Heritage BC joins fight to save Shakesides, warns AG of dangerous precedent

Heritage BC joins fight to save Shakesides, warns AG of dangerous precedent

Is this the future of Shakesides? Photo shows the site of Mack Laing’s original home, Baybrook  /  George Le Masurier photo

Mack Laing

By George Le Masurier

Demolition of the famous naturalist Mack Laing’s heritage home could have reverberations throughout British Columbia for heritage conservation.

That’s the message from the province’s leading heritage conservation organization, which has thrown its weight behind the Mack Laing Heritage Society’s effort to stop the Town of Comox from demolishing the house, known as Shakesides.

Paul Gravett, executive director of Heritage BC, has urged BC Attorney General David Eby not to condone the “demolition by neglect” practice being used by the Town of Comox.

“If the court allows the terms of Mr. Laing’s trust to be altered, a precedent could be established that would discourage future donors, who fear their wishes could be altered or ignored, from making important gifts of real property. This poses a threat to the conservation of B.C.’s heritage,” Gravett wrote in a letter to the attorney general.

“The current state of Shakesides is a form of ‘demolition by neglect.’ this is a wholly unacceptable and irresponsible practice that results in the slow degradation of our historic environment. It should not be condoned,” he wrote.

Gravett has also filed an affidavit in the BC Supreme Court case that will decide Shakesides’ fate. The Town of Comox has petitioned the court to alter the terms of their trust agreement with Mack Laing, which would allow them to demolish the house and spend the sizable monetary trust Laing left the town in other ways.

The Mack Laing Heritage Society has opposed the town’s petition and will be a party to the case when it is heard. No court date has been set, but the case will likely go to trial this fall.

Gravett said the building, which still stands on its original site, is restorable.

“The proposal (by Comox) to demolish the structure is antithetical to heritage conservation and environmental conservation,” he wrote to AG Eby. “Shakesides should not be allowed to become landfill.”

In his affidavit, Gravett notes that he urged the town two years ago to reconsider its pursuit of court permission to demolish Shakesides. At the same time, he offered the town his organization’s “advice, capacity building training and assistance with conservation planning” to save the building.

Gravett also offered financial assistance through grants from the Heritage Legacy Fund program.

The Town of Comox rejected both offers.

“The replacement of Shakesides with the proposed viewing platform is inappropriate,” Gravett wrote to AG Eby. “The viewing platform would not stand as a memorial to Mr. Laing or the values of a community, but as the neglect of our history and heritage and the disregard of a philanthropist’s wishes.”

The BC Association of Heritage Professionals has also written to the attorney general in opposition to the Town of Comox petition.

 

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BC heritage professionals lobby cabinet ministers to conserve Shakesides

BC heritage professionals lobby cabinet ministers to conserve Shakesides

Hamilton Mack Laing at home in Shakesides during his last years  /  Archive photo

Mack Laing

By George Le Masurier

The president of the BC Association of Heritage Professionals has lobbied the provincial Attorney-General and the minister of Forests, Lands and Natural Resource Operations to oppose the Town of Comox’s application to vary the charitable purpose trust of Hamilton Mack Laing.

Elana Zysblt, a Vancouver-based heritage consultant, says in letters sent Tuesday to AG David Eby and FLNROD Minister Doug Donaldson that the conservation of Laing’s home, known as Shakesides, “represents heritage values that extend much further than the boundaries of the Town of Comox.”

Heritage issues in British Columbia fall under the FLNROD portfolio and are managed by Roger Tinney.

Writing on behalf of the province’s heritage professionals, Zysblat expresses concern that municipalities such as Comox might be allowed to use a section (184) of the Community Charter to ignore and alter substantial gifts of money and property donated to the public in good faith.

FURTHER READING: Attorney general takes West Vancouver to court for breach of trust

The Community Charter sets out municipalities’ core areas of authority, such as municipal services, public health regulation and entering into agreements. Under section 184 if, in the opinion of a council, the terms or trusts imposed by a donor or will-maker are no longer in the best interests of the municipality, the council may apply to the Supreme Court to vary the terms of the trust.

This is the crux of the town’s application to vary the Laing trust and demolish Shakesides.

Gordon Olsen, a member of the Mack Laing Heritage Society, says the significance of Zysblat’s letters is a warning to the minister about the serious precedent the Shakesides case could set.

“If municipalities are allowed to ignore terms of agreements that` they have freely entered into that will have a chilling effect on future donators across the province,” Olsen told Decafnation.

But that isn’t the only point Zysblat makes in her letters. The Association of Heritage Professionals also believe Shakesides has significant heritage values and remains, despite the town’s neglect, in good condition for rehabilitation.

“In 2017, a Statement of Significance was completed to describe the heritage values of the place,” Zysblat wrote. “A condition assessment of the historic structure was also conducted in the same year by an independent heritage professional and structural engineer. The assessment concluded that the building is in good condition to be rehabilitated for adaptive re-use as envisioned by Hamilton Mack Laing.”

The Town of Comox has not requested any professional assessment of the building. But Comox Parks Manager Al Fraser told a public meeting in April that only a “cursory report” has been done, which he admitted was “not comprehensive.” Fraser called it a “soft pass.”

“Let’s say there’s still considerable work to be done in that regard,” Fraser told the public meeting.

As of July, the town still has not done that work and has yet to acknowledge the professional assessment by a structural engineer completed in 2017, according to Zysblat.

She also informs the two provincial government cabinet ministers that the town seems uninterested in other perspectives on Shakesides.

“Gord Macdonald, Heritage BC chair, shares our belief that the state heritage value of Shakesides demands that (Laing’s) former home be conserved for future generations,” Zysblat wrote. “And that Heritage BC has committed to providing their assistance, at no charge, to the Town of Comox, for the duration of the process to repurpose Shakesides, and guarantees the town a provincial grant through the Heritage Legacy Fund Heritage Conservation Program.

“To this date, the Town of Comox has ignored this offer by Heritage BC.”

For more stories about Mack Laing, the Town of Comox and the legal proceedings, go here

 

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BC attorney general appears to argue both sides of cases similar to Mack Laing battle

BC attorney general appears to argue both sides of cases similar to Mack Laing battle

BC Archive photo

Mack Laing

By George Le Masurier

What should Comox Valley residents think about the BC Attorney General’s office arguing two different sides of similar cases?

The attorney general of BC announced last week that it would take the district of West Vancouver to court because the municipality allegedly broke an agreement with two residents who had bequeathed their property to the district.

But in the Comox Valley, the Attorney General’s office is defending the Town of Comox for breaking its agreement with Hamilton Mack Laing.

And it gets more interesting. The lead counsel for the AG’s office in both cases is Sointula Kirkpatrick.

FURTHER READING: More on Mack Laing 

According to a report from Glacier Media, which publishes several BC newspapers including the North Shore News, the AG’s lawsuit asks the BC Supreme Court to rule that West Vancouver is in breach of the trust.

Pearley and Noreen Berissenden gave their property to the district of West Vancouver in the late 1980s. The couple specified that the property was “to be used and maintained by it (the district) for public park purposes.”

When Mack Laing died in 1982, he left the town his waterfront property, his home named Shakesides, and the residue cash from his estate “for the improvement and development of my home as a natural history museum.”

The district of West Vancouver never followed through on their agreement with the Berissendens, and instead rented out the couple’s home on the property from 2001 to 2018. And in 2017, the district applied to vary the trust to subdivide about half of the property into building lots.

The Town of Comox likewise never followed through on the terms of its trust agreement with Laing, and also rented out Laing’s home for almost 30 years. In 2017, the town applied to vary the trust in order to demolish Shakesides.

AG lawyer Kirkpatrick alleges West Vancouver is in breach of the Berissenden’s trust for failing to make their property a park and for profiting from the rent, according to the Glacier Media report. Kirkpatrick has asked for an accounting of all all rent money received and that it be put back into the trust.

As well, Kirkpatrick, on behalf of the AG’s office, wants the court to order West Vancouver to make the property a park.

But Kirkpatrick has taken the exact opposite view when it comes to the Town of Comox versus Mack Laing.

In the Comox Valley case, Kirkpatrick has defended the town’s failure to make Laing’s home a natural history museum for public enjoyment and for profiting from renting out Shakesides, even though there hasn’t been an independent accounting of those funds and not all of the rent money has been returned to the trust, according to the Mack Laing Heritage Society.

Kirkpatrick has not responded to an email request asking her to explain the differences in the two cases.

She did, however, request a nearly five-month delay for the Supreme Court trial that will determine the fate of Shakesides. Kirkpatrick requested the delay in early May, well before filing the lawsuit against West Vancouver.

At the time, members of the Mack Laing society said they hoped the delay meant the Attorney General’s office was less certain about the merits of the town’s application to alter the trust and that it had new concerns about how Comox councils and staff have mishandled Laing’s gifts to the community.

Now they hope the West Vancouver lawsuit signals a change in direction at the AG’s office over municipal applications to vary citizen trusts. It is part of the Attorney General’s mandate to provide oversight of charitable purpose trusts.

No court date to hear the Shakesides case has been scheduled.

 

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Harley-riding Hamilton Mack Laing fills the hall after 104 years

Harley-riding Hamilton Mack Laing fills the hall after 104 years

Archive photos courtesy of the Mack Laing Heritage Society

Mack Laing

By Guest Writer

Che Guevara’s Motorcycle Diaries may be a second best to local legend, Hamilton Mack Laing’s account of his motorcycle ride from New York to the San Francisco World Exhibition of 1915.

One hundred and two years after he wrote The Transcontinentalist, this local legendary naturalist’s account of his journey on an early 14 horsepower Harley Davidson continues to fascinate Canadians, some of whom` easily filled the Courtenay Museum’s auditorium this week to hear readings from the new edition of his memoir by author Trevor Marc Hughes.

Hughes presented an animated and illustrated presentation of Hamilton Mack Laing’s previously unpublished memoir, under its new title, Riding the Continent, published by Ronsdale Press, and which is to be released July 15.

Author Trevor Mark Hughes reading excerpts at the Courtenay Museum this week

The lecture presented some of the rich silverpoint photos taken by Laing. The photos reveal a young Laing fresh out of the Pratt Institute Art programme as an early Ansel Adams, pushing the limits of wilderness landscape photography as an art form.

Laing, who built two famous houses of certified national heritage interest in Comox — Baybrook and Shakesides — lived here for many decades (1922-1982).

He was an illustrious early British Columbia writer and naturalist in his own right and is increasingly recognized for his many contributions to Canada’s scientific history. Notably as the mentor of Dr. MacTaggart-Cowan, who was himself the mentor of David Suzuki, and as an early influence on no less than the late Farley Mowat.

Although Laing was a giant in natural history, he is less known as a Harley-Davidson rider. Laing described himself in his mid-30s as a “motorcycle-naturalist.”

For several years beginning in 1914, Laing used the motorcycle to access the natural world, believing it gave him a distinct advantage over other forms of transportation. During this period in his life, he would take on a transcontinental journey, riding across the United States from Brooklyn to Oakland in 1915.

In his presentation of excerpts from Riding the Continent, Hughes presented the story of a pioneering motorcyclist and independently thinking naturalist, as well as an unusual road trip As a well-published motorcycle enthusiast and historian, Hughes ranks Laing’s account as “perhaps the best piece of motorcycle-writing” known to him.

As Laing put it, “the lure of the unending road is a call that will not be denied.”

Hughes pointed out that Laing’s tale presents his experience of a pre- First World War America unspoiled by real roads or automobiles. He meticulously presents the beauty of North America’s bird life, describes the sights, scenery and people he encountered, and takes us along for the ride on a 1915 Harley-Davidson he named Barking Betsy.

As North-America is becoming increasingly conscious of its natural heritage, this is undoubtedly the first of many books by and about Laing that will be coming forth this decade. Hughes’ excellent presentation made a great case that this book is a must for the bookshelves of Comox Valley residents wishing to understand Canada’s history.

Laing’s legacy lives on in his gifting of his house and property to the Town of Comox as a nature preserve. Laing left this gift to the Town of Comox in trust, and it is to be hoped that the Town of Comox will one day find the wisdom of respecting this important national treasure.

Riding the Continent will be available for purchase after July 15 ($19.95, Ronsdale Press).

 

 

WHO WAS 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.

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Comox failed to consult with KFN over Mack Laing Park

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AG delays Shakesides court date by nearly five months

AG delays Shakesides court date by nearly five months

File photo of Shakesides  /  George Le Masurier photo

Mack Laing

By George Le Masurier

In a surprising new development, the BC Attorney General has requested a delay in the Supreme Court trial that will determine the fate of Shakesides, the heritage home of Comox pioneer Hamilton Mack Laing.

The Town of Comox had hoped to get its petition to alter Laing’s Trust and tear down his house before the court during its June session. The new delay means the case likely won’t be heard until October.

The town has already requested two three-month delays. The first came after the 2018 municipal election and pushed any possible court date to after Feb. 6, 2019. Then, Town Council asked for another three-month “abeyance,” which expires May 22.

Now, the Attorney General’s office is asking for a further delay of about five months.

A letter to the town and the Mack Laing Heritage Society, which is an opposing party to the case, announced the delay, but gave no specific reason or purpose for it.

Members of the Laing society hope it means the Attorney General’s office is less certain about the merits of the town’s application to alter the trust, and have new concerns about how Comox councils and staff have mishandled Laing’s gifts to the community.

It’s also not known what role the K’omoks First Nations intends to play in this controversy, which has pitted the town against voices for heritage preservation, moral obligation and civil law issues surrounding how local governments should handle citizen’s endowments.

Last month, K’omoks Chief Nicole Rempel expressed her disappointment that the Town Council had made plans for the Shakesides site, which is traditional and sacred land for First Nation’s people, “without prior consultation.” Rempel asked for a halt to all planning and other work until “meaningful consultation has taken place.”

But the town proceeded to refine its plan to replace the house with a viewing platform, which it finally approved this week.

According to the new deadlines for the Supreme Court trial, the heritage society has until Aug. 7 to submit any final documents into evidence. They have already submitted more than 500 pages of affidavits and other documents.

The town and the Attorney General then have until Sept. 4 to respond to those documents.

Another issue that might be weighing on the Attorney General’s office is how a judgement in the Shakesides case could affect other municipalities and other charitable purpose trusts across the province.

Have other municipalities mishandled trusts? How has the Attorney General’s office dealt with those issues, if they were aware of them? How widespread is the altering of trusts freely agreed to by generous citizens and local governments?

Because there is no provincial registry of charitable purpose trusts, the Attorney General’s office may not have known about the Laing Trust until the town petitioned to alter it, some 35 years later.

It is part of the Attorney General’s mandate to provide oversight of such trusts.

 

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Comox failed to consult with KFN over Mack Laing Park

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Comox failed to consult with KFN over Mack Laing Park

Comox failed to consult with KFN over Mack Laing Park

Naturalist Hamilton Mack Laing tending trees in his nut farm, now called the Orchard Park area / Archives photo

Mack Laing

By George Le Masurier

Now that Chief Nicole Rempel has made it clear the Town of Comox failed to properly consult the K’omoks First Nations about plans to demolish Mack Laing’s heritage home, called Shakesides, and construct something else, a serious question arises:

With whom did town staff and council members consult?

We know that neither the town or Comox Council consulted in any formal way with the Mack Laing Heritage Society, which is the only other local party to the legal action to demolish the house.

We know the town did not consult with Lacasse Construction, the well-known Comox Valley construction company that has volunteered to take on the restoration of Shakesides, or with any of the two dozen other civic-minded building and architectural professionals.

We know the town didn’t consult with about a dozen Mark Isfeld High School students who wrote letters to the mayor and council supporting the preservation of Laing’s house on Comox Bay.

In fact, as it turns out, the town and council didn’t formally consult with anyone other than themselves.

You might say a recent public engagement workshop on the topic was a form of consultation. But because participants were allowed to hear about only one single possibility for the building’s future, it doesn’t count.

Still, even disregarding the town’s intentional lack of consultation, it’s a mighty big oversight to not consult with the K’omoks First Nation.

“It is therefore with disappointment … that this proposal and future improvements to the Mack laing Parks has already been … decided upon without prior consultation with KFN, Chief Rempel wrote. “The large shell midden here is of significant cultural importance to KFN. It is the resting place for many KFN ancestors. This significance is well-recognized.”

KFN requested a halt to all planning and other work until “meaningful consultation has taken place.”

And it wasn’t the first time KFN has expressed concern about the town’s activities on the waterfront property Laing bequeathed to the Town of Comox.

“We have previously written to Mayor Paul Ives on the importance of this site and area is to the KFN,” Rempel wrote.

KFN expressed concerns roughly four years ago when the town demolished Laing’s original home, called Baybrook, which is just across Brooklyn Creek from Shakesides. In particular, KFN noted the town had erected a bench on top of a midden.

Informed local people know — or should know — this area is an important and sacred area for KFN.

A 1990 archaeological investigation for the archaeology branch of the Ministry of Municipal Affairs, found that First Nations people “occupied the two kilometre-long Comox Harbour Site, which lies in the lee of Goose Spit” for “at least the last 2,000 years.”

It’s not like the town hasn’t had the time. They have been planning to demolish Shakesides for years. Consulting with KFN is the first thing they should have done.

To make matters worse, during a recent Committee of the Whole meeting, Mayor Russ Arnott claimed he had spoken with KFN. He gave the impression to some that the K’omoks were duly informed and on board with the town’s plans.

But that’s not the case, according to KFN Chief Rempel.

Arnott’s idea of collaboration and consultation appears to be that “when we’ve decided what we’re going to do there, we’ll let you know.”

That approach is understandably offensive to KFN.

The protection of archaeological sites is “a moral and spiritual obligation” for KFN people, Rempel said. And she cited the United Nations Declarations of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and how other jurisdictions, such as the City of Vancouver, have honored it proactively.

“It is KFN’s perspective that all Local Governments should follow these examples, and take the management and preservation of archaeological sites much more seriously,” she wrote to Arnott and council members.

Ditto to that. And we would add the management and preservation of “all sites with a heritage value.”

 

 

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More Mack Laing

Comox failed to consult with KFN over Mack Laing Park

Now that Chief Nicole Rempel has made it clear the Town of Comox failed to properly consult the K’omoks First Nations about plans to demolish Mack Laing’s heritage home, a serious question arises: With whom did town staff and council members consult?

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