By Nikki Jamieson
Sunny South News
Citizens for a Better Coaldale are raising concerns over recent sales of town-owned land.
One sale they highlighted was the sale of the Corney Martens property, In a letter to town council dated Sept. 29 that CfaBC said hadn’t made it into council’s Oct. 13 regular meeting agenda, Barb Viergutz, on behalf of the Martens family, wrote they were hurt and disappointed to learn the town had sold a 21-acre parcel they had purchased from their “Coaldale Girl” mother in 2018.
According to the letter, when the acreage had to be sold in 2018, the mother hoped the town would buy the land and develop it, with the proceeds from the lot sales going back to the town and benefiting the citizens of Coaldale. While they could have sold the land to a private developer and make a lot more money, they wanted to honour the mother’s wish.
During negotiations, they discussed with the town about the revenue potential, the land’s legacy and the potential of a small memorial for Ray Renfrow, their grandfather who was the original owner of the land, and naming a street after the Martens or installing a plaque there. “With a handshake and a promise”, according to the letter, the land was sold to the town.
On Sept. 28, 2020, they found out that the town had sold the land to a private developer.
“Although the memorial would have been icing on the cake, the true legacy was the revenue from the sale of lots coming back to the citizens of Coaldale instead of private developers pockets,” read the letter. “Knowing full well that this was the town’s land to do with as they see fit and that the control of the land is no longer in their hands, we do not expect that a developer would provide any form of a legacy for the family.”
Jack Van Rijn, spokesperson for Citizens for a Better Coaldale, said he had concerns with how the sale was done.
“This is not about who brought it, this is about how the town went about it so secretively,” said Van Rijn.
Van Rijn said that the most transparent way to sell land is to advertise it in the local paper, saying that they’re going to tender this property out, and to put a for-sale sign up on the property to give everybody an equal opportunity to take a look at it and put a bid in. This, he said, was not done in this case.
Coaldale Mayor Kim Craig said the town follows the obligations set forth in the Municipal Government Act when buying or selling land, and the precise process they follow depends the situation and a number of variables, including timeline, price and alignment with council’s Strategic Plan, and they solicit the assistance of legal counsel and ensure transactions are made in compliance with legislation.
“Over the past three council terms while being mayor, it’s been no secret that Coaldale is open for business,” said Craig. “There’s a standing invite for the private sector to come forward with investment proposals that provide jobs, and increased tax assessment, for the community. There’s been a number of successes with the approach we’ve taken with real estate over the past couple of council terms.
“(Section) 197(2) of the Municipal Government Act and Division 2 of Part 1 of the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act indicate that the details of land negotiations, and the business interests of third parties, be discussed and held in private. This is an obligation that we must maintain as a council. When a buyer or investor of a particular piece of property is ready to announce the details of their project or development, we will join them in facilitating those discussions at that time.”
Craig confirmed that the town has sold the property of 2301-30th Street, and other than what was stated publicly by the previous land owners, said that the town does not, “as a matter of practice, speak openly about discussions it has with individuals looking to honour their family”, although council is committed to maintaing their word and working with individuals who are interested in these things.
In addition to the sale of the Corney Martens property, Van Rijn said they had concerns with the sale of other properties in town that were considered potential site for the new high school/rec centre, such as the former Owl’s Nest Campground – or site F – and land the town owned next to the Hoppy Unger property, known as site E, which Van Rijn said would have been “perfect” for the new school.
“They are secretly trying to get rid of all the school sites,” said Van Rijn. “They are secretly selling potential school sites off to private individuals, and I have no concern with whoever is buying these parcels of land – that’s not my concern. My concern is how the town of Coaldale is not being transparent when it comes to selling publicly owned land within the municipality of Coaldale.
Van Rijn stressed that he is not against a new school for the town, and a new school was a “no brainer” for him, but he is concerned about how the town did the “procedural components” when making their decision, noting that town CAO Kalen Hastings had told media last year that the town did not consult with people as they had already made up their mind on the site.
In September 2018, a few months after deciding to pursue building a joint new high school and rec centre, the Town of Coaldale and Palliser Regional School Division learned the province was hosting a Value Management session for the evaluation of a new high school in Coaldale in late October, that could result in an earlier funding announcement. Rather than declining the opportunity – and risk the province evaluating another school and having to wait five years for an announcement – the town decided to put together a proposal to meet the short timeline and stay in the running for a potential earlier new school announcement. This meant the site selection process for the two facilities did not follow the typical process, which includes community consultation, as town council had to make a decision on the site fast.
When asked about the sales of properties that were listed as alternative school sites, Craig reiterated that the town made no secret they were open for business.
“If an investor comes forward with a proposal that pays fair market value for the land, who will be making a major infrastructure investment in the community, who will bring jobs and additional tax assessment, we of course, as a Council, will listen and waste no timing facilitating such investment. It’s good for the community, and good for the region. We will continue to be resilient and resourceful as a Council to ensure our great community continues to outperform the barriers brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Craig. “The town did not approach the buyers that recently came forward to acquire Townowned properties; we simply responded to proposals we felt were in the best interests of the community. We are delighted that Coaldale continues to be an attractive place for investment.”
Craig noted that the town has addressed the school site matter in previous meetings, and urged people to consult the 640 page report that was presented at council’s regular June 10 meeting, which features a timeline of the key procedural steps and diligence measures pertaining to the site selection.
At that meeting, council also reaffirmed it’s site selection decision, and passed a motion to uphold the Joint High School (grades 7-12)/Multi-Use Recreation Facility project site that was approved in the 2019-2021 Capital Budget, and to direct administration to take steps to proceed with the following: design and construction of the Multi-Use Recreation Centre on the southeast portion of the Townowned parcel of land legally described as SW 15-9-20 W4 (subdivisions 3 and 6); continued collaboration with Alberta Transportation and CP Rail on the design and construction of a fully signalized intersection at the intersection of HWY 3 and 30th Street, as well as the installation of a safety fence along the HWY 3 corridor; design and construction of paved and detached pathways along 30th Street, 18th Avenue and 16th Avenue, as well as the addition of at-grade pedestrian crossing improvements; further, that Council direct administration to undertake, in tandem with Palliser Regional School Division and the Town’s architectural design consultants, community consultation initiatives to determine the amenities to be included in the multi-use recreation facility.
Council has since moved on from site selection discussion and are directing their resources to project execution. Most recently, council was presented with a project update at their regular Oct. 26 council meeting, which can be viewed online.
Van Rijn also pointed to the Civic Square project, where he said the town has spent more than $2.2 million in buying land without talking to anyone about it.
“To turn around and buy $2.2 million worth of property, put five businesses out of business – some of them decided to retire, they don’t have the fight left in them anymore, some moved to Lethbridge – without even talking to the general public. That’s absurd, and that’s no way for anyone to run a municipality.”
Craig said the town anticipates to release details about the Civic Square project in the coming weeks.