MLHS issues letter of thanks to Comox Council

MLHS issues letter of thanks to Comox Council

Mack Laing Heritage Society archive photo

By George Le Masurier

The Mack Laing Heritage Society this morning issued an open letter to the Town of Comox mayor and council. Here is their letter:

We, the Mack Laing Heritage Society of the Comox Valley (MLHS), wish to take this opportunity to thank Comox Council. Their decision to postpone any decision related to the Mack Laing Shakesides house Trust property, for three months, is to be commended.

We are encouraged that Comox appears willing to discuss their duties and obligations, as trustees of the Mack Laing Trust. We fully support an open, public, and transparent discussion between the MLHS, Council, and others.

Expert and accurate estimates of time, materials and cost should be sought regarding the conversion of Shakesides into a nature museum/house, as outlined in Mack Laing’s Will and Trust. The MLHS has found many interested local companies and individuals willing to support and assist in all aspects of this project. There are undoubtedly many more who would come forward, if a true community project is approved by Council. Cost to the taxpayer could therefore be minimal.

The MLHS will shortly issue a public position paper. We have always stated that close adherence to the terms of Mack Laing’s Will and Trust is necessary for the success of a modest nature house or museum. Therefore, we support a community-funded and supported Shakesides facility.

Soon, Shakesides could realistically become what Mack Laing intended on his death in 1982 – a small public education facility in the quiet nature park he loved, and which he donated to the citizens of Comox.

The Mack Laing Heritage Society can be contacted at macklaingsociety@gmail.com

 

 

 

 

 

LAING LINKS

Mack Laing

MackLaingSociety.ca

Comox Town Council

Russ Arnott, Mayor: rarnott@comox.ca

Alex Bissinger: abissinger@comox.ca

Nicole Minions: nminions@comox.ca

Patrick McKenna: pmckenna@comox.ca

Ken Grant: kgrant@comox.ca

Maureen Swift: mswift@comox.ca

Stephanie McGowan: smcgowan@comox.ca

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Comox must apologize for breaches of Mack Laing Trust

Comox must apologize for breaches of Mack Laing Trust

Archive photo

By George Le Masurier

Thanks to four brave new councillors, there is an opportunity to draw to a close the Town of Comox’s long history of breaching the trust of Hamilton Mack Laing and misappropriating the funds the famous naturalist left in his Last Will for the community that he loved.

Comox Town Council voted against Mayor Russ Arnott this week and set aside court proceedings to modify Mack Laing’s trust “for up to three months so that council may have discussions with all interested parties.”

Arnott cast the lone vote against the motion, contradicting statements he made during the fall municipal election campaign promising to settle this matter out of court. But new councillors Alex Bissinger, Patrick McKenna, Nicole Minions and Stephanie McGowan all spoke in favor of giving out of court discussions a chance.

Once it was clear the vote for negotiation would win, councillors Ken Grant and Maureen Swift got on board, despite voting for the court action during their previous terms.

That left Arnott alone in wanting to proceed toward an expensive court trial.

The Mack Laing Heritage Society has garnered broad community support for restoring Shakesides as a unifying and heritage-based town project. Some of those supporters believe the town will lose in court, at a minimum being ordered to submit to a forensic audit of the financial matters and forced into mediation.

The vote also put Arnott at odds with the new majority of councillors, who had campaigned for a negotiated settlement out of court.

But the question facing council is how to stop bleeding money on legal expenses — estimated by one observer to have neared or topped $100,000 — with a plan that satisfies the Laing society and is financially sustainable.

Finding that way forward won’t be easy, and yet that’s the task to accomplish in the next 90 days.

But nothing good will happen if council appoints another flawed advisory committee like former mayor Paul Ives did several years ago. That group failed to follow its own terms of reference. The outcome was so incomplete that two members of the committee wrote opposing minority reports.

And that’s why Arnott’s lone vote against at least trying to negotiate a win-win resolution is disappointing. The mayor is obviously entrenched in his position. He has now stated so for the record.

How is that going to help facilitate any open-minded and meaningful conversations over the next three months? At least returning councillors Grant and Swift had the decency to support an opportunity for positive discussions.

Here’s the problem.

Laing left money and his property to the town in a trust that specified the gifts be used to create a publicly accessible natural history museum at his home, called Shakesides.


If the CVLT had existed in 1982, they would have had legal power via a covenant to compel the Town of Comox to keep up its end of the bargain. Mack Laing deserves the same respect as Father Charles Brandt


But now, 37 years after Laing’s death in February of 1982, the town has done nothing to fulfill Laing’s wishes, even though they accepted the terms of the trust when they took his money and property. Over a year ago, the town admitted that it spent Laing’s money inappropriately for years, but only because the Mack Laing Heritage Society had amassed a mountain of evidence detailing the town’s mishandling.

Undaunted, the previous Town Council applied to the BC Supreme Court to tear down Shakesides and spend Laing’s money elsewhere. But the outcome of court actions are always uncertain. And, based on the comments of two Justices so far, the court believes the Laing society has an important case to make.

To prevent further dividing the community, the town needs to make a formal and public apology of its historic wrongdoings. Why? Answer: Because this is a moral issue.

If the town had no intention of abiding the terms of Laing’s trust, it should never have accepted the money and property. But once it did, the town had a moral obligation to follow through. And if the town can behave fast and loose with Laing’s money, what reasonable person would leave the town any gift in the future?

Comox has, so far, proven itself untrustworthy.

The Comox Valley Land Trust, and other similar conservancy organizations, were created to address this exact problem. And the CVLT is currently creating security for the wishes of Father Charles Brandt, who plans to leave his house and property on the Oyster River for a regional district public park.

If the CVLT had existed in 1982, they would have had legal power via a covenant to compel the Town of Comox to keep up its end of the bargain. Mack Laing deserves the same respect as Father Charles.

Can you imagine if the Comox Valley Regional District someday tries to alter the terms of the Father Charles covenant? The public outcry would be overwhelming. There should be no less of a voice in protest against the Town of Comox, if it follows Mayor Arnott’s example and pushes this case through the courts.

Everyone in the Comox Valley who values heritage, and honorable actions by locally-elected governments, should support a negotiated settlement.

That doesn’t mean the solution is simple. But it is possible if everyone comes to the table with an open mind and good intentions.

Mayor Arnott was asked for comment for this opinion article at 3:45 pm PST, but had not responded by 8:35 PST when it was posted. 

 

 

 

 

WHO WAS HAMILTON MACK LAING?

Hamilton Mack Laing was an important Canadian naturalist, photographer and writer. He moved to Comox in 1922, cleared his land and built his home from a “Stanhope” Aladdin Ready-Cut kit. In 1927, he married Ethel Hart of Portland and they established a successful and commercial orchard which included walnut, pecan, filbert, hazelnut, apple and plum trees. They also grew mushrooms and vegetables. After his wife, Ethel, died in 1944, he sold his original home, Baybrook, and built a new home, Shakesides, on the adjoining lot. He bequeathed the waterfront property to the Town of Comox and it became Mack Laing Nature Park

— excerpted from content on the Mack Laing Heritage Society‘s website

 

Click here for more on Hamilton Mack Laing and the issues with the Town or Comox

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Comox Mayor no longer interested in Mack Laing talks

Comox Mayor no longer interested in Mack Laing talks

Mack Laing, about a year before his death, July 1981, at home in Shakesides — archive photo

By George Le Masurier

At this week’s Comox Town Council meeting, a friend of the late Hamilton Mack Laing will present a business plan to restore the famous naturalist’s home, called Shakesides. He’s going to talk about how the town and the Mack Laing Heritage Society can work together to avoid big legal bills and obtain heritage status for the house as a pathway to grant funding.

He’s going to suggest that the town and the society, pitted as adversaries for several years, move forward one step at a time toward resolution.

And he believes the Shakesides restoration business plan provides a foundation from which to build a partnership.

The plan includes support from 18 individual Comox Valley construction companies willing to share expertise, labor and, in some cases, materials for the restoration of Shakesides. A real community service project, according to Olsen.

Olsen says the plan offers proof that “Shakesides can be converted at reasonable cost into a Nature House with a low environmental footprint and with modest operating budget.”

The business plan is part of a mountain of documents that the Mack Laing Heritage Society will enter into evidence, should the town continue to pursue its BC Supreme Court petition to demolish the house. The society hopes the town will abandon this costly legal action and negotiate directly with them to resolve the issue.

The previous Town Council voted to petition the court to alter the terms of the Mack Laing Trust to demolish Shakesides and replace it with a viewing platform. The MLHS believes that would constitute a breach of trust, one of several they say the town has committed since Laing died in 1982.

The society also distributed a 13-page summary of annotated documents to councillors that attempts to summarize the convoluted ways the town has mishandled its trust agreement with Mack Laing.

Mayor no longer onside

A negotiation to settle the case out of court seemed likely after last fall’s municipal elections when a majority of new councillors expressed interest in talking directly with the Mack Laing society. And that included, according to Kris Nielsen, president of the MLHS, a handshake deal with new Mayor Russ Arnott to not let the matter go back to court.

But Nielsen says Arnott has now reneged on that agreement.

At a coffee meeting on Friday, Jan. 11, Nielsen said the mayor told him that unless the MLHS would agree to Shakesides’ demolition and replacement with a viewing platform — in other words capitulating to the town’s position — he wasn’t interested in talking.

Arnott did not respond to Decafnation’s invitation to confirm or deny Nielsen’s version of events.

So unless a majority of Comox councillors vote to engage the MLHS in meaningful discussions toward a solution, it appears the town’s taxpayers will continue to fund an expensive legal process that is speculated to have topped $100,000 to date.

“The Supreme Court gave us the opportunity to speak for Mack Laing’s intent and to demonstrate how past Councils reneged on the terms of the trust from the start and continued doing so for decades,” Nielsen said in a press release from the society. “The charitable purpose of any trust has to be taken seriously. That Comox taxpayers are paying large legal fees … I find (that) particularly disturbing.”

What will council do

In one of its first meetings after the municipal elections, the new Town Council discussed three possible paths forward:

— Continue with the court action
— Negotiate with the Mack Laing Heritage Society
— Suspend the petition entirely

The council voted to delay any decision until February, although Nielsen says the mayor has already decided to press forward with its two-year old court case.

The town spent most of last year and three separate BC Supreme Court appearances trying to prevent the Mack Laing society from participating as an intervenor in the court case. But justices in all three hearings attempted to steer the town and the BC Attorney General’s office in that direction, and the town resisted.

“What evidence do you not want the court to hear,” Justice Thompson asked the town’s lawyer at one point.

Finally, Justice Thompson ordered the town to consent to intervenor status at an Oct. 16, 2018 hearing.

There is no court date scheduled to hear the case, as an out-of-court settlement was preferred.

Breaches of trust

In a package of documents distributed to councillors late last year, the Mack Laing Heritage Society pulled 13 documents from the more than 400 submitted as affidavits that they hope will clarify their case.

Here are some the highlights of the annotated documents.

The first document, from March 17, 1982, shows the Town Council chose to ignore the trust agreement by renting it as housing within 32 days of Laing’s death. And by August of that year had started spending Laing’s money inappropriately.

It wasn’t until Feb. 5, 2003 that the town’s relatively new finance director, Don Jacquest, discovered a possible breach of trust in failing to reinvestLaing’s trust fund earnings, or rental income.

Jacquest reported this discovery to Mayor Paul Ives, CAO Richard Kanigan and council. But the council of the day did nothing to correct the trust fund abuses prior to 2001.

In March of 2015, town staff recommended demolishing Shakesides and Laing’s former home, called Baybrook. Council had previously discussed removing Baybrook, but not Shakesides. In its court filings, the town has not offered any legal opinion at the time regarding their right to tear down Shakesides. The society says this is another breach of trust.

But In June 2015, the society sought a legal opinion from an independent and experienced jurist, William Pearce QC on whether the town had the authority to demolish Shakesides and Baybrook. Peace advised the town to seek court direction before any demolition occured.

“The face that the terms of the trust were breached (financially) does not detract from the fact that the home (Shakesdies) is still subject to the trust and to demolish the home those officials who approved of same could be held to account for damages caused to the home,” Pearce wrote.

He continued, “In addition I note that s122 of the Criminal code makes it an offence for an official … to commit a breach of trust. I offer no opinion whether such officials could be prosecuted for their actions but one would hope the councilors (sic) and the mayor would take legal advice before proceeding with the demolition.”

Peace also noted that if the town felt Shakesides was beyond repair, a legal doctrine known as “cy pres” — meaning a purpose which is as near as possible to the original purpose — would apply to use Laing’s first home, Baybrook, as a substitute.

But town staff did not share Pearce’s legal opinion with council — which should have known about their individual criminal accountability — until its Oct. 7, 2015 meeting — nearly three-and-a-half months later.

By then, the town had already torn down Baybrook on Aug. 6, 2015.

 

 

 

 

WHO WAS HAMILTON
MACK LAING?

Hamilton Mack Laing was an important Canadian naturalist, photographer and writer. He moved to Comox in 1922, cleared his land and built his home from a “Stanhope” Aladdin Ready-Cut kit. In 1927, he married Ethel Hart of Portland and they established a successful and commercial orchard which included walnut, pecan, filbert, hazelnut, apple and plum trees. They also grew mushrooms and vegetables.

After his wife, Ethel, died in 1944, he sold his original home, Baybrook, and built a new home, Shakesides, on the adjoining lot. He bequeathed the waterfront property to the Town of Comox and it became Mack Laing Nature Park — excerpted from content on the Mack Laing Heritage Society‘s website.

 

IMPORTANT LINKS

MackLaingSociety.ca

Comox Town Council

Russ Arnott, Mayor: rarnott@comox.ca

Alex Bissinger:
abissinger@comox.ca

Nicole Minions:
nminions@comox.ca

Patrick McKenna:
pmckenna@comox.ca

Ken Grant:
kgrant@comox.ca

Maureen Swift:
mswift@comox.ca

Stephanie McGowan:
smcgowan@comox.ca

 

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New Comox Council will protect Shakesides from leaky roof

New Comox Council will protect Shakesides from leaky roof

File photo by George Le Masurier

The Mack Laing Heritage Society has waited 20 months for Comox to respond to their request to protect Shakesides from a leaky roof and causing further water damage. The new Town Council answered at its very first meeting
By George Le Masurier

For nearly two years, the former Comox mayor and council ignored requests by the Mack Laing Heritage Society to tarp the roof of famed naturalist Mack Laing’s heritage home to prevent further water damage.

But just weeks after being elected, a new mayor and council voted unanimously to cover the roof, following another request from the Heritage Society.

A large chestnut tree near Shakesides — the name Laing gave his home on Comox Bay — has rubbed off some of the roof’s shakes during high winds, causing leaks.

MLHS President J-Kris Nielsen first made the request at a Committee of the Whole meeting on March 22, 2017. He followed that up with an April 17 letter to the town detailing a work plan and itemized material costs totalling $1,892.80. The letter was officially stamped “Received” on April 20, 2017.

But the town never responded to Nielsen, even after follow-up enquiries.

Nielsen sent a new proposal on Oct. 28, a week after this fall’s municipal elections “to stop the ongoing deterioration of the structure, Shakesides.” This one made it to the council table.

New Councillor Alex Bissinger said covering the leaky roof was an urgent issue, and asked if town staff could do the work more quickly than hiring an outside contractor. New Mayor Russ Arnott said he thought the work could be done in two weeks with an outside contractor.

Nielsen’s proposal to council also included an invitation “for negotiations between the Town of Comox and MLHS to reach an agreement (on the future of Shakesides) for the benefit of all ratepayers.”

The town petitioned the BC Supreme Court in February of 2017 to vary the terms of its trust agreement with Hamilton Mack Laing, which made the town the trustees of his house and property, with conditions. The town cited sections of the BC Community Charter for its petition.

The MLHS opposed altering the trust and applied for intervenor status in the court action. Since then, the town has engaged in a year-long expensive legal battle to prevent the heritage society from presenting its more than 400 pages of evidence to the court, without the petition yet being heard.

Although the court has now allowed the society to present its evidence, if the case goes to trial, Nielsen said the MLHS hopes to work out a solution with the town and “never go back to court.”
Council members were also presented with an MLHS business plan for restoring Shakesides as a nature house as Mack Laing specified in the 1973 indenture with the Town of Comox.

Councillor Bissinger suggested postponing a vote on meeting with the MLHS until after Christmas, and have the MLHS present their plan to council. New Councillor Pat McKenna asked if deferring to February would be okay with the court. Mayor Arnott said he thought it would.

Supreme Court Justice Douglas W. Thompson gave the town until Nov. 30 to respond to the business plan and another new affidavit, which has been extended to Jan. 16. That date that can be amended again by mutual consent.

Town Council voted to defer the society’s invitation to meet until February, when all council members would be in town.

Gordon Olsen, a leading advocate for honoring the terms of Laing’s vision for his home, recently spoke at the 2018 annual meeting of the BC Heritage and Cultural Professions about the Laing issue. His presentation was titled, “Making or breaking heritage — The legal battle for interpreting the true vision of Mack Laing’s trust in Comox.”

Olsen praised the new Town Council for addressing the issue, and said he was hopeful that meaningful conversations could now occur.

Jim Boulter contributed to the reporting of this story.

 

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Court will allow opposing evidence in Mack Laing case

Court will allow opposing evidence in Mack Laing case

A BC Supreme Court has granted the Mack Laing Heritage Society intervenor status in the Town of Comox’s application to alter the naturalist’s public trust. MLHS hopes the new council is open to out-of-court discussions

 

This article was updated Monday to include a quote from Mayor-Elect Russ Arnott

There’s renewed hope that the fate of famous Comox naturalist Hamilton Mack Laing’s public trusts and his heritage home, called Shakesides, might be settled out of court.

Over the objections of the Town of Comox, B.C. Supreme Court Justice Douglas W. Thompson recently granted the Mack Laing Heritage Society intervenor status in a case to alter the late naturalist’s public trust.

The town applied to the court in 2017 to change Laing’s trusts so it can demolish Shakesides and use the money and property Laing left the town for other purposes. The Mack Laing Heritage Society (MLHS) has opposed the town’s application.

In a court hearing Oct. 16 in Nanaimo, Justice Thompson said he thought he had given clear instructions to the town and the BC Attorney General in mid-April to sign a consent order allowing the MLHS to present their evidence “with no restrictions” at trial.

The town has refused to sign several versions of the consent order because they want to exclude much of the MLHS evidence and limit the society’s time before the court.

This time, Justice Thompson directed the parties to sign a consent order, which he framed for them, and instructed MLHS lawyer Patrick Canning to write.

As of today, the Attorney General and MLHS have agreed to the terms, but the Town of Comox has not yet accepted the order as written.

The MLHS hopes Comox will sign the consent order soon. And, now that the municipal election is over, perhaps enter into talks that prevent further costly court appearances.

“We think the court did the right thing in making MLHS (an) intervenor, and if we get to court we have faith that the right thing will happen there as well,” said MLHS President Kris Nielsen.

“However, our true hope is that the new council will work with us instead of against us to realize the terms of Laing’s will, which Comox agreed to when they took his money in trust. To that end we have a business plan and generous support from many construction and heritage professionals.” he said.

Comox Mayor-Elect Russ Arnott has left the door open for talks.

“Given that there is a new council it will be something we will be looking at. I would hope to negotiate a suitable outcome for all parties involved and the community as a whole,” he said.

FURTHER READING: Read more on the Mack Laing case 

The justice also granted additional time for the MLHS to present new evidence, despite objections from the town and the AG. He gave MLHS until Oct. 30 to file the new evidence and gave the town and the AG until Nov. 30 to file responses.

MLHS has prepared a business plan for restoring Shakesides and transforming it into the nature house envisioned by the famous Comox naturalist. The plan includes commitments from about two dozen Comox Valley construction companies to supply materials or labor at little or no cost to the town.

“We just wanted to make sure someone spoke for Mack in court,” said Gordon Olsen, a former friend of Mack Laing. “And we hope Comox doesn’t waste any more taxpayer dollars on this unnecessary litigation. Instead let’s honour the legacy of this amazing and generous man.”

There is no court date set to hear the case. It would not likely get onto the Supreme Court docket until February at the earliest.

Nielsen said that delay gives the society and the town an opportunity to hammer out a solution by the end of the year.

Background

The Town of Comox has petitioned the court to vary the terms of Laing’s trust, including the right to demolish the famous ornithologist’s iconic home, called Shakesides. The society wants to present a business plan for a future use of Shakesides that honors Laing’s agreement with the town.

The society also wants a forensic audit of the Laing financial trust.

MLHS has argued for years that the town mishandled Laing’s funds. A private citizen, Gordon Olsen, commissioned an independent audit by a Campbell River firm that concluded Laing’s trust should be worth more than $400,000 today.

The town has admitted to claims by the MLHS, individuals and other organizations that it had misspent Laing’s money. In a Nov. 29, 2017 staff report, Town CAO Richard Kannigan presented a long list of inappropriate expenditures.

In December 2017, the Town Council voted to add back nearly $200,000 into the trust.

Meanwhile, the town has racked up additional legal fees by fighting the MLHS.

Who is Mack Laing

Hamilton Mack Laing (1883-1982) was one of Canada’s foremost naturalist-collectors; he was a photographer, artist, writer and educator whose output included over 700 journal and scientific articles.

He wrote a biography of his friend Major Allan Brooks, another well-known Canadian naturalist.

Laing left several unpublished manuscripts, journals and field notes, and hundreds of letters, papers and photographs. These are available for viewing at the Royal BC Museum, the Winnipeg Archives and the Canadian National Museum of Natural History.

Specimens he collected are still in the collections of many major Canadian and American museums.

Mack Laing belonged to the Brotherhood of Venery, a secret fraternity known as the “B.” This influential group of conservationists and naturalists included such notables as Percy Taverner, Kenneth Racey, J. B. Harkin, Ian McTaggart Cowan, John Muir and Aldo Leopold.

 

Town’s Mack Laing “hub” aims to influence court

Town’s Mack Laing “hub” aims to influence court

But the real intent is ignore Mack Laing’s gift to Comox citizens

Submitted by the Mack Laing Heritage Society

On Aug. 7, 2018, the Town of Comox issued a news release about an online information hub for residents “to learn more about the Mack Laing property and its history,” though the information about the property and its history on the webpage is minimal.

The suggestion that “updates on the plans for Mack Laing Nature Park” are coming this fall in response to questions from the public is also difficult to interpret. The public has been raising questions for a long time about the plans for the park, with little response from the mayor and Town Council.

The timing of the new information hub seems to indicate that it will function mostly to justify the town’s controversial decision to have the terms of the Mack Laing Trust altered by the B.C. Supreme Court and to report on the outcome of the case.

The variance being sought by the town is better described as an overturning of the Trust.

A favourable decision will result in the destruction of Shakesides, the home Mack Laing built by hand in 1949. In leaving his property to the Town of Comox, Laing expressly stated that his home, as well as his land, were to be made available to the public for their enjoyment and education.

Yet Shakesides was not made available to the public, but was rented out to a series of tenants from 1982 to 2014 — with the proceeds going into general revenue.

Shakesides was then left vacant and unsecured, encouraging vandalism. It was boarded up in 2016 and, finally, a security fence was erected around it at the beginning of 2018.

The town’s neglect of Shakesides, like its neglect of Baybrook (Laing’s first home, which was demolished in 2015), runs counter to the terms of theLaing Trust which call for a “natural history museum”, or nature house in modern parlance – not a viewing platform.

The financial issue that has been used to justify the altering of the Laing Trust is that the money left to the town by Laing was not originally sufficient to do the necessary restoration or renovation of Shakesides. However, that $50,000 dollars would have bought a house in 1982, and even now, it has to be considered with all the interest it has earned and the income generated by the rental of Shakesides.

The Mack Laing Heritage Society restoration estimates have demonstrated that there are savings to be made by taking advantage of donated labour and materials. In any case, the financial burden to the town of restoring Shakesides is much less than the town has already spent on legal action and other costs to avoid restoring it. And this is without even considering the design, labour, and materials for the proposed viewing platform.

The Mack Lang Heritage Society has applied for standing in the Supreme Court case and is ready to add 400 pages of documents and affidavits to the court record.

A decision favourable to the town is by no means assured when the court convenes in early October. The MLHS believes that this may be a good time for the town to change course and negotiate a settlement that really “honours the conservation and educational goals laid out by Mack Laing”.

Further information about Mack Laing, his importance, and the work done by the Mack Laing Heritage Society (work recognized with a BC Heritage Award in 2016) can be found at www.macklaingsociety.ca .