BAIE VERTE, NL — In the midst of controversy over the sale of backlands on two streets, the Town of Baie Verte claims it’s not about money – but some residents are not buying that explanation.
A Feb. 22 Nor’wester article highlighted a recent notice issued to residents of Southshore Drive and Pioneer Avenue under section 201.2 of the Municipalities Act. The article stated residents with infrastructure located on town property could expect a bill from the town, but Mayor Brandon Philpott says that is not the case.
The offer being extended is for residents to purchase land adjacent to their properties or where they may have sheds or other structures, according to Philpott, who describes the offer as a favour. He acknowledges the notice itself was unclear and misconstrued.
But residents of Southshore Drive and Pioneer Avenue have not accepted the notice as a favour. They have been going to town hall for explanations and to voice their opposition, and a petition is circulating in the area. A group assembled in resident Cathy Breen’s driveway last week to discuss the situation and air some frustrations.
After hearing of individuals complaining amongst themselves or visiting the town office alone, Breen felt a combined effort would be more valuable. The Southshore Drive woman had some neighbours sign the petition and put it at the local convenience store.
She says she and her husband moved into the area about a decade ago. The property directly behind their trailer drops to a steep embankment, making that land useless for any sort of development.
They stabilized a portion of land and erected a shed about two years ago. Breen estimates the shed extends beyond their property by five to eight feet.
Breen would have to pay for the town-owned land in question — originally believing she would have to purchase a lot 50 by 50 at a cost of more than $1,100, although the mayor has since explained smaller portions of land can be purchased.
She would also have to pay for a land survey, possibly in the vicinity of $500, and lawyer fees in the hundreds of dollars.
“A big issue I have, and what a lot of people on the street are upset about – why are you targeting two streets?” she said. “You are targeting Southshore Drive and Pioneer Avenue – there are many, many areas in Baie Verte where people are beyond the boundary.
“The thing I find funny, when you think about rural Newfoundland, how many communities are out there where people are not going beyond the boundary behind their homes and using property?”
Philpott says council and staff are attempting to resolve land issues dating back years, and have taken considerable time and effort to get special permission from the Department of Municipal Affairs to offer this sale of backlands to these residents.
While council would like to resolve land issues throughout the town, this is one of the few — or only — places where it can do something about it. The land in question is town owned, and not Crown land like most other land throughout Baie Verte.
Breen feels this is a priority of this council right now, but wonders if it will remain so. If it takes years to resolve, she feels it would have just been a targeted and isolated incident.
“From what I understand, this has been an ongoing, on-and-off again, issue for more than 40 years,” she said. “Some councils will start the issue again and then it will die down again. My concern, as a citizen, is I end up paying $2,000 to get this land extended behind me so that my shed is legal, and in a few years another council comes along and don’t pursue this or agree with it.”
As of last week, some residents said they were not going to buy the land. The notice stated anybody with any form of fence or other structure encroaching on town land or easements would be required to buy the land or remove the infrastructure. Philpott has told The Nor’wester the town would not be tearing down property, but Breen says that is not the message residents are receiving.
Pioneer Avenue resident Patricia Pardy purchased her property two years ago after her husband died, and says the previous owners had been on the property for about 30 years. The infrastructure on her land has been there for decades and she has a survey for the land.
After receiving the notice, she is confused about what she has to do, if anything. Her understanding is all her property is within her own boundary. However, even if it isn’t, she is claiming adverse possession or squatter’s rights.
“If you have property on land for over 10 years, there is absolutely nothing council can do,” Pardy said.
The resident is not happy with the situation.
“To me, it is not even legal what they are doing,” she said. “I was as good as told to not even worry about it, that there is nothing they can do. They are still trying to get me to survey, and I am not doing it nor will I be coaxed into doing it.
“To me, it is crazy. I can’t see it going ahead.”
Donna and Kevin Rice bought their home in 1989 and were aware their shed was outside the land boundary. Donna said they wrote the town at the time asking permission to keep it as is, and provided a copy of a letter from 1975 granting permission to build it.
The Rices also had to deal with flooding in this area for years and eventually trenched, backfilled and landscaped it at their own expense, she said.
Despite saying she has no issue purchasing the additional land, Rice says she has discovered some issues while looking into the situation. She says the town has none of the documents from their property and did not provide an explanation why. Other residents have found the same issue, she says.
“My concern now is, where did all the letters, copy of the deed, tax receipts or property assessment statements go?” she said. “Were they misfiled or, worse, were they destroyed?”
Rice would like to see a public inquiry into the missing files.
Mary Decker, a Pioneer Avenue resident, says she is not impacted by the notice and that all her infrastructure is within her boundary. However, she does take exception to the way council is handling the situation.
She disputes the claim being made by the mayor that this is not about money. With many of the properties outside the boundaries being of no value because of topography, she asks what else it could be.
“This is not what we need for our town,” Decker said. “If that was land that could be developed, I would say make it happen. There is not enough land for a house and no way to develop it, so why are they barking up this tree?
“It bothers me because I see this town has gone to nothing and this is what they are focused on.”
Decker said in some cases, property owners are seniors who have lived there for decades, and says they should be left alone. She also feels these residents shouldn’t be treated differently than others, even if it is because the town owns the land and can address their cases.
Philpott says he has spent the past couple of weeks answering questions and explaining the situation to residents of the area. He said there is a lot of misunderstanding of the town’s intentions and what is happening in general.
The town has a lot of land issues, he said, and council is trying to address them. After receiving requests from people to purchase land in the area, the problem was identified. The intent was to prevent those property owners from losing the right to the land by offering to sell it to them before any public bidding occurs.
That was granted through a special request from the Department of Municipal Affairs.
“We are starting with one area because we don’t have the resources to go around all the town the one time,” said the mayor. “It’s coming to the point where we need to straighten out a lot of the land issues because we are even having issues getting land to sell for commercial development. We are to the point our land issues are starting to impede economic development.”
Philpott said he felt good about many of his conversations with residents, only to be frustrated by more of the same issues, even from the same individuals.
The mayor also remains adamant council and staff are doing all they can to keep costs as low as possible through this process, including lower survey and lawyer fees if addressed as a group.
Although no official request for a public meeting has come his way, he believes one is required. He also said council meets twice a week publicly, and that no residents have come forward to discuss the issues.