Land pur­chase gone awry

Re­vealed dur­ing can­di­dates’ fo­rum that town paid twice for same par­cel of land

The Compass - - FRONT PAGE - BY TERRY ROBERTS

The mu­nic­i­pal elec­tion cam­paign in Bay Roberts took a con­tro­ver­sial — some are say­ing scan­dalous — twist on the evening of Mon­day, Sept. 16 af­ter it was re­vealed the town paid a res­i­dent a quar­ter-of-a-mil­lion dollars for land in 2005, only to learn nearly four years later the man may not have had clear ti­tle to the prop­erty.

What’s more, the town then paid a sec­ond time for the land, this time to Crown lands, a di­vi­sion of the provin­cial Depart­ment of En­vi­ron­ment and Con­ser­va­tion, in or­der to avoid a costly and drawn out le­gal bat­tle.

And the $255,000 paid to Ch­es­ley Snow, the man thought to be the right­ful landowner? It has never been re­cov­ered, and there’s no like­li­hood it ever will, sources say.

The i ssue came to l ight dur­ing a tense ques­tion-an­dan­swer ses­sion at a fo­rum for can­di­dates seek­ing to win a seat on coun­cil. An elec­tion is sched­uled for Sept. 24.

The is­sue raised ques­tions about the level of trans­parency among elected lead­ers, and stirred anger that so much tax­pay­ers’ money could have been paid out to some­one be­fore clear ti­tle to the land was es­tab­lished.

“I think this is ridicu­lous,” can­di­date Ger­ald Fen­nemore told The Com­pass dur­ing an in­ter­view.

Fen­nemore was among those press­ing mem­bers of coun­cil for an­swers, and later said he wasn’t sat­is­fied with what he heard.

“I think there should be an in­quiry or some­thing,” Fen­nemore added.

A po­lit­i­cal football

The land pur­chase was part of a long-run­ning ef­fort by the town to es­tab­lish a busi­ness park off L. T. Stick Drive, for­merly known as the CB Ac­cess Road.

Dis­cus­sions about the land con­tro­versy have largely taken place dur­ing priv­i­leged coun­cil meet­ings, be­cause of the sen­si­tive na­ture of the mat­ter.

As such, tax­pay­ers in Bay Roberts never be­came fully aware of the botched land deal.

And at least one mem­ber of coun­cil, Deputy Mayor Bill Sey­mour, said he was dis­cour­aged from dis­cussing it pub­licly.

“No one said to let it go. They just wanted it kept quiet cause we were deal­ing with try­ing to get the busi­ness park go­ing. But now it’s gone on so long I don’t know if we can do any­thing about it now,” Sey­mour said last week.

Sey­mour, who is seek­ing re-elec­tion, said he warned coun­cil against pur­chas­ing the land, hav­ing been ad­vised by “peo­ple on Coun­try Road … that Snow did not own the land.”

Sey­mour blames the town’s le­gal rep­re­sen­ta­tives, say­ing “they should have been more up on it” be­fore turn­ing over any money to Snow.

Mean­while, some chal­lengers are seiz­ing on the is­sue as a rea­son to think twice about sup­port­ing in­cum­bent can­di­dates, while some other ob­servers say the tim­ing was sus­pect, and was en­gi­neered as way to un­der­mine sit­ting mem­bers of coun­cil.

“Some­one has to be ac­count­able. This is a ter­rific amount of money,” stated Fen­nemore.

Oth­ers are in­censed that such a costly blun­der was never com­mu­ni­cated more clearly to tax­pay­ers.

Prov­ing own­er­ship

Pol­i­tics aside, the ques­tion has to be asked: how could this hap­pen?

The Com­pass went look­ing for an­swers from Nigel Black, the town’s chief ad­min­is­tra­tive of­fi­cer. Black be­gan work­ing with the town in 2011, well af­ter the orig­i­nal land pur­chase was made, but sig­nif­i­cant de­vel­op­ments on the is­sue have taken place since his ar­rival.

Like any land deal that runs into le­gal is­sues, the facts are com­pli­cated. Also, the mat­ter spans over three dif­fer­ent town coun­cils, and three dif­fer­ent may­ors — Wil­bur Sparkes, Glenn Lit­tle­john, the cur­rent MHA for the dis­trict of Port de Grave, and Philip Wood, who is seek­ing re-elec­tion in a run-off with chal­lenger Ge­off Sey­mour, who is the son of Deputy Mayor Bill Sey­mour.

Hav­ing this is­sue sur­face at such a sen­si­tive time has raised the stakes in the up­com­ing elec­tion, and in­jected a good dose of fric­tion into what had been a rather easy-go­ing cam­paign, with some vot­ers vent­ing their opin­ions through so­cial me­dia.

Qui­et­ing of ti­tles

Mean­while, in the sim­plest form pos­si­ble, here is a chronol­ogy of events, as out­lined by Black:

• 2005 — the town be­gins dis­cus­sions with Ch­es­ley Snow for the pur­chase of 7.1 hectares (17.5 acres) of land, and agrees dur­ing a meet­ing on July 26 to pay him $255,000 for the land.

The mo­tion was moved by then­deputy mayor Glenn Lit­tle­john, sec­onded by Coun. Ger­ald Gree­land, and car­ried by the ma­jor­ity.

There was never any “qui­et­ing of ti­tles” on the prop­erty, so the town, through its le­gal rep­re­sen­ta­tion, agrees to buy the land based on the re­li­a­bil­ity of af­fi­davits, swear­ing that Snow owns the land.

“This is com­mon in ru­ral New­found­land,” Black ex­plained.

“The in­tent at the time was to quiet the ti­tle once they found a de­vel­oper for the prop­erty and be­gan en­ter­tain­ing their own sale.”

• 2009 — sev­eral years pass with­out much move­ment on the is­sue. But early in the year, of­fi­cials with Crown lands stakes a claim to “some or all” of the prop­erty pur­chased from Snow, al­leg­ing the Crown is the right­ful owner.

• 2010 — the town files a state­ment of claim against Ch­es­ley Snow, seek­ing to re­cover the money it paid for the land. That mat­ter is still be­fore the courts, and Black said the in­com­ing coun­cil will have to de­cide whether to pur­sue the mat­ter.

• 2011 — Af­ter many months of back-and-forth with Crown lands, there is no res­o­lu­tion, with the agency vow­ing to fight the town.

The town is faced with two choices:

1. ne­go­ti­ate a set­tle­ment with Crown lands and ac­quire clear ti­tle to the land; or

2. launch a le­gal bat­tle that could po­ten­tially drain the town’s cof­fers of even more money.

• 2012 — Ea­ger to move for­ward with the busi­ness park, coun­cil votes to again pay for the land it al­ready pur­chased, plus an ad­di­tional 12.2 hectares (30.1 acres) from the Crown, for the sum of $276,900.

“There is an over­lap there where we ob­vi­ously paid two peo­ple for the seven hectares,” said Black.

In all, the town paid just un­der $550,000 for nearly 50 acres of land. How­ever, this does not in­clude le­gal fees or taxes, said Black, who de­scribed the price as “rea­son­able for a piece of prop­erty we now have clear ti­tle to.”

The town is now ne­go­ti­at­ing with a com­pany for the pur­chase of the en­tire site, and Black be­lieves a deal could be signed this fall, with de­vel­op­ment of the busi­ness park to be­gin in 2014.

Good faith

Town of­fi­cials still con­tend it could have won a court chal­lenge against the Crown, and many still be­lieve Snow was the right­ful owner.

Glenn Lit­tle­john was mayor for much of the pro­ceed­ings re­lat­ing to the land is­sue, and spoke can­didly about what hap­pened when con­tacted Tues­day.

He said a deal was done with Snow “in good faith,” and “we be­lieved he owned the land.”

Lit­tle­john added: “The in­for­ma­tion I had in front of me sat­is­fied me that Mr. Snow had ti­tle to the land.”

He said the town was fac­ing a very costly le­gal bat­tle, on two fronts, and there was an ur­gency to set­tle since the town was hav­ing talks with an “in­ter­ested party” for the de­vel­op­ment of the park.

He said there was lit­tle ap­petite for “go­ing af­ter” Snow, since he was hav­ing health prob­lems and “he didn’t have any re­sources.”

“So we just went ahead and set­tled with the Crown and moved on,” Lit­tle­john said.

Lit­tle­john re­fused to crit­i­cize the town’s le­gal rep­re­sen­ta­tives, say­ing only, “it was signed off by lawyers and all the rest.”

When asked if the town de­lib­er­ately tried to keep the mat­ter quiet, Lit­tle­john an­swered: “Th­ese things get passed in pub­lic meet­ings. It got ap­proved. Now peo­ple are try­ing to make an is­sue out of some­thing they say was done be­hind closed doors. It’s in coun­cil min­utes.”

Deny­ing al­le­ga­tions

Mayor Wood was not a mem­ber of coun­cil when the orig­i­nal land deal was signed, but stressed there is still an “ac­tive claim” against Snow.

He also con­tends that once the site is sold to a de­vel­oper, the town will re­coup its in­vest­ment, and turn a profit.

“We have 50 acres of land pur­chased for $12,000 an acre. There will be no cost to the town” once it’s sold, he said.

Wood em­pha­sized that he has never at­tempted to bury the is­sue, and added, “I’m open to any res­i­dent to ex­plain the sit­u­a­tion at any time.”

He re­fused to de­scribe the sit­u­a­tion as a scan­dal, and vowed that if re-elected, “we’ll be deal­ing with this

“If we get into land pur­chases now, we do ev­ery­thing we can to make sure what we’re buy­ing … that we’re get­ting proper value for it, and that we’re get­ting clear ti­tle to the prop­erty.”

— Nigel Black, chief ad­min­is­tra­tive of­fi­cer,

Town of Bay Roberts

in our new term.”

The Com­pass called Ch­es­ley Snow on Tues­day, but he de­clined an in­ter­view re­quest.

As for Deputy Mayor Sey­mour, he de­nied that the cir­cum­stances un­der which the mat­ter be­came pub­lic was re­lated to his re-elec­tion cam­paign, or his son’s bid to un­seat Mayor Wood.

He said, “Phil blamed me, but I had noth­ing to do with it.”

Bill Sey­mour said he never dis­cussed the botched land deal with his son, but said he warned his coun­cil col­leagues the in­for­ma­tion would be­come pub­lic “sooner or later.”

As for the money paid to Snow, Bill Sey­mour said, “It’s frus­trated me for years.”

He said it both­ers him that the town ag­gres­sively tries to re­coup out­stand­ing taxes from cit­i­zens, but seems pre­pared to walk away from $255,000.

When asked why he wasn’t more vo­cal on the mat­ter be­fore now, Sey­mour replied: “I was con­cerned about get­ting this busi­ness park go­ing. It was a big thing for this town, and it will bring a lot of money to the town.”

When asked if mea­sures have been taken to en­sure some­thing sim­i­lar does not hap­pen again, Nigel Black said, “we do try to make sure the piece (of land) has good ti­tle to it.

“If we get into land pur­chases now, we do ev­ery­thing we can to make sure what we’re buy­ing … that we’re get­ting proper value for it, and that we’re get­ting clear ti­tle to the prop­erty.”

Com­pass file photo

It was re­vealed last week that the Town of Bay Roberts paid twice for the same par­cel of land.

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