The Mack Laing Heritage Society has won a major legal battle to force the Town of Comox to honor trust agreements with the famous naturalist
AB.C. Supreme Court judge has facilitated an agreement so the Mack Laing Heritage Society can present its evidence in a case that will decide the future of the famous ornithologist’s iconic home and clarify the status of his trust agreements.
In a hearing in Nanaimo this week (April 17), Justice Douglas W. Thompson asked lawyers for the town and the B.C. Attorney General’s office why they objected to the court hearing the “armful of evidence” submitted by the Mack Laing Heritage Society (MLHS).
Justice Thompson then pointedly asked the Attorney General’s representative how she could fulfill her obligations as a “defender of public trusts” without all the information in the case.
And he asked the town’s lawyer, of the Vancouver-bassed Young Anderson law firm, what questions the town did not want MLHS to ask in court.
By the end of the five-hour court session, the town’s lawyer and the AG’s office had agreed to grant intervenor status to the MLHS with “no restrictions whatsoever” on the evidence the society can introduce into the proceedings, which will be held in late May.
It was a major win for the MLHS and a defeat in round one for the Town of Comox.
The town has petitioned the court to vary the terms of the Mack Laing trusts — there are three — in order to demolish Laing’s heritage home, which he willed to the town, and use the money Laing also left for purposes other than those the acclaimed naturalists intended.
The MLHS had sought official standing in the case. “Standing” meant that the society could introduce nine affidavits totally about 500 pages of evidence that purport to negate the basis of the town’s petition, and, if successful, could have recovered its legal costs from the town.
By granting the MLHS intervenor status with “no restrictions,” Justice Thompson has cleared the way for the court to consider all of the society’s evidence. But if MLHS succeeds in defeating the town’s petition, it will not be able recover its court costs.
MLHS President J-Kris Nielsen said, “”Had we been offered this deal months ago, we would gladly have taken it. All we wanted was the chance to present the evidence we have collected from a wide array of sources and individuals, together with the historical facts from these sources, seen through different eyes, plus ask questions in order to get answers from town officials.
“The justice recognized the value of these different documents early, and made it clear that he did not see why this information should not be at the disposal of the court?,” Nielsen said. “Now our 11 affidavits and 120 or so exhibits are fully vested in the upcoming Supreme Court Hearing.”
According to Nielsen, the “genius of Justice Thompson” showed up in the last half hour of the April 17 court session, when he maneuvered the proceedings around with “carrot and stick tactics” to bring about a conclusion, surely saving a full day of court time from playing out.
“It was all done with one question (to the Town of Comox and the AG representative),” Nielsen said. “What question is it you want the society NOT to ask?”
Asked if he cared to comment on the outcome of the court session, Comox Mayor Paul Ives said, “Not really — the matter has been adjourned to the week of May 28 in Nanaimo.”
There could still be a mediated settlement in the case if the town decides to cap its incurred legal expenses — speculated to be heading toward $75,000.
And it’s still unclear whether the MLHS, or other community organizations or individuals, could file civil lawsuits against the town for breaches of trust.
Background of the case
The town has petitioned the court, under a specific section of the Community Charter, to vary the “terms applicable to money held in trust if a municipal council considers the terms or trust to no longer be in the best interests of the municipality.”
MLHS wants the court to see painstakingly detail how the town has misspent Laing’s money, disregarded the intention of his three trusts over a 36-year period and misstated facts to the court corroborated by its own documents.
The town passed a resolution 32 days after Laing’s death in February of 1982 to rent Shakesides and several months later, in August, started spending the rent money and interest earned on Laing’s cash gift on items beyond the scope of the trust agreements.
One pressing issue is whether the town can demolish Laing’s home, which he gave to the Comox community for the purpose of establishing a natural history museum.
But MLHS also wants the court to order a forensic audit of the Laing trusts.
MLHS contends the town has misstated the amount of cash Laing left them after his death in February of 1982 and that the trust today should be worth up to nearly $500,000.
Can Shakesides be restored?
According to Guerdon “Bunker” Killam, a developer and home builder, who lived in Shakesides for nine years, from 1982 to 1990, the house was in good condition when he moved in and he continued to improve it during his tenure.
Killam said Shakesides is “a very well built small house in excellent condition.”
But during the town’s 36-year stewardship, the house’s conditions has declined. The town even rejected an offer by MLHS to provide free labor to install a waterproof covering over the leaking roof until the court is settled.
Meanwhile, a number of Comox Valley businesses have added their names to the list of those willing to donate time and/or services to renovate Shakesides.
According to Gordon Olson, a friend of Laing in his latter years, Lacasse Construction has committed to donating some work to restoring the house. Comox Valley architect Tom Dishlevoy will donate some design work, and Three Oaks Flooring will donate labor for refinishing the house’s wood floors.
Masonry trades people and window specialists have also made commitments.