BY SOUTHGREY.CA STAFF — On July 29, the Municipality of Grey Highlands confirmed the conditional sale of the municipally-owned lands in the Beaver Valley to Westway Capital, subject to a due diligence period. One day following that announcement, disappointment and frustration among residents has grown. Overwhelmingly, comments on social media have criticized Council for a lack of transparency and disregard for public input.
The entire process was set in motion last October when Grey Highlands Council announced their intention to “maximize the development potential” of the former Talisman Resort. Then in March 2021, a Joint Agreement was signed by the municipality and the owners of the former Talisman Resort, packaging two properties currently owned by the municipality with the former Talisman-owned lands to jointly market the properties to developers with the intention to “maximize profits.” In March, several public sessions "to encourage conversations that would inform the Municipality in establishing priorities and undertakings for an overall Beaver Valley community vision" were conducted in April and May.
Two options were formally presented to Council. The first presentation came from the Friends of the Beaver Valley (FBV), a community coalition which enlisted many stakeholders including the Escarpment Biosphere Conservancy (EBC), Sustainable Livelihood Canada, Elephant Thoughts and the Kimberley Safety Group to develop a nature preserve on the property. The second presentation came from Westway Capital, a capital investment firm based out of Toronto. In their presentation, Westway expressed the desire to return Talisman to its former glory as a four season resort.
Behind closed sessions, Grey Highlands Councillors discussed the future of the Beaver Valley properties and made the announcement of their decision yesterday. When news of the sale was published, public reaction came swiftly.
“It is unfortunate that Council has made this conditional deal, but we are still committed to rallying our support and presenting our offer with a unique collaborative approach to preserve this much loved UNESCO heritage site into perpetuity for all in Grey Highlands and the province,” said Dr. Mary Ferguson, a member of FBV from the beginning.
Others were not so diplomatic in their response. "Slice by slice our municipality is being sold off to developers, big business and those with money," said one poster on Facebook. "That proposal and how the whole process has been handled is a farce and the councillors and staff should be ashamed," said another.
"It appears (Council) have given scant or no consideration of the wishes of (their) taxpayers and Beaver Valley residents," said Kimberley resident Wendy MacDonald. "Selling out our healthy, sensitive and unique Beaver Valley’s future for short term profit is a very short sighted decision."
On July 30, Rob Leverty, President of the Niagara Escarpment Foundation (NEF) weighed in on the matter. "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, announced on July 29," the statement reads. "As the Foundation wrote in its May 11, 2021 submission to Grey Highlands Council, 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 unprecedent rupture of the historic tradition of private-public partnership faithfully supporting the Niagara Escarpment Plan in the Beaver Valley.”
in an NEF media release circulated by Leverty on the same day, the following was stated:
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.
The Foundation’s May 11 submission presented an alternative vision for the future of the Talisman lands, building on the half-century legacy of environmental protection for the Niagara Escarpment in the Beaver Valley. Key to this vision is keeping the municipal lands in public ownership to help meet the enormous public demand for publicly accessible rural protected areas to enjoy low-impact outdoor recreation. There are significant economic opportunities in meeting this demand for low-impact, nature-based activities.
It is profoundly disappointing that the Grey Highlands announcement makes no reference to the Niagara Escarpment, ignoring its designation as a United Nations Biosphere, and makes no reference to either the Greenbelt or the environmentally protective Niagara Escarpment Plan that directs the types of land uses allowed on the Talisman lands. It is precisely because of the protective policies of the Niagara Escarpment Plan that the Beaver Valley is green and shielded from rampant development along its continuous natural corridor. Mayor Paul McQueen is Grey County’s representative on the Ontario government’s Niagara Escarpment Commission and would do well to remember that as Grey Highlands plans for the future of the Talisman lands.
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.
Over 600 people had signed a petition supporting the vision of the grassroots FBV coalition. FBV's proposal included development possibilities, such as an eco centre and sustainable recreation, green business jobs and entrepreneurial opportunities. FBV points to their coalition partner, EBC, as a well-respected land and wildlife preservation non-profit group in Ontario, shepherding over 17,000 Acres of nature reserves, protecting 64 species of conservation concern and creating 80 km of hiking and walking trails. EBC proposed a collaborative approach to managing the lands with the Municipality for the economic benefit of Grey Highlands, climate change and the local community and tourists in a sustainable way.
"I want to assure you that Council has not made this decision to enter into a conditional agreement of sale lightly," said Grey Highlands Mayor Paul McQueen. "I believe that the process has been fair, and our intention to explore opportunities for these properties has been public since October 2019 when Council adopted our 2019-2023 Strategic Plan, and identified spearheading opportunities for the Municipally-owned lands in Markdale and Beaver Valley to be a priority."
McQueen went on to say, "Council has been steadfast in giving itself the time to conduct its own review and due diligence related to this conditional offer that was presented and has certainly taken into account all the public input that was received, including all the written comments and feedback from the 6 public workshops that were hosted as part of our Beaver Valley corridor visioning process. Council has made, what we believe to be, a very informed decision when entering into this conditional sale agreement."
The Municipality now enters a due diligence period during which, the development team will be meeting regularly with representatives from Grey Highlands Council and staff to help align future development with the community vision for the entire Beaver Valley corridor. During this process, the Municipality 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.
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