Gray Highlands completes sale of Talisman land despite public opposition

The properties, totaling 134 acres, were sold to Westway Capital for $2.5 million, despite public criticism of the land development.

Gray Highlands Council this week passed a by-law finalizing the sale of Talisman municipal land to Westway Capital, despite considerable public opposition calling on the municipality to cancel the deal and provide more opportunities for public consultation.

The properties are divided into two parts totaling 134 acres and are home to a section of the Bruce Trail, the Beaver River and an environmentally protected portion of the Beaver Valley Floodplain.

They were sold for a total of $2.5 million to the Toronto-based investment firm, aiming to revitalize tourism and economic opportunities lost with the closure of the old resort more than a decade ago year.

“The tourism aspect is very important,” said Gray Highlands General Manager Karen Govan. “We have a housing shortage throughout the municipality…and having some kind of resort there is really a great economic initiative for the municipality.”

The land sale concludes a process that began in the spring of 2021, when the municipality began marketing the properties and solicited public input on the future of the area through its Beaver Valley visioning sessions.

Two offers were made to buy the land, including a $2.775 million offer from the Escarpment Biosphere Conservancy, which the municipality did not act on.

The deal with Westway Capital, which was largely reached in closed-door board negotiations, has faced continued public opposition throughout 2021.

Although the land is part of the Niagara Escarpment Commission, it is designated as recreational land and is not entirely restricted to development.

Following a protest by community members on February 2, hours before the sale was due to end at a council meeting, 33 residents showed up to oppose it during the open forum portion Of the reunion.

Residents were given one minute each to express their concerns.

Some members of the public argued that the sale was not in accordance with the Gray Highlands Official Plan, which governs land use in the municipality.

“We offered you $2.775 million, which I now understand is higher than the other offer,” said Bob Barnett, executive director of the Escarpment Biosphere Conservancy. “We were offering you a full cash offer, and we think it is unfair for you to concentrate government lands on government objectives and stick to your official plan.”

Others were concerned about the potential environmental impacts of land use planning.

“I am extremely concerned about environmental degradation and the historic opportunity you have here before you to make the right decision given the state of climate change,” said Paula Glick.

Many residents argued that the negotiations lacked transparency and public consultation.

“We have tried to understand the council’s decision-making process, but all this time you have been opaque instead of listening to your community,” Mary Ferguson said. “Today you are about to sell a piece of jewelry that is currently still ours.”

Despite the criticism, the council members did not hesitate in their decision.

“I make decisions based on what I think is best for the municipality,” the councilor said. Paul Allen. “I have lived in Gray Highlands for 49 years. …I’m not going to make decisions that I think will deter people…from staying at Gray Highlands or coming back to Gray Highlands.

Com. Dane Nielsen said board members were not free to discuss the deal while it was still being negotiated.

“Unfortunately the process is that we’re not allowed to talk about certain things, and it doesn’t matter who is elected or who isn’t, people will be bound by the same things,” he said. “The whole process itself, admittedly, is frustrating to me that we couldn’t be more open.”

Chief Executive Karen Govan echoed Nielsen’s statements and said the municipality did nothing wrong by negotiating the sale in closed council meetings.

“Conversations that took place behind closed doors are permitted under the Municipalities Act,” she said in an interview. “Nobody knows if this negotiation is going to pass or pass and the municipality has to play its cards close to its chest because if it doesn’t pass…then all our cards are on the table.”

She said the Escarpment Biosphere Conservancy’s bid failed, in part because it was made after negotiations with Westway Capital began.

“We were already in negotiations with Westway, so [they were] already at the table, and the board had entered into negotiations,” she said. “By negotiating in good faith, you said you were sitting at the table and going to make a deal or try to make a deal with an organization.”

Govan also said there will be opportunities for public engagement regarding any development on the land, and that Westway will work with conservation authorities throughout the process.

“Westway has already started talking to organizations like Bruce Trail, Niagara Escarpment – ​​they have a pretty aggressive community engagement project coming up,” she said.

“Westway has a proven track record of getting this type of project off the ground – it’s a very complex property,” she said. “It’s overseen by the Niagara Escarpment Commission, it’s overseen by the Gray Sauble Conservation Authority…the directors at Westway have experience with this type of work.”

Jane Pyper, chair of the board of directors of the Protecting Talisman Lands Association, argued that the land was not the appropriate site for development.

“If development makes sense and growth makes sense, then do it in an environmentally sustainable way, place it in a confined area,” she said in an interview. “That’s what all environmental perspectives recommend – putting development where it already exists.

“We have a vision very much in line with what the Niagara Escarpment Land Use and Planning Act says, which is to preserve as much of the Niagara Escarpment area as possible continuous natural. »

She also argued that land development is not the only method to bring economic growth to Gray Highlands.

“There is plenty of evidence that economic development and the environment can go hand in hand, and developing it as a green space, with trails and passive recreation, would attract people to the area, add economic value surrounding small businesses. ”

In November 2021, the Protecting Talisman Lands Association filed a legal challenge against the sale to Westway. The matter will go to court on February 9.

“The [municipality] argued that they only got one offer so they were kind of obligated to accept it,” Pyper said. “Part of the point the community has made is that the process is so flawed that people [the lands] were even available”

Property development plans are not yet finalized.

The former complex sits on property adjacent to the land sold to Westway Capital, which is privately owned and was not included in the sale.