Bay Roberts campaign takes controversial turn

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

The municipal election campaign in Bay Roberts took a controversial — some are saying scandalous — twist Monday night 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.

The Town of Bay Roberts is dealing with a botched land deal. — TC Media file photo

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.

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

The issue came to light during a Sept. 16 forum for candidates seeking to win a seat on council in Sept. 24 election.

The topic came up during a question-and-answer session, with incumbent councillors being asked to explain what happened.

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 on Tuesday.

Seymour, who is seeking re-election, said he warned council about 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,” added 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.

 

Quieting of titles

In the simplest form possible, here is a chronology of events, as given 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 then-deputy 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,” said Black.

“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:

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

— 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 to begin in 2014.

 

Good faith

Meanwhile, town officials still contend it could have won a court challenge with 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 for the blunder, 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 that 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 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.”

 

The Compass

Organizations: The Compass, Department of Environment and Conservation, Country Road

Geographic location: Bay Roberts, Port de Grave, Newfoundland

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Recent comments

  • PETER L
    September 20, 2013 - 10:44

    Not everything is as it seems. Ther are about 300 cases in the courts where the province is claiming back crown lands where grants have been issued. There are many people who had land handed down through wills on lands granted by the crown. However the crown is now claiming back these lands, this started around 2003, claiming that if the land wasn't worked or used, it reverts back to the crown without notice to anyone. The person claiming to sell this land in question may have believed he was the owner due to grants and wills, and due to assessments by government and taxes paid to the municipality; and so may the legal people, however the crown takes a different view. It's a money grab by the crown, nothing more. there are several cases in Paradise, I know of them personally, one lady was almost bankrupted by the process, and now the government wants her to cover their legal costs because she lost, and she is on a fixed pension. So much for our caring government. The crown should not be doing this to the people, and Bay Roberts actually did what was best at the time. This was done by other municipalities as well.

  • Don II
    September 20, 2013 - 08:37

    It appears that the Crown is claiming ownership of land based on the fact that the Crown seems to believe that many rural land owners cannot prove their land title. However, it has been my experience that most people do have the original Grants or Deeds or can otherwise trace the title of their land back many decades. There appears to be a policy of land grabbing happening under the current Government of Newfoundland. The Government of Newfoundland was entrusted with maintaining secure possession and storage of land Grants and Deeds. In the late 1890's the Government of Newfoundland failed to protect many volumes of land title and Grant documents from destruction during several large fires that ravaged St. John's. In the case of the land in Bay Roberts, the ownership issue could have been clarified by referring to the Newfoundland Railway Maps, The Newfoundland Railway Range and Section Maps were drawn to show a surveyed block of land one square mile in area along the route of the railroad which would likely have included the area where the land in question is located. It is likely that the Newfoundland Railway maps of the Country Road area land which is located near where the railroad track was originally situated would have shown who owned that land in 1885. The Newfoundland Railway maps were transferred to the Government of Newfoundland when it purchased the Newfoundland Railway. The problem is that the Crown has conveniently "lost" or cannot find those Newfoundland Railway maps! In any event, due the malfeasance and carelessness of the Government of Newfoundland, any disputes involving privately owned land and Crown land, the legal presumption of unfettered ownership should be decided in favor of the private land owners.