayers’ money. We don’t want to have negotiations in a public open forum where potential other buyers would understand what the bargaining power of the municipality is. So the Municipal Act provides for Council to go into closed session to have private negotiations… It’s not a back door deal, it is not something that Council will be passing on the sly. It is solely 100% to protect the taxpayers’ assets and the municipal process.”
According to an information document from the Ontario Ombudsman entitled Open Meetings — Guide For Municipalities: Fourth Edition, there are fourteen exceptions to Ontario’s open meeting rule for municipal councils. Two are mandatory (the municipality must hold a closed meeting) but 12 are discretionary. One of the 12 discretionary exceptions is “a proposed or pending acquisition or disposition of land by the municipality.” Said Ombudsman Paul Dubé in the introduction to the document, “The guiding principle has always been that municipal councils must meet in public, except in certain specific circumstances. The spirit of the law can be summed up in six words: When in doubt, open the meeting.” The document also suggests: “As the definition of meeting requires a quorum of members to be present, a meeting cannot occur over email or other remote forms of communication. Although emails and other remote forms of communication are not subject to the open meeting rules, municipalities should endeavour to apply consistent standards of transparency and openness, regardless of the means of communication.”
On November 4, PTLA announced that it had filed an application to the Ontario Superior Court of Justice concerning the Municipality of Grey Highlands’ conditional sale of the municipally owned Talisman lands. It asked the court to quash the municipality’s decisions on the sale and to order that no further action be taken by the municipality until the matter is determined by the Court. The application alleges that the municipality did not comply with provisions of the Ontario’s Municipal Act and its own policy concerning the sale of surplus lands in entering into this conditional sale agreement. Said Jane Pyper, Chair of PTLA, “The Municipality of Grey Highlands has made key decisions regarding the Talisman public lands behind closed doors and not followed their own policy on land sales. Their land sale policy calls for an open, fair and transparent process, but ‘sole source’ negotiations with the purchaser were done in secret. We are concerned that other interested bidders were ignored by the Municipality. The Municipality can realize substantial long term economic benefits for itself and the community through the protection, restoration and enhancement of the natural areas and outstanding landscapes of the Beaver Valley. Large scale development of these public lands to maximize short-term profits would ignore the unique advantages of the Beaver Valley.”
This legal action is as yet, unresolved. The date for the court to hear the case, originally scheduled for November 26, has been postponed. The municipality has not indicated whether the due diligence period related to the sale of lands to Westway Capital is over, or when it will be over, and multiple questions from residents and groups to Grey Highlands have met with the response “it is confidential right now”, or no response at all — forms of silence that, warranted or not, drive a wedge further between the town government and many of its residents. And despite repeated offers and advice from the community to engage civic and environmental groups as equal and early partners in change, the processes that have unfolded have made the municipality and the for-profit sector as the drivers, to which civic society and the environmental sector must accommodate themselves.
In casting the disposition of the Talisman lands as a competition among bidders (with attendant trust-eroding secrecies) rather than from-the-start cooperation among potential municipal, private sector and civic sector partners, the municipality has made the healing path from competition to cooperation difficult in the Beaver Valley.
What might have been early and cohesive multi-sectoral strategic and tactical approaches to the fate of 265 acres in the Beaver Valley — and perhaps to the ecological and economic fate of much of the Valley itself — is mired in division, a world away from the UNESCO definition of a biosphere reserve as a learning place for sustainable development and a site for “testing interdisciplinary approaches to understanding and managing changes and interactions between social and ecological systems, including conflict prevention and management of biodiversity.”
Read the previous instalments in this series:
Talisman property 101: How did we get here?
Grey Highlands owns a property it doesn't want
The community raises its voice a little louder
Voices grow louder still, while the municipality's silence deafens
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