Conservation authority privately sold eight-acre Crane property well below assessed value

·8 min read

Malahide resident Jim Crane, whose great uncle established an Iona Station-based conservation area, has been searching for answers as to why the eight-acre property was sold for $9,000 by the Lower Thames Valley Conservation Authority (LTVCA).

The sale was purportedly to save annual expenses from property taxes and maintenance on the surplus lot, and possibly to make money for LTVCA, but the unadvertised, untendered sale may have left tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars on the table.

There is now a building permit for a house on the lot.

Dr. James Crane, a well-known conservationist, planted a forest of 7,000 trees, including about 90 different species, on the lot in 1938.

LTVCA Chief Administrative Officer Mark Peacock said he’s now working with Mr. Crane to find a solution to honours the memory of his great uncle, Dr. Crane. (A plaque honouring Dr. Crane on a cairn on the lot was also discovered to have been removed earlier this year.)

They have been in talks to move the rock cairn to the McColl Cemetery in West Elgin where Dr. Crane was buried. Mr. Peacock said he did not know the cost of moving the rock cairn to the cemetery at this time.

Still, Mr. Crane was left puzzled as to why the donated piece of land was sold in the first place, for what he considered to be well below market value.

“All I’m after is the truth,” he said, adding he believes the property is worth well over $300,000 today.

Land value

The Express talked to two local real estate agents, who preferred to remain anonymous.

One said a regular building lot of that size would be worth at least $200,000.

The other said comparable building lots of that size property have sold for $900,000 to $950,000. However, they also pointed out the several stipulations attached to the sale that would reduce the value, including the zoning as conservation, and the challenge of building a lot where it would not disturb the forest.

LTVCA sold the property to Joshua Englehart, who owns nearby property, Dr. Crane’s former house, on Feb. 13, 2019.

LTVCA Conservation Lands and Services Manager Randall Van Wagner said this was the first time in his 15 years that any property has been sold by the authority.

“There were no facilities, no trails, virtually nothing there,” he said, adding that the LTVCA paid $985.75 in taxes on the property annually, as well as tree maintenance costs.

“So, from a taxpayers’ perspective, why would we continue to put money into something that provides very little recreational value to the general public?”

The bush lot was appraised by Chatham-based Oakview Appraisals. According to GeoWarehouse, a Toronto-based real estate appraiser, the conservation area, described as a farm property without buildings or structures, had an assessed value for taxes at $60,000 in 2019.

There were other factors that affected the sale cost of $9,000, said Mr. Van Wagner, including an $11,000 bill for drainage cleanout, the cost for the homeowner to maintain the forest, and the restrictive covenant placed on the property.

There were several provincial tax programs available that the LTVCA uses for some other properties, such as the Managed Tax Forest Tax Program and the Conservation of Land Tax Program. This property was not eligible for either due to its smaller size and lack of “ecological significance and species at risk,” said Mr. Van Wagner.

While one of the reasons for the sale was cited as cost to maintain the property, LTVCA staff have also said the decision was not motivated by profit.

“We're trying to be as open as possible, there is no conspiracy here at all,” said Mr. Peacock. “The issue is the Conservation Authority is getting less and less money from the province, they're cutting us continually, and putting more and more responsibility on the local municipality.”

When asked if the LTVCA sold the property for profit, Mr. Peacock said, “That wasn't the primary reason for the sale. The primary reason was to try to protect the Arboretum and the cairn to Dr. Crane.”

According to the restrictive covenant, trees on the southwest half of the property were not to be disturbed, other than the removal of dead or hazardous trees. The rock cairn and copper plaque honouring Dr. Crane was to be maintained, and no cattle were to be permitted on the northeast one half of the property, unless a fence were constructed.

He said that he believed these features would be protected through the wording of the restrictive covenant. When asked why the restrictive covenant was worded this way, Mr. Peacock said, “One of the challenges – you can put everything in it, or say nothing can happen, period. The problem with putting everything in it is you will miss something.

“The restrictive covenant said you can’t disturb the trees, period. It was an all-inclusive statement, rather then saying you can’t do this or that. Because if you go A, B, and C, somebody’s going to find D.”

The LTVCA declared the property surplus in 1996, when the provincial government under Mike Harris changed legislation that required non-profit agencies to pay taxes on their properties.

No public tender, no advertising

When originally interviewed in January, Mr. Van Wagner said he “believed” the sale of the property went through a public tender. He also told other news outlets the LTVCA placed ads to notify the public it was up for sale.

When asked again for details in April as to where and when the ads were placed, Mr. Van Wagner said the sale of the land was not publicly advertised in any way.

Representatives from the LTVCA approached “about two or three” surrounding neighbours who abutted the property, said Mr. Peacock, to see if they would be interested in purchasing. Only Mr. Englehart was interested.

Both Mr. Peacock and Mr. Van Wagner also confirmed that the LTVCA was led to believe that Mr. Englehart was a relative of Dr. Crane. When asked what relation, Mr. Van Wagner said he did not know.

“We don’t have the means of questioning somebody when they say they’re a relative of somebody,” said Mr. Peacock. Mr. Crane said he does not believe this is the case and has family records dating back to the early 1800s.

Mr. Englehart declined to comment when contacted by phone on Monday, Apr. 19. “What’s done is done, I guess.”

When asked why Mr. Crane was not contacted earlier regarding the property sale, Mr. Peacock said, “There was a certain number of phone calls made to people that we felt would know who we could talk to,” and that Mr. Englehart seemed like the best fit, as he lived in Dr. Crane’s house and claimed to be a relative.

“Good faith” deal didn’t work out

When he first discovered the conservation area had been sold, Mr. Crane said Mr. Englehart appeared to be thinning out the bush. LTVCA told Mr. Crane that only dead trees were removed at the existing older laneway and that the company that removed the trees can certify they were dead.

A permit for a house has been granted for the property, according to Southwold Township. There has also been a gravel driveway installed on the lot.

“We didn’t believe that they could build on it with the restrictive covenant,” said Mr. Peacock. “The board worked in good faith trying to do the right thing for that property, and it didn’t work out.”

When asked if there were any penalties for not following a restrictive covenant, Mr. Peacock said, “Our lawyers are dealing with that. That is a challenge. I can’t really talk about it.”

“Eye-opener” for land donors

Elgin County staff have searched the history of the conservation area and found nothing which would have prevented the sale. But that hasn’t stopped some Elgin County council members from sharing their thoughts on the matter.

Central Elgin Mayor Sally Martyn, who also sits on Catfish Creek Conservation Authority board, said she was “quite disturbed” by the LTVCA decision to sell the land.

“I just feel badly that it happened,” she said. “Dr. Crane had the right idea – I believe very strongly in Carolinian restoration.

“It certainly was an eye-opener for a lot of people about donating land.”

In her 14 years with CCCA, just one “tiny” piece of land was sold. Malahide Township told the buyer that they could not build on an adjacent lot, as it was not big enough for a housing lot. They needed to add to the property and bought a piece from CCCA.

In that case, the property was appraised, then subsequently sold for the appraised price. “He wanted to give us $10,000, but he paid a lot more than that,” said Ms. Martyn.

Elgin County Warden Tom Marks also expressed his sympathy, adding he has personally apologized to Mr. Crane.

The property changed hands several times over the years. In 1955, Dr. Crane sold his property to the University of Western Ontario, which was then transferred to the County of Elgin in 1961.

In 1976, Elgin County transferred the property to the LTVCA. In each case, it was sold on the same conditions: for $1, and that it was to remain a conservation area.

Veronica Reiner, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Aylmer Express

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