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2021 in Review: Public and municipality drift apart over future of Talisman Lands

Conditional sale of the lands to Westway Group has been met with opposition throughout 2021
The Talisman lands are a 200 acre property broken into three parcels, two of which are owned by the Grey Highlands. Contributed photo.

When Grey Highlands council declared the municipally-owned Talisman Lands surplus on Dec. 15, the municipality moved closer to fulfilling a conditional sale with Westway Group, but further from the desires of an outspoken cast of concerned citizens and environmental organizations.

"There has been no significant public debate about whether these lands are in fact surplus or not ... and it's quite clear ... these lands are considered very important by many in the community, and that there should be a significant discussion that takes place before council makes a decision to actually sell these lands," said resident Stephen Griggs to council Dec. 15.

"I also would urge council today to not declare [the lands] surplus, but instead take this opportunity to protect the environment, respecting the ecological services that it has to offer," said Jeannette Walter. "This is a perfect time for the municipality to rezone the lands so it is not for development, and at least preserve these areas for their intrinsic environmental value."

Grey Highlands moved into a conditional sales agreement with Westway Group on July 29, which has since brought a petition, counter-offers, and a legal challenge to the municipality in opposition to the move.

The issue began in March, when the municipality partnered with a private number company to collectively market the three properties that make up the the Talisman lands.

The municipality owns the upper and lower sections of the property, totalling 134 acres, with the remainder of the 200-acre property owned by the private company.

In a press release, the municipality cited increased tourism pressure as a primary reason to begin marketing the properties, but stated that they would respect the properties' ecological value and engage the community to determine the best outcome for the lands.

The municipally-owned lands are home to a section of the Bruce Trail, the Beaver River, and an environmentally protected portion of the Beaver Valley flood plain.

“Council has long recognized the importance of the Beaver Valley as an important feature of our community fabric. Recent pressures related to increased visitation to the area have highlighted the need to ensure future activities respect the valley’s ecological integrity and support the needs of the community for generations” said Grey Highlands Mayor Paul McQueen.

“The iconic nature of the Beaver Valley and the legacy of Talisman Resort have always been at the forefront of our vision to reinvigorate the former resort into a world-class hotel and wellness destination. Working together with the municipality provides us with an opportunity to attract partners who share our vision, who respect the natural attributes of the Beaver Valley, and who have a long-term vision for ensuring the legacy of the property and the entire region” said Brian Ellis, co-owner of Talisman Resort.

In April, the municipality launched the Beaver Valley Corridor Visioning Sessions to gain public input on visions for the region's future.

By the end of May, two organizations gave presentations to council regarding the lands.

A coalition of resident and environmental groups proposed a number of uses for the land, some of which included low-impact recreational activity, affordable homes and long-term rentals, satellite post-secondary campuses, and outdoor education.

“We're proposing a sustainable and income-producing development option from a possible economic ecological center, to a community agency supporting environmental education studies as well as eco-friendly business opportunities on the development lands,” said Linda Reader of the Escarpment Biosphere Conservancy (EBC).

The second presentation came from Westway Group, which outlined high-level plans to re-develop the resort, golf course and spa areas of the property, but voiced their commitment to public consultation.

“The pandemic has really changed people's perceptions. And I think we have a tremendous opportunity to re-establish tourism and promote local tourism to people that are within an easy drive of this area that are prepared to spend their hard-earned tourism dollars and leave them in Canada and support the local economy. I think it's really important that the Talisman can play a role in that revitalization,” said Paul Mondell, senior planning consultant for the Westway Group. 

“I really strongly believe that if you engage with the constituents and stakeholders at a very early stage, and bring a collaborative attitude to the table, and listen to what people are looking for and want, you can truly create a win-win for everybody,”

In June, EBC submitted a letter of intent to purchase the lands for use as a nature reserve, and the organization put forward a cash offer for their purchase in August.

However, the lands had already been conditionally sold to Westway Group through closed-session negotiations.

The Niagara Escarpment Foundation had previously submitted a document to the municipality sharing its concerns about the sale of the property, and they criticized Grey Highlands for its decision.

“The council betrayed the public’s trust by quietly working for several weeks with Westway Capital on a deal to sell the municipal lands,” said foundation president Rob Leverty. 

“In ignoring the submissions and proposals from Beaver Valley community members as well as the Foundation while secretly considering the Westway Capital offer to purchase, Grey Highlands has not engaged in fair play." 

Further resistance from community organizations followed.

The Protect Talisman Lands Association brought forward a 690 signature petition to council in October, calling on council to stop the sale of the lands and to engage in a more transparent process.

In November, the association filed a legal challenge to the sale.

"The Association has requested the court quash the Municipality’s decisions related to the sale of these lands and to order that no further action be taken by the municipality until the matter is determined by the court," the association said in a press release.

"These lands are of special environmental significance, situated within the Niagara Escarpment, recognized by UNESCO as a World Biosphere Reserve. The fact that they are publicly owned presents a unique opportunity to protect them in perpetuity for the enjoyment of generations to come and for the preservation of important ecological systems."

When the lands were declared surplus in December, Grey Highlands CAO Karen Govan explained that the closed-session negotiations were meant to protect the asset and avoid giving up too much information to prospective bidders.

"The closed session negotiations ... is to protect the negotiations," she said earlier this month. "Information [regarding the sale] is not publicly announced until we know the proponent has met all the conditions. We don't want to give away our cards in the middle of a negotiation."

"Council's just following what's written in the Municipal Act ... it's to protect the assets of the corporation and to protect taxpayers' money."

She also stated that while the lands have been conditionally sold through closed-session negotiations, planning will be a completely public process.

"The planning process is a public planning process that falls under the Planning Act, and that is done in open session, so no planning permission, permit, anything, would be issued by council in a closed session," she said.

Should the conditional sale be completed, Westway Group will need to have its site plans approved.

Prior to any development, a permit will need to be issued by the Grey Sauble Conservation Authority, due to the environmentally protected areas on the lands.

An environmental impact study will also need to be carried out before development begins.

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About the Author: Greg McGrath-Goudie, LJI Reporter

Greg McGrath-Goudie covers The Blue Mountains and Grey Highlands as part of the Local Journalism Initiative, which is funded by the Government of Canada
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