Residents tell Commissioner they are tired of 'fear mongering' campaign

   About 70 people, most of them favouring the proposed Witless Bay Town Plan that was overwhelmingly selected in a recent plebiscite, attended a Public Hearing last week on the document.
   The event was held in the Knights of Columbus Hall. The audience also included a small contingent of environmentalists from outside the community who were apparently attracted to the event by a propaganda campaign designed to whip up opposition to the development of three private building lots between Mullowney's Lane and Ragged Beach.
   Witless Bay resident Ron Harte took pains at the start of the hearing to make Commissioner Wayne Thistle clarify that all testimony offered during the meeting had to be done under legal oath, thereby putting an onus on all speakers to make truthful remarks. Harte and other residents were incensed by some of the claims circulated in the days ahead of the hearing by a few local protestersincluding Noel O'Dea, who sent out an e-mail circular with a form letter attached asking his contacts to notify the Department of Municipal Affairs of their opposition to the proposed Town Plan. O'Dea's circular contained a two page letter in which he claimed up to 400 houses could be built at Ragged Beach, and a 33 page "information" package that included a photoshopped depiction of a large fence barring access to the East Coast Trail with the caption 'What Ragged Beach Could Look Like In The Future.'
   O'Dea didn't attend the hearing, but his e-mail campaign drew the ire of speakers who felt his claims, and efforts to stop two local families and another private land owner from building homes on their privately-owned lots, were outlandish. There were also a number of references to O'Dea's large, glass walled gazebo, which sits right on the beach below his property at Gallow's Cove, as well as stacks of used tires built into the coastline to act as a retaining wall below his land. A couple of speakers also pointed out that under both Town Plans that went to the plebiscite, O'Dea is getting four acres of his own land rezoned to qualify for residential housing development.
   The first speaker before the Commissioner was land owner Anne Marie Churchill, who along with her husband Gary, bought 1.5 acres of land below Mullowney's Lane several years ago in the hope of building a house to live out their retirement.
   Churchill said she and her family came home for Christmas in 2009 and went for a hike along the trail near Ragged Beach. Struck by the beauty of the area, she immediately started looking for land and found an ad from a family in Witless Bay looking to sell their property on Kajiji. Churchill said she offered to buy it pending a check with the town council to see if it would allow a house there and a check by a lawyer to see if they could obtain clear title.
   Clear title was available, she added, and the council offered its support to zone the land to allow a building lot. But she was warned that a group in the area was opposed to any development near Ragged Beach. Churchill said she flew back from Ottawa to meet with members of the group and outline her family’s plans, but was told she would never be allowed to do anything with the land. "We wanted to compromise," Churchill said. "We were told, "We're not interested, We're only going to stop you.'"
   The Churchills decided to buy the parcel anyway. "We're not wealthy people, contrary to what people write on social media," she said. "We're not wealthy developers from Ontario... There are three landowners in that area with private property. We are not interested in Crown Land. We simply want to build one house on 1.5 acres, one house in the woods."
Churchill said she and her family are avid hikers and support the East Coast Trail and their house would not interfere with the trail or be near the beach. Churchill said her family has tried twice to meet with the East Coast Trail Association.  "There is no way we would block the trail, even if we could," she said.
   Churchill said the former council approved Rural Residential zoning for her land, but when the new council came in, it changed the Town Plan to make the land Recreational, without informing the land owners. That meant the Churchills would not be allowed to build. "They sucked the value out of the land, behind our backs," said Churchill. "We get tax bills every year. We pay our taxes."
   Churchill pointed out the irony of her family's situation is that the backbone of the opposition are people who own large houses and property in the same area.
   "It's ironic that one of our opponents is getting four acres of land rezoned to Residential," Churchill said. “And he's fighting us and Ronnie Harte and Wayne Williams. There are only three of us left... I've been so impressed by the people of Witless Bay… the numbers that came out to that plebiscite to stand up for private land owners, and I hope that their wishes are going to be respected. They voted for Plan A... I think that should be respected."
   Churchill's remarks drew enthusiastic applause from most of the people in the hall. But not resident Colleen Shea. "I'm here to speak for the ‘puffin whisperer’ and the trail walkers and all the other people inside and outside Witless Bay who actually use that area," she said.
   Shea noted that in 2011, some 1,400 people e-mailed and faxed the council opposing development at Ragged Beach. However, the weight of that claim was weakened later in the meeting when resident Barbara Carey, who was a member of council at the time, pointed out that nearly all of those "letters" was a form letter.
   Carey said she hadn't planned to say anything at the meeting, but felt compelled to do so after hearing some of the environmentalists from outside the town who think the residents don't care about the ecological reserve and that the town is rezoning the East Coast Trail and Ragged Beach.
   "That's not what's happening at all," Carey said. We're talking about three private citizens who want to build homes out in the woods that won't be visible to the birds... A lot of the propaganda that is going around is fear mongering. It's making the people of Witless Bay afraid that there's a 400 lot subdivision going down there and that there's a developer coming in going to make $25 million. We're not talking about rezoning the whole coast. It's an area close to the area that is already residential. Just three little plots of land. That's all these people are asking."
   Developer Blair Paul told the Commissioner that "many misconceptions and half-truths" have been made by the people opposing development in the town, with the statements even being circulated internationally. "Unfortunately the facts have become blurred in an effort to gain public support."
   Paul said the rumours of a 400 lot subdivision at Ragged Beach are simply untrue. "It's the height of hypocrisy," he said. "Mr. O'Dea... is the only person in Gallows Cove who owns enough land to construct a subdivision... This man, who claims to promote ecological conservation, is the only member of the community with a private gazebo on a public beachfront bordering his vast personal estate. A St. John's millionaire, who has his land zoned and developed exactly as he wants it, is now fighting to limit others from doing exactly what he has done."
   Paul said the subdivision that is being proposed, is located on the highway near the Mobile Arena, quite a ways away from Ragged Beach. "This subdivision will not produce negative ecological repercussions for the Witless Bay (Ecological) Reserve," he added, "but will contribute more than $180,000 to the municipality of Witless Bay in property taxes alone.”
   Paul argued that O'Dea and his supporters are using the public's sympathy for conservation to strip away the property rights of land owners in the town.
   Paul's father, Fraser Paul, addressed the Commissioner later in the meeting. He said the 49 acre subdivision he and his son have been proposing since 2010 is located three kilometres from Ragged Beach. Some 19 acres of the land is private property, he said, while the rest is publicly owned. Paul said he has already spent some $672,000 on the proposal over the past two years, though none of the 87 lots have been developed yet. Paul said his subdivision will have proper environmental safeguards.
   Mayor Sébastien Després broke the usual convention of council members staying neutral at Public Hearings by offering a lengthy warning about the dangers of over development on the town's water table. Councillor Albert Murphy told the Commissioner Després was not speaking for council. Harte interposed to warn the mayor, "Remember, you're under oath."
   Després told the Commissioner the two "iterations" of the Town Plan put to the plebiscite "was very confusing for a lot of residents."
   That's despite both of the 250 page plans being almost identical with the only significant difference pertaining to efforts by the new council in the second plan to stop Churchill and Harte from developing their land. The other difference involved minimum lot sizes in Rural Residential areas. Plan A called for three quarter acre lots, while Plan B specified a full acre.
Després said Witless Bay residents are potentially facing millions of dollars in additional taxes to pay for the installation of water lines if the drinking water in wells gets ruined by development.
   "There are many threats to this town in terms of future liabilities that we could incur, but none greater than poorly planned development," Despré said. "We have to be very careful... Witless Bay is not a magical unicorn. It's a beautiful place, but it will fall prey to the same problems as any other space in the province if we're not careful of development."
   Després maintained Witless Bay is under "very large pressures" from a "great number of proposed subdivisions, and these proposed subdivisions are all very, very, very large scale projects."
   He added most of the proposed subdivisions would be located in Rural Residential areas in higher elevations of the town. If those subdivisions go ahead, he said, both the Town's Planner and "every professional that council has spoken to about this issue" feels that "public water will become a necessity in the Town of Witless Bay... We cannot bury our heads in the sands and pretend this will not happen... Installing 40 or 50 kilometres of water lines in Witless Bay will bankrupt the community."
   Those remarks, along with some of the other claims, drew former mayor Derm Moran to the microphone. He lamented the scare mongering. "Why are they putting so much fear into the people of Witless Bay?" he asked. "There is no need of this. Witless Bay was a nice community. People worked together with each other. They enjoyed each other's company. There was none of this - the lies, the deceit."
   Moran said people outside Witless Bay are being given the wrong impression of what's happening in the town.
   Moran was followed by several environmentalists, including Bill Montevecchi of Portugal Cove - St. Phillip's, who studies the seabirds at the reserve, and Fred Windsor of St. John's, who said he was representing the Sierra Club. They made general remarks about the value of the reserve and urged residents to prohibit development near Ragged Beach.
   Resident Dena Wiseman, a former councillor who along with Després caused the uproar that eventually led to the plebiscite by retracting the new Town Plan and amending it to stop Harte and Churchill from building ontheir land, said her opposition is based on ecological grounds.
Wiseman said she objects to lot sizes in Rural Residential areas being less than a full acre, because of the danger posed to the water tables below. She added she opposes development at Ragged Beach because of the area's proximity to the East Coast Trail and the ecological reserve.
   Fraser Paul pointed out to the commissioner that Wiseman is in a conflict of interest pertaining to the Town Plan. He added she is getting her own land rezoned to accommodate half acre lots.
   Former councillor Joan Tobin, who developed the first subdivision in the town back in 2007, countered the earlier claims made by Després. Tobin said the previous council, in 2009, passed a regulation requiring all developers to pay for an aquifer study by an independent engineer with expertise in hydrology before council will consider any subdivision.
   Tobin said such a study costs some $50,000 to $60,000 and can take as long as a year to conduct. "If you fail that aquifer study, that's it, your subdivision is dead in the water, you don't get to build if the hydrology of the area doesn't support the water tables," she said.
   Tobin noted she paid for such a study for her subdivision and offered to show it to the mayor, but he has never taken her up on the offer. The results, she said, based on a study of 150 wells in the community, concluded Witless Bay has a sustainable aquifer. "There are no issues with aquifers," Tobin said. "That is fear mongering at its best by the mayor."
   Tobin said there has been a sustained campaign using social media, "designed to entice social outrage” against the several private land owners who want to build houses off Mullowney’s Lane.
   “There are no subdivisions on the record, nor proposed, for this area of Ragged Beach,” Tobin said. “There are no applications for sizable chunks of Crown Land in this area... There are three land owners in this area with privately owned land that want to build a single family home. The public trails and the beach area will continue to be utilized and enjoyed by visitors and residents as usual."
   Tobin said besides being a trained intensive care nurse, she is a marine biologist with a degree in geography and earth sciences and a post degree program in coastal and ocean management. "I know these three houses will not affect the ecological reserve," she said.
   A number of other residents also addressed the Commissioner about how the Town Plan will affect their properties. Thistle said he hopes to submit his report in about a month’s time.

Posted on October 28, 2015 .