Grey Highlands council has moved closer to selling the municipally-owned Talisman lands, after declaring the lands surplus at a council meeting Dec. 15.
The lands are split between two parcels, 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.
Amidst opposition and concern from numerous members of the public, council unanimously moved to declare the lands surplus, a required process for the municipality prior to the sale of its lands.
Four members of the public spoke in public forum at Wednesday's council meeting and brought up concerns over the lands' conditional sale, citing the closed-session negotiation process that has left the public wondering about the lands' sale and development, as well as environmental concerns about the lands' development.
The lands have been conditionally sold to Westway Capital, a private investment firm from Toronto, although the sale will not be finalized until council approves it in open session.
"What happens with these publicly owned lands should be determined in an open and transparent process in a consultation with citizens, which I believe you agree with theoretically, but I do not feel has been followed very closely in this particular process," said Jane Farrow.
"There's many questions unanswered," she continued. "Who did you meet with? Were all the bidders treated fairly? Who was involved in this process? Why did you choose Westway? What conditions did the municipality put on the offer to sell?"
Stephen Griggs argued that the municipality has neglected its own policy in its actions so far.
"Grey Highlands is proposing now to declare the lands surplus to its needs, which is the first step in the process, not the end of it. So, particularly on this motion, I would suggest that it'd be very appropriate for you to defer making a decision on this motion," he said.
"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."
Jeanette Walter urged council to rezone the lands in order to prevent development from taking place on them.
"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," she said. "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."
Prior to declaring the lands surplus, council and staff discussed the public's concerns.
CAO Karen Govan stated that the municipality is not obligated to declare lands surplus as the first step in their sale.
"There are no timelines in the policy right now, so as long as [the lands are declared surplus] before the actual sale takes place, then we're within the policy," she said.
Govan also stated that planning for the lands' development is done in open session, and that the negotiations for the sale have taken place in closed session meetings to avoid giving up too much information.
"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.
"The closed session negotiations ... is to protect the negotiations," she said. "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."
Regarding concerns about the development of the lands, Govan highlighted that they have formerly been used for private ventures.
"We hear all the time that we need to leave them the way they are. There was a golf course at the bottom of Talisman, which ... was operating as a business as recently as three years ago," she pointed out.
The sale of the lands has been met by public opposition throughout 2021.
In October, Protecting Talisman Lands Association presented a petition to council, with 690 signatures calling to stop the sale and for transparent public engagement.
In November, the association filed a legal challenge regarding the sale of the lands.
"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."
Although Westway Capital entered into a conditional agreement with Grey Highlands in July 2021, the municipality also received an offer from the Escarpment Biosphere Conservancy in August. The conservancy proposal includes a plan to use the lands as a nature reserve.
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 prior to development.