Mental health group surprised by council expropriation

City moves to take over property sold by Scouts to Canadian Mental Health Association

Daniel MacEachern
Published on April 15, 2014
St. John’s city council voted to expropriate the land and building on Terra Nova Road currently owned by the Boy Scouts of Canada at Monday night’s council meeting. — Photo by Rhonda Hayward/The Telegram

The provincial branch of the Canadian Mental Health Association is disappointed St. John’s is expropriating property it has a deal to buy.

City council Monday night voted to expropriate the land and building at 15 Terra Nova Rd., currently owned by the Boy Scouts of Canada, which recently put the property up for sale.

The city made a purchase offer but was outbid by the Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA), which is looking for a new home, said executive director George Skinner.

“We’ve been looking for space, a home for CMHA, but also to put a place, a centre in St. John’s that we could develop over time to raise the profile of mental health, particularly mental illness, in the community, which we believe is a central issue for most communities in the province,” said Skinner.

“We thought the Scouts property was an ideal place to do that.”

Skinner said he was surprised to learn Monday morning of the city’s plans to appropriate the land.

The association had reached a deal with the Scouts three weeks ago to buy the property.

“It’s very disappointing,” Skinner  said. “This was not just an office space for us, but it was a chance to profile mental health in the heart of the capital city of Newfoundland and Labrador, and to work with other groups, including council, to make the mental health issue what it should be in our community, and be in close proximity to the university, to Health Sciences, St. Clare’s, on a bus route.”

Coun. Art Puddister said the land, sandwiched as it is between city-owned properties — Metrobus depot lands to the east and recreation land west and north — should go back to the city, which sold the land to the Scouts for a dollar in the early ’70s.

“It’s an excellent fit for the taxpayers, and this piece of property, which I consider a valuable piece of property, should stay in public ownership,” he said. “We have many needs here in the city. We could refurbish that building and have one of our stand-alone departments be relocated there.”

The next step is for the city to negotiate compensation with the Scouts for the land. “Our staff will certainly negotiate in terms of what we’d pay for the building and so on, so we’re not just walking in and expropriating a piece of property,” said Coun. Tom Hann. “We will talk to Scouts Canada, staff will, and then we will negotiate a proper sale price for it.”

Deputy Mayor Ron Ellsworth noted the offer the Scouts had already received for the property establishes fair market value for the property, so the organization isn’t being undercut by the city, and he said the city will help the Canadian Mental Health Association find another suitable property.

“This is not about blocking out any not-for-profits in any way, shape or form,” he said. “This is about us looking at the bigger picture for the City of St. John’s and our requirements for our operations and for the recreation facilities in and around Terra Nova Road.”

Skinner said the association will go back to the drawing board.

“We’ll look at other options we had been considering, but this was our No. 1 option,” he said.

Mackenzie Lambe, the Scouts’ volunteer services co-ordinator in Newfoundland and Labrador, declined to comment, directing inquiries to provincial director Jennifer Neary, who’s out of the province until next week.

“Unfortunately, I don’t have the authority to disclose any information about that,” said Lambe. “That would be Jennifer Neary, and unfortunately she’s out of the province right now.”