Rather than create a period of community reconciliation over the 37-year mishandling of the Mack Laing Trust, the Town of Comox has used its self-imposed 90-day abeyance of legal action to ignore opposing visions for the famed naturalist’s park and heritage home.
In doing so, the town has also created a rift within the Town Council.
It now appears that, despite the expectations of the public and some council members, the Town of Comox never intended to discuss options for saving the famous naturalist’s home, called Shakesides, during the abeyance.
Since the Feb. 6 Town Council meeting when the abeyance was passed on a 6-1 vote, the town has not entertained any ideas other than its original plan to demolish the house and erect a viewing platform.
The town has not held any good faith discussions with the Mack Laing Heritage Society to search for mutually agreeable ideas that could avert a lengthy and costly trial at the B.C. Supreme Court. Nor has it called for an external, independent audit to determine an accurate accounting of the trust’s current value.
This approach appears to be driven primarily by Mayor Russ Arnott, who cast the only vote against creating the 90-day abeyance.
In public communications, the office of Arnott and town Chief Administrative Officer Richard Kanigan has suggested that because council voted on March 6 to continue “with the modification of the trust in its current format or a modified proposal,” that, therefore, saving Shakesides is no longer an option.
Arnott reinforced that interpretation at last week’s Committee of the Whole meeting and public engagement workshop on visions for Mack Laing Park. Arnott was asked by a Comox resident why the workshop was limited to considering only a single vision — the viewing platform.
“Council voted for modifying the trust. We’re moving forward, not going backwards,” Arnott said.
But not all council members agree with Arnott’s interpretation.
“Speaking for myself, that is not what I voted in support of,” Councillor Alex Bissinger said in an email response to Decafnation.
“My intent with that motion was from the understanding that anything that defers from 1. restoring the house and converting it to a nature museum 2. having an onsite caretaker 3. having the property in that exact location and 4. storing (Mack Laing) artifacts in said museum, would require modifications to the trust, therefore needing to proceed with the court action,” she said.
Bissinger brought the motion forward to council.
“I am still of the opinion and mindset that saving Shakesides is an option, and from the workshop held last week an interesting option came to light, which was to handle it all as a community project. I have emailed the CAO and Council such that this option be discussed in our RCM (regular council meeting) Wednesday,” she said.
Councillor Stephanie has a similar perspective.
“Due to the specifics of the trust, I believe it is going to have to be modified in some way as I don’t believe archives and certain things are feasible and safe to keep on site without risk of damage. However, this vote, in my mind, did not mean Shakesides being restored was not an option,” she said in an email response.
“There seems to be some confusion, however, and as a team, (we) will need to clarify, both with each other and the public,” McGowan said.
Councillor Nicole Minions declined to comment, but did say, “We will be discussing Mack Laing and the Public Session during our upcoming Regular Council meeting this Wednesday, April 3rd, which will open communication of our Council business in the public.”
Arnott did not respond to a request to comment for this story.
What is the value of Laing’s trust?
The exact current value of the financial trust Mack Laing left to the Town of Comox has never been conclusively determined by an external audit.
The town claims Laing left $48,000, an amount disputed by by the Mack Laing Heritage Society. They say the amount was about $60,000.
After the town confessed to spending trust money inappropriately since the world-renowned naturalist died in 1982, they added funds that brought the total to $261,474. But according to an independent audit commissioned by Comox resident Gordon Olsen several years ago, the trust should be valued closer to $500,000.
The discrepancies stem from how the money was invested, the revenue received from renting the house for more than 30 years, missing funds from the sale of Laing artwork and donations to a never established Art Trust, unrecognized inappropriate expenditures and other miscellaneous items.
Only an external audit by an external accounting firm, such as Deloitte or KPMG, could bring closure to that issue.
Is the building worth saving?
Those who support tearing down Shakesides and replacing it with a viewing stand believe the building is not worth restoring. The Mack Laing society disagrees.
At last week’s public workshop, Comox Resident John Tayless noted there was an assumption being made at the meeting that Shakesides could not be saved.
“But other engineers say it can and that the building is recoverable,” he said.
Asked how the town determined the building wasn’t restorable, Comox Parks Manager Al Fraser said a “cursory report” was done, but he admitted it was “not comprehensive.” Fraser preferred to call the report a “soft pass.”
“Let’s say there’s still considerable work to be done in that regard,” Fraser told the audience.
And later when MLHS President Kris Nielsen asked if the town had commissioned any professional assessments of the heritage value of Shakesides, Fraser said, “no.”
The Mack Laing society has organized more than two dozen community volunteers from the construction industry and created a business plan for restoring Shakesides as a community project.
Comox Heritage Register
Councillor Stephanie McGowan gave notice of a motion expected at this week’s council meeting to establish a Comox Heritage Register. Comox is the only municipality in the Mid- and North Island that doesn’t already have a heritage register.
Registering buildings with heritage value opens up a broad range of potential funding for maintenance and capital improvements. Heritage sites like the Filberg Lodge and The Little Red Church could benefit.
The Mack Laing Heritage Society has already paid a provincial heritage consultant to complete a Statement of Significance for Shakesides and Heritage BC has promised substantial grant funding for its restoration.
The chairman of Heritage B.C., a provincial agency committed to “conservation and tourism, economic and environmental sustainability, community pride and an appreciation of our common history,” believes the heritage value of Shakesides demands that Laing’s former home should be “conserved for … future generations” and that the Town of Comox should “use the building in ways that will conserve its heritage value.”
Heritage B.C. has also offered its assistance, at no charge, to the Town of Comox, for the duration of the process to repurpose Shakesides, and has all but guaranteed a provincial grant through the Heritage Legacy Fund Heritage Conservation program.