Grey Highlands council passed a bylaw this week finalizing the sale of the municipally owned Talisman Lands to Westway Capital, despite considerable public opposition calling for the municipality to cancel the deal and provide more opportunities for public consultation.
The properties are divided into two portions totalling 134 acres and are home to a section of the Bruce Trail, the Beaver River, and an environmentally protected portion of the Beaver Valley flood plain.
They were sold for a combined $2.5 million to the Toronto-based investment firm, with the aim of revitalizing tourism and economic opportunities lost with the closure of the former resort more than a decade ago.
“The tourism aspect of it is so important,” said Grey Highlands CAO Karen Govan. “We have a shortage of accommodation throughout the municipality… and having some kind of resort there really is a great economic initiative for the municipality.”
The sale of the land concludes a process that began in spring 2021, when the municipality began marketing the properties and sought public input on the area’s future through its Beaver Valley Visioning Sessions.
Two offers were made to purchase the land, including a $2.775-million offer from the Escarpment Biosphere Conservancy, which the municipality did not move forward on.
The deal with Westway Capital, which was largely struck in closed-session council negotiations, has been met with continuous public opposition throughout 2021.
Although the land is part of the Niagara Escarpment Commission, it is designated as recreational and not fully restricted from development.
Following a protest held by community members Feb. 2, hours before the sale was completed at a council meeting, 33 residents showed up to speak against it during the open forum portion of the meeting.
Residents were granted one minute each to voice their concerns.
Some members of the public argued that the sale does not conform with Grey Highlands’ Official Plan, which governs the municipality’s land use.
“We've offered you $2.775 million, which I now understand is higher than the other offer,” said Bob Barnett, executive director at the Escarpment Biosphere Conservancy. “We were offering you a full cash offer, and we think it's unfair when you should be concentrating government land on government objectives, and meeting your official plan.”
Others were concerned with the potential environmental impacts of developing the land.
“I am extremely concerned about environmental degradation, and the historic opportunity that you have here in front of you to make the right decision given where we are with climate change,” said Paula Glick.
Numerous residents argued that the negotiations lacked transparency and public consultation.
“We tried to understand council’s decision-making process, but throughout all this time you have been opaque instead of listening to your community,” said Mary Ferguson. “Today, you are about to sell a jewel that is currently still ours.”
Despite the criticism, council members did not waver in their decision.
“I'm making decisions based on what I think is best for the municipality,” said Coun. Paul Allen. “I’ve lived in Grey Highlands for 49 years. … I'm not going to make decisions that I think will deter people… from staying in Grey Highlands or coming back to Grey Highlands.”
Coun. Dane Nielsen stated that council members were not at liberty to discuss the deal while it was still being negotiated.
“Unfortunately, the process is we're not allowed to talk about certain things, and it doesn't matter who gets elected or who doesn't get elected, people will be bound by the same things,” he said. “The whole process itself, admittedly, to me is frustrating that we can't be more open.”
CAO Karen Govan echoed Nielsen’s statements, and said the municipality did nothing wrong by negotiating the sale in closed-session council meetings.
“The conversations that took place in closed-session are permitted under the Municipal Act,” she said in an interview. “Nobody knows if that negotiation is going to be approved or go through and the municipality has to play its cards close to its chest because if it doesn't go through… then all our cards are on the table.”
She said that the offer from the Escarpment Biosphere Conservancy did not go through, in part, because it was made after negotiations had begun with Westway Capital.
“We were already in negotiations with Westway, so [they were] already at the table, and council had commenced negotiations,” she said. “In negotiating in good faith, you've said that you're sitting at the table and you're going to work out a deal or attempt to work out a deal with an organization.”
Govan also said that there will be opportunities for public engagement regarding any development on the land, and that Westway will be working with conservation authorities throughout the process.
“Westway has already started to talk to organizations such as the Bruce Trail, Niagara Escarpment – they have a pretty aggressive community engagement project coming up,” she said.
“Westway has a proven track record for getting this type of project off the ground – it's a very complex piece of property,” she said. “It has oversight from Niagara Escarpment Commission, it has oversight from Grey Sauble Conservation Authority … the principals of Westway have experience with this type of work.”
Jane Pyper, chair of the board with Protecting Talisman Lands Association, argued that the land is not the appropriate site for development.
“If development makes sense, and growth makes sense, then do it in an environmentally sustainable way, put it in a contained area,” she said in an interview. “That's what all environmental perspectives recommend – is putting development where it already exists.
“We have a vision that is very consistent with what the Niagara Escarpment and (the) Planning and Development Act says, which is to preserve the Niagara Escarpment area as a continuous natural environment as much as possible.”
She also argued that developing the land is not the only method to bring economic growth to Grey Highlands.
“There's lots and lots of evidence that economic development and the environment can go hand in hand, and developing it as a green space, with trails and with passive recreation, would attract people to the area, would add economic value for surrounding small businesses.”
In November 2021, the Protecting Talisman Lands Association filed a legal challenge against the sale to Westway. The issue will go to court on Feb. 9.
"The [municipality] made the point that they received only one offer, and therefore were sort of obliged to accept it," said Pyper. "Part of the point the community has been making is that the process is so flawed that people were unaware [the lands] were even available"
Development plans for the properties have not yet been finalized.
The former resort sits on a property adjacent to the land sold to Westway Capital, which are privately owned and were not included in the sale.