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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.”