A member of one of New Brunswick's wealthiest families and a company he runs have purchased a swath of land around his Moncton home where the city hoped a large new neighbourhood would be underway by now.
Property records show Robert Irving and Cavendish Farms Corp. bought hundreds of acres over the last five years between Humphreys Brook and Shediac Road around Irving's horse stables and newly built home. Irving is president of Cavendish, known for its french fries, and owns the Moncton Wildcats hockey team.
The purchases raise questions about Moncton's Humphreys Brook Neighbourhood Plan that the city spent two years and thousands of dollars to create.
It calls for new city parks, streets and more than 2,455 housing units to be built between 2020 and 2035, about half of them on land Irving and Cavendish purchased.
Moncton council approved the plan in February 2017, four months after most of the purchases happened.
It's not clear what Irving and Cavendish plan to do with the property that covers an area as large as downtown Moncton and is zoned for residential use. Irving did not provide an interview.
Mary Keith, vice-president of communications for J.D. Irving Ltd., said in an emailed statement that the purchases were "a transaction between a willing seller and a willing buyer in full compliance with all applicable laws and regulations."
Shawn Crossman, a Moncton city councillor who represents the area, said if the land isn't developed, the city has to look elsewhere to grow.
"As far as I know, they want to keep that piece of land a natural area, and I don't see any foreseeable development coming in this area," Crossman said in an interview.
Bill Budd, the city's director of planning, was coy about whether the city expects any development in the area purchased.
"Not all landowners want to develop, and that's fine, but at some point if they do, there's a framework there that helps tie in to the rest of the neighbourhood," Budd said in an interview earlier this year.
Crossman, who represents Ward 1, had pushed for the neighbourhood plan and a $75,000 grant from the Federation of Canadian Municipalities that partially paid for it.
"I've seen Moncton grow to a great extent, and Ward 1 has been relatively, I guess, flat for growth," Crossman said. "This was an opportunity to bring a great neighborhood plan to an older part of Moncton and in Ward 1 and do the planning right."
The neighbourhood plan called for several new road connections that would open access to the wooded, undeveloped land. That included a $1.3 million roundabout the plan suggested would be constructed this year on Shediac Road.
It would connect to a new street about 200 metres east of the stables. Trees on the property had already been cut, soil bulldozed and the city assigned the name Bicyclette Avenue to the street.
Cavendish Farms purchased two parcels in October 2016 where maps show the proposed road.
The roundabout and street have not been built.
The purchase of the parcel behind the stables coincided with Cavendish Farms buying a separate parcel north of the Irving home.
The 240-acre property was the centrepiece of the 505-acre Humphreys Brook Neighbourhood Plan developed over two years at a cost of $150,000.
The plan by Trace Planning and Design envisioned a "city common" park space surrounded by three-storey apartment buildings and townhouses.
The plan suggested thousands of people would call the area home once fully developed in the mid-2030s. Development of the whole planning area was expected to generate an estimated $8.3 million in annual property tax revenue.
Jim Scott, an urban designer and landscape architect with Trace, said the work had two broad goals. First, come up with ways for dealing with storm water runoff to avoid flooding.
Second, create a denser neighbourhood than sprawling areas that are costly to service.
But while developing the plan, Scott said, the city's vision didn't necessarily align with what landowners in the area were interested in building. Scott said the largest landowner, Bedford Buck & Sons Ltd., had a standing offer from Irving to purchase its land.
"They kindly agreed not to move forward with selling their land until they saw how the plan began to develop," Scott said in an interview.
"I think they saw that this was going a different direction that they wanted to go, so my understanding is they exercised their option" to sell the property to Irving, he said.
Peter Buck, listed as a director of Bedford Buck & Sons in corporate records, did not return a request for comment.
Budd, the director of planning, said the city's vision called for new ways to deal with storm water and other infrastructure requirements. As well, the plan called for a mix of housing types including single-family homes, townhouses and small apartment buildings.
"Some of this may not be appealing to all developers that have a certain product that they're focused on," Budd said when asked if the company had raised concerns about the plan.
Property records show Robert Irving bought the first major segment of land, 50 acres, in June 2014 from Bedford Buck & Sons.
In October 2016, two months before the neighbourhood plan was first presented to city council, Cavendish Farms bought more than 240 acres from Bedford Buck & Sons for $1.75 million, according to property and corporate records.
The same month, Cavendish bought 18 acres off Shediac Road east of the stables for $1 million from the company.
Budd said trees had been cleared on that property in preparation for Bicyclette Avenue and the process at city hall was underway to subdivide the property into building lots. After the purchase, that stopped.
"You don't have a developer that wants to proceed with those plans right now," Budd said.
Instead, development has focused on the eastern end of the neighbourhood plan around École Champlain School. New homes continue to be built and a large new apartment building has been proposed off Harrisville Boulevard.
Budd said the city is preparing to implement a development charge bylaw, which would see developers in the area contribute money to help pay for new infrastructure, such as a road from Harrisville Boulevard west over Humphreys Brook.
As well, Budd said the city is going to review the neighbourhood plan.
Crossman said he has no expectation the Irving-owned land will be developed soon. He believes the city should examine what went "wrong" during the planning process before Irving bought the land.
"Obviously, something went wrong somewhere along the line, where the developer felt it wasn't feasible to come in and do it, and basically cut their ties," Crossman said of Bedford Buck & Sons.
"And at that point just like any other citizen of New Brunswick, if the opportunity comes up to take in a piece of land and [keep] it as a natural piece of Moncton, then hats off," he said of the Irving purchase.