Jim Crane, who lives in Malahide and whose great-uncle set up a nature reserve at Iona Station, has been looking for answers as to why the eight-acre property was sold by the Lower Thames Valley Conservation Authority (LTVCA) for $ 9,000.

The sale was supposed to save annual property taxes and maintenance expenses on the excess property, and potentially make money for LTVCA, but the unannounced, unsold sale may have left tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of dollars on the table.

There is now planning permission for a house on the property.

Dr. James Crane, a noted conservationist, planted a forest with 7,000 trees, including about 90 different species, on the property in 1938.

Mark Peacock, LTVCA’s chief administrative officer, said he is now working with Mr. Crane to find a solution that will keep the memory of his great-uncle Dr. Crane can be recognized. (A plaque in honor of Dr. Crane from a pile of stones on the property was also removed earlier this year.)

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

Even so, Mr. Crane was confused about why the donated land was being sold in the first place, which he believed was way below market value.

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

Land worth

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

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

The other said comparable building lots of this size sold for $ 900,000 to $ 950,000. However, they also pointed out the various provisions associated with the sale that would decrease the value, including zoning as a protected area, and the challenge of building plenty where it wouldn’t disrupt the forest.

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

The story goes on

Randall Van Wagner, head of LTVCA Conservation Lands and Services, said this was the first time in his 15 years that a property had been sold by the agency.

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

“Why, from the taxpayer’s point of view, should we continue to put money into something that has very little recreational value for the public?”

The bush lot was rated by Oakview Appraisals of Chatham. According to GeoWarehouse, a Toronto-based real estate appraiser, the wildlife sanctuary, labeled as an agricultural property with no buildings or structures, had an estimated tax value of $ 60,000 in 2019.

There were other factors affecting the $ 9,000 sale cost, Mr Van Wagner said, including a $ 11,000 bill for drainage cleaning, the cost to the homeowner of maintaining the forest, and the restrictive contract that was signed on the property.

There were several provincial tax programs that the LTVCA uses on some other real estate, such as the Managed Tax Forest Tax Program and the Conservation of Land Tax Program. This property was also not eligible due to its smaller size and lack of “ecological significance and endangered species”, said Van Wagner.

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

“We’re trying to be as open as possible, there’s no conspiracy here at all,” said Peacock. “The problem is that the nature conservation agency gets less and less money from the province, they keep cutting us off and the local community has more and more responsibility.”

When asked if LTVCA sold the property for a profit, Peacock said, “That was not the main reason for the sale. The main reason was Dr. Crane trying to protect the arboretum and the cairn. “

According to the restrictive contract, trees in the southwest half of the property should only be disturbed by removing dead or dangerous trees. The cairn and the copper plaque in honor of Dr. Cranes were to be preserved, and livestock should not be allowed on the northeast half of the property unless a fence was put in place.

He said he believed these features would be protected by the restrictive covenant text. When asked why the restrictive covenant was written like this, Mr. Peacock said, “One of the challenges – you can put anything in it or say nothing can happen, period. The problem with pasting is that you’re going to be missing out.

“The restrictive covenant said you can’t disturb the trees, period. It was an all-encompassing statement instead of saying that you can’t do this or that. Because if you go A, B and C someone will find D. “

The LTVCA declared the real estate surplus in 1996 when the provincial government, headed by Mike Harris, changed legislation that required nonprofits to pay taxes on their real estate.

No public tender, no advertising

When Mr. Van Wagner was originally interviewed in January, he said he “believed” that the sale of the property was through a public tender. He also told other news outlets that the LTVCA was running ads to inform the public about the sale.

When asked again in April for details of where and when the ads were running, Mr Van Wagner said the sale of the property had not been publicly advertised in any way.

LTVCA officials reached out to “about two or three” area neighbors adjoining the property, Mr. Peacock said, to see if they would be interested in buying. Only Herr Englehart was interested.

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

“We don’t have the opportunity to interview someone if they say they are a relative of someone,” said Mr. Peacock. Mr. Crane said he did not believe this was the case and had family records from the early 19th century.

Mr Englehart declined to comment when contacted by phone on Monday April 19th.

When asked why Mr. Crane was not contacted earlier about the property sale, Mr. Peacock said, “There have been a certain number of phone calls to people who we believed would know who we could speak to,” and that Mr. Englehart apparently like the best fit when he was in Dr. Crane’s house was alive and claiming to be a relative.

“Good Faith” deal didn’t work out

When he first discovered that the reserve had been sold, Mr. Crane said that Mr. Englehart appeared to be thinning the bush. LTVCA told Mr. Crane that only dead trees were removed from the existing older alley and that the company that removed the trees can confirm that they are dead.

According to Southwold Township, permission has been given for a house on the property. A gravel driveway was also installed on the property.

“We didn’t think the restrictive covenant would be something they could build on,” said Mr. Peacock. “The Board tried in good faith to do the right thing for this property and it didn’t work out.”

When asked if there are penalties for not following a restrictive contract, Peacock said, “Our lawyers are dealing with this. That is a challenge. I can’t really talk about it. “

“Eye opener” for land donors

Elgin County staff searched the reserve’s history and found nothing that would have prevented the sale. But that hasn’t stopped some Elgin County councilors from sharing their thoughts on the matter.

Central Elgin Mayor Sally Martyn, who also sits on the board of directors of the Catfish Creek Conservation Authority, said she was “quite concerned” with the LTVCA’s decision to sell the land.

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

“It was certainly an eye opener for a lot of people to donate land.”

In her 14 years with CCCA, only a “tiny” piece of land was sold. Malahide Township informed the buyer that he could not build on an adjacent lot as it was not big enough for a residential lot. They had to expand the property and bought a piece from CCCA.

In this case, the property was valued and then sold at the estimated price. “He wanted to give us $ 10,000, but he paid a lot more,” said Ms. Martyn.

Elgin County Director Tom Marks also expressed his condolences, adding that he had personally apologized to Mr. Crane.

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

In 1976 Elgin County transferred ownership to the LTVCA. In either case, it was sold on the same terms: for $ 1, and that it should remain a nature reserve.

Veronica Reiner, reporter for the local journalism initiative, Aylmer Express