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December 10, 2021

Voices grow louder still, while the municipality's silence deafens

Two women arguing over Beaver Valley backdrop

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 May 11, 2021 The Niagara Escarpment Foundation (NEF) presented an “Alternate Vision” letter to the Grey Highlands Council. NEF is non-government, not-for-profit corporation and registered charity founded in 2001 to encourage public awareness of the natural and cultural significance of the Niagara Escarpment and to conduct research related to its protection. Their submission read, “If the public lands currently owned by the Municipality of Grey Highlands at Talisman are sold to maximize development and profits, this would constitute an unprecedented rupture of the historic tradition of private-public partnership faithfully supporting the Niagara Escarpment Plan in the Beaver Valley.”

Among its recommendations, the Foundation called for the municipally-owned lands to remain in public ownership, and that the owners/investors in the privately owned part of the Talisman lands be asked to donate the undeveloped portion of their Talisman lands to a conservation organization in return for an income tax credit under the federal Ecological Gifts Program. It also suggested that the municipality engage with conservation land trusts to gauge their interest in acquiring some or all of the Talisman lands, that a municipal protected area be created on the Talisman lands, and that these lands be added to the Niagara Escarpment Parks and Open Space System.

The Foundation also called for at least a six month extension to the municipality’s public consultation to allow time for the alternative vision to be thoroughly explored with the Beaver Valley community and other agencies and stakeholders. It asked that during this period, Grey Highlands not make decisions about the Talisman lands or conduct activities on these lands until discussions with the Beaver Valley community and other stakeholders about alternative visions for the Talisman lands have concluded.

The Foundation received no formal response from the municipality to its recommendations.

Within the next two weeks, on May 21 and May 28, came two more direct public exchanges (both were video recorded) between members of the Grey Highlands Council and the champions of two approaches to the Talisman lands — on one side, a private investment firm and on the other side, a coalition of environmental groups. In the shroud of secrecy imposed on deliberations about the fate of these lands, these two exchanges, spaced a week apart, give the public a glimpse into municipal, private sector and civic sector thinking about the Talisman lands.

On May 21, Grey Highlands Council listened to a deputation from The Talisman Property Action Coalition, an organization that included a number of community groups including the Friends of the Beaver Valley, the Escarpment Biosphere Conservancy, Sustainable Livelihood Canada, Elephant Thoughts (an educational resource charity with a branch in Collingwood) and the Kimberley Safety Group. The 90-minute session was recorded and is available to watch online. Mary Ferguson and Linda Reader were the main presenters, aided by Rob Leverty, President of the Niagara Escarpment Foundation and Bob Barnett, Executive Director of the Escarpment Biosphere Conservancy.

Coalition member Mary Ferguson said, “The Beaver Valley lands, once known as the Talisman Mountain Resort, are contiguous with the UNESCO World Biosphere Reserve, and are much-loved, high-profile public assets. Our aim is to protect and preserve the ecological integrity, the wildlife corridor, the watershed and the natural landmarks [within the Valley]. We are engaging a coalition of people and organizations in developing a feasible plan for the site,” Linda Reader said, “There’s not a whole lot we can do to improve this place, but we need to remember we can ruin it.”

The deputation suggested that Grey Highlands had two options: sell the land for a one-time maximum profit; or support and work with the coalition to act as stewards of the property, aided by a host of credentialed expert local volunteers instead of paid external consultants. The Coalition then provided examples of ecologically-driven land developments in Peterborough, Haliburton and Vermont and pointed out that housing, low-impact recreation, employment (through support of local artisans and entrepreneurs), gardens, outdoor education and a wellness hub could all be part of the development.

The deputation asked Council to consider a delay in the sale of the property: “We ask that Council delay any sale of the three parcels in order to give the citizens leading this offer three months to bring together nature conservation, education and service organizations and other stake holders to develop an appropriate and realistic plan for the properties. We need time.”

After the presentation Deputy Mayor Desai asked if the presumed ecological benefits from low-impact development would be tangible or intangible. In response, Linda Reader referred him to the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources document Estimating Ecosystem Services in Southern Ontario (2009), found at http://longpointbiosphere.com/download/Environment/estimation-of-ecosystem.pdf. Desai also said the green development examples cited by the delegation were urban or near-urban, not rural like Grey Highlands.

Councillor Little asked for information on the concept of sustainable livelihood. Councillor Allwood asked the delegation to comment on the 2014 Talisman Task Force report. Mary Ferguson replied, “I think where we’re headed is not such a different story. It blends ecology, education and recreation in various activities.” Allwood asked for comment on studies prior to 2014 that favoured development of the Talisman lands. Linda Reader said that given development restrictions established since those studies were done, the developments would not likely be allowed today.

Councillor Nielsen asked if the Coalition wanted partnership with the municipality or ownership of the lands. Mary Ferguson said the answer would be up to the Coalition once it had more information.

Mayor McQueen and Councillor Allen both raised the issue of water and sewage costs to other users of the municipal water and sewage systems serving Kimberley, the Talisman site, the Amik subdivision and adjacent areas. If low-impact development on Talisman lands didn’t use much water, it could drive higher user-pay costs for other users of these systems. The delegation replied that some form of water-using development would most likely take place on the site.

Councillor Allen asked if the Coalition had held discussions with the owners of the privately owned Talisman property (the land lying between the two town-owned properties). Linda Reader said they tried to do so but were referred back to the investment attraction consulting firm thinkCOMPASS. Director of Community and Economic Development Michele Harris said the referral to thinkCOMPASS was in keeping with the terms of the joint marketing venture agreement between the town and the owners of the private land and was meant to ensure “a consistent lens to go through.” Harris also said, “We are open to anyone who wants to put through any kind of inquiry, and if they want to submit anything they are welcome to do so at any time.”

Despite that assurance, the Coalition received no response from the municipality to its request for a three month extension so it could put together a proposal.

A week later, on May 28, the Grey Highlands Council received a 90 minute presentation (with questions and answers) on Talisman from the Westway Group (also called Westway Capital), a capital investment firm, on revitalizing Talisman, specifically the resort, golf course and spa areas. The presentation is available to watch online. Westway said that, at most, 20% of the Talisman lands could be developed, leaving 80% for agricultural and low-impact eco-tourism use. It said it had examined the results of the Beaver Valley visioning process, and it emphasized its intention to work with Council and community groups.

Westway’s principal spokesperson, Paul Mondell, is also Senior Vice President of Skyline Investments a firm that has been involved in part ownership and full management of all the retail properties in the Blue Mountain Village. (Skyline has also been involved in ownership of Deerhurst Resort near Huntsville and the Horseshoe Valley Resort north of Barrie). On September 20 of this year, Skyline announced that Freed Corp. will pay $210 million to acquire Ontario’s Deerhurst Resort, Horseshoe Valley Resort and development lands at Blue Mountain Resort from Skyline, thereby perhaps providing money the firm can invest in the Talisman properties.

Councillors asked questions of Westway that implied a greater understanding of the community-impact and ecological dimensions of the Talisman issue than had been expressed in previous municipal communications. Councillor Allen sought assurance that low-impact recreation at Talisman would be accessible to low income people and local residents.

Councillor Allwood, who said he liked the eco-friendly parts of Westway’s presentation, asked if attainable (affordable) housing would be included on the site.

Mayor McQueen asked whether green technologies would be used in the development. Councillor Little said her vision included déveloper partnership not only with municipal government, but with the community as well (a comment echoed by Mayor McQueen, who said “we are very much a community-based municipality”).

CAO Govan said she was glad to see that Westway wants to engage with the community.

One telling exchange hinted at the frustration Grey Highlands municipal government feels about the seemingly never-ending Talisman issue (a frustration that may have helped frame public ownership of the Talisman lands as a problem rather than an opportunity). Councillor Nielsen said, “My understanding of the history of the property — in 2008 the property was sold and the goal of the gentleman who bought it was residential development in some parts of the land and running the resort. He had very bad timing. We all know what happened in 2008… The next person who purchased the lands — their purpose: a health and wellness operation with some residential development. Fast forward seven years, here we are again today with another group coming, saying, ‘Guess what? Our plan is a health and wellness resort with some residential development.’ What makes you feel you’re the right ones to fulfill on the idea that’s been in the works for the last 14-15 years?” Westway’s answer: we will learn from past mistakes, we will bring in additional expertise and we are a well-capitalized group.

After Westway’s presentation, Grey Highlands Mayor McQueen said that his Council planned to “take its time” with any decision regarding the Talisman lands and that securing a plan for the future of the site would likely be a lengthy process with many opportunities for public consultation. Apparently, “taking its time” and allowing for public consultation did not extend as far as giving the citizen-driven Coalition three months to develop a strategy for the Talisman lands.

Dan McAllister, a retired architect, listened to the Westway presentation. On May 31 he wrote to Mayor McQueen, saying, “With the Westway ‘presentation’ on May 28, I see at risk everything we and our neighbours treasure about the Valley's unique environment. Why? As the recently retired Chairman of a large Canadian architectural and landscape design studio in Toronto with worldwide offices, I have participated in countless proposal calls, studies, environmental assessments and approvals giving me an experienced nose for due process / transparency / diligence, and on the other hand, fluff, none of the former being observed last week, but plenty of the latter. Please know that before informed support or opposition by any person to any proposal for the Talisman lands can be offered, a clear evaluation and selection process must be fairly crafted, approved, and made public. Without a public roadmap for the way forward, nothing can be fairly achieved. Such road map must include the following at a minimum:

  • Due Diligence Reports on Existing Conditions:
    • Zoning
    • Environmental Assessment
    • Infrastructure Report: roads and bridges condition and capacities, groundwater, drinking water capacity, sewer capacity, flooding and the like
    • Identify all potential environmental, cost and infrastructure risks to the Municipality and assign ball park cost estimates.
  • Update the community on findings
  • RFI [Request for Information] Prequalification Process:
    • Issue public Request for Information from interested firms, identify weighted selection criteria.
    • Receive submissions, review, and develop short list for RFP process to follow.
    • Select shortlist and advise the public
  • RFP [Request for Proposals] Process:
    • Issue RFP to shortlisted proponents
    • Receive RFP submissions, select therefrom final shortlisted proponents using published evaluation criteria.
    • Identify final RFP shortlist proponents and arrange public presentations
    • Invite and gather public input
    • Based on proposal content and public input, select successful proponent.

Less than a month later, Westway Capital submitted a proposal to buy the municipally owned Talisman lands, and only a month after that, on July 29, Grey Highlands announced the conditional sale of the municipally-owned lands in the Beaver Valley to Westway, subject to a due diligence period. In the media release announcing the sale, the municipality said it “will be encouraging opportunities for collaborative undertakings between the developers and the community groups who have expressed interest in the future of the identified lands.” However, no community group has indicated that the municipality asked it to suggest what that collaboration might look like or lead to.

In the media release Mayor McQueen said “Council has spent many hours discussing the ideas brought forward related to the Beaver Valley lands in question and has carefully weighed the options for a balanced approach to future development,” This was despite Council’s disregard for the Talisman Property Action Coalition request of a three-month-period in which to form an environmentally-focused option.

In the wake of the property sale announcement, Dr. Erica Ferguson, who grew up in the Valley and who served on the 2014 Talisman Task Force, said “This is repeating history. The community is saying we want a chance to do something here that's not just selling it to the highest bidder. But it looks like again, just like in 2014, the municipality is turning its back on the community's will… The Task Force put together a report and suggestions basically saying that there should be a community process to develop this in a way that makes sense for the community interest and that we don't want to just be selling it off, which is exactly what they did and is saying it doesn't really matter what you want. This is the form of development that we think is best for you and we're going to put it here despite everything that you said against it.”

On July 30, Rob Leverty, President of the Niagara Escarpment Foundation (NEF) said. "The Niagara Escarpment Foundation strenuously opposes the conditional sale by the Municipality of Grey Highlands of the municipally owned land parcels on the former Talisman property. The same day, an NEF press release said “While the Foundation received neither acknowledgement of nor response to its 9-page submission from Grey Highlands, the Council betrayed the public’s trust by quietly working for several weeks with Westway Capital on a deal to sell the municipal lands. In ignoring the submissions and proposals from Beaver Valley community members as well as the Foundation while secretly considering the Westway Capital offer to purchase, Grey Highlands has not engaged in fair play… Grey Highlands Council should abandon the conditional sale of its Talisman lands to Westway Capital and instead, consider all conservation-first proposals for the future of the property.”

In a July 29 media release, the Escarpment Biosphere Conservancy (EBC) and the Friends of the Beaver Valley (FBV) said they were “extremely disappointed to learn from a press release that the Municipality of Grey Highlands has made a conditional sale of the lands that they own on the Talisman site… However, we are moving ahead with our offer on the two municipal pieces during this 'due diligence' period.”

On July 30, Michele Chaban, retired social worker and founder of the Contemplative Centre for Nature-based Arts and Culture (headquartered in the Valley), said in an open letter to the Grey Highlands Council, “You say that you and Westway will listen to the community as the Talisman site is developed but this is not something I can trust in when so far, neither the developers nor the Council have resonated with what the community has said, nor been dissuaded by Westway's presentation in which they remained obtuse about who they were to the public. There has been little to no authentic transparency from either council or Westway in this process, but many overstated assurances to soothe their audience… How many developers with big ideas do we have to entertain before we realize the land and the community do not want what they want? Now I would have to say that you as council are complicit in this Groundhog Day experience over decades.”

On August 8 the Grey Highlands Climate Action Group, a civic organization, wrote to the Grey Highlands Council saying “In your press release of July 29 you state as follows: ‘Westway’s development group team members have a successful track record in acquiring municipal lands and working with local communities and stakeholders to ensure development which leaves a lasting positive impact and imprint for the community while leading to long-term economic growth and a positive social legacy.’ We have been unable to find evidence of any such track record or even that Westway Capital exists. What due diligence has the Township conducted to be able to make these assertions? We understand that ‘Westway Capital’ (which seems to be a loose association of three individuals, all with other full-time jobs, mostly unrelated to this project) has made promises with respect to the development. However, as they indicated in the Zoom call with Council which the public was able to view, they are not developers themselves, but rather intend to sell portions of the land to various actual developers. So there is no reason to believe that development initiated by this group would proceed in any other than a business-as-usual pathway of maximum profit with minimal regard for the Beaver Valley’s unique ecosystem. The municipality will have no levers to control activity on the properties, once sold, other than the general language of the official plan and zoning permissions.”

Also in August, a group called Protecting Talisman Lands Association (PTLA) created a website, protecttalisman.ca, that focuses on engaging citizens to look at the municipal processes at play in this deal. The group says its goals are to stop the sale of Talisman lands, reveal the details of the Westway proposal, demand a process that involves and respects constituents, and challenge the municipality's caving-in rather than bargaining with a vision for long term best land use. Said the web site, “Council paid for the community's advice and then ignored it. In spring 2021, Grey Highlands Municipality paid The Planning Partnership to consult with the community on a vision for the Beaver Valley. Close to 900 points of input were received via visioning sessions and surveys — all overwhelmingly in favour of preserving the unique, environmentally sensitive, and unspoiled areas in the Beaver Valley. We were united in our desire to protect what makes the Beaver Valley a spectacular place to live, work, and visit: the rural character, the Escarpment, the river, the wildlife, amazing outdoor activities and a wide array of local businesses and service providers. Council didn’t wait for the report but instead went behind closed doors, to sell our public lands to Toronto-based developer Westway Capital.”

In the maelstrom of opposition, one community organization voiced its support for the direction taken by Council. The August 11 Chamber of Commerce “Chamber Chatter” column published in the Flesherton Advance said “The Grey Highlands Chamber of Commerce firmly believes in new development that will create jobs and tax revenues for our community, reducing the tax burden on our residents. Few people are aware that Jake Hammer’s Talisman had roughly 200 employees, and these seasonal jobs helped balance the income of many of our citizens. When Talisman closed, not only did many people lose their jobs, but the municipality lost tax revenues that then became the responsibility of every taxpayer to replace. Since 2006, there has been a decline in these valuable jobs. Now, there are no jobs at Talisman, few jobs in our towns, and a reduction in municipal tax revenues. We look forward to the revitalization of the Talisman resort as a creator of new jobs to propel our economy and the generation of new municipal tax revenues, so that there are more funds available as we develop new ways to help build a sustainable economy in which our Chamber members’ businesses can thrive. We trust in our municipality’s decision to sell the Talisman property to a developer who will generate much-needed jobs and tax revenues, while balancing the desire to tread gently on our green spaces.”

Read tomorrow's final instalment in the series:
An alternate offer is presented

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

 


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