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Chelsea Foundation fights back against municipal expropriation

February 28th,2024 | Municipal News, News

he Chelsea Foundation has owned and operated recreational land in the centre of Chelsea village for the last 20 years. Foundation president Fiona Duguid told the Low Down, “Thousands of hours of sweat equity [was] provided by community members to literally ‘break ground’ for the soccer fields to be developed.” Soccer des Collines photo

The Chelsea Foundation wants to send a clear message to the municipality: their land, which has been selected as the site for a new French-language elementary school, is not for sale. 

Chelsea Foundation vice president Rick Traer recently told the Low Down that the municipality only has two options: to look for another site or go down the path of expropriation. The Foundation, he asserted, is not looking to negotiate with the municipality for its land. 

He added that the organization has been frustrated with the municipality’s “almost shocking lack of transparency, community engagement and due-diligence” throughout the process thus far.

Last fall, the municipality of Chelsea announced the location of a new French school set to open in 2026, which sparked confusion and concern among Foundation members: two-thirds of the chosen land is owned by the charity and currently in regular, year-round use as a recreational hub for the community. Traer, along with other members of the Chelsea Foundation, have launched a concerted effort to “raise public awareness and understanding of the Foundation’s purpose and what it’s been able to accomplish for the community at large.” Traer said the Foundation also wants to share with the public “what we’re potentially about to lose here if this process runs its course.” 

Their intention, Traer explained, is to encourage “the municipality to take a more consultative, expertise-based approach” to the issue.

Part of this effort includes writing public letters addressed to Chelsea council.

Traer said he is concerned about the lack of corporate knowledge among members of the council and municipal staff. 

“I can understand the position of the councillors because they are just getting the information that is fed to them on this topic,” he said. “If you don’t have a grasp of the history and what it took to get to this point in the first place, then how can you appreciate the toil of literally hundreds if not thousands of volunteers who have invested their time, energy and expertise into what we have here today?”

To help educate elected officials and the public, Traer said the Foundation has been putting together material about the Foundation’s history, which dates back to the mid-90s. 

The land was originally gifted to the Chelsea Foundation more than 20 years ago by long-time Chelsea landowner Elizabeth Meredith with the requirement that it remain recreational land in perpetuity. 

The land includes multiple soccer fields, a parking lot and pump track. The municipality has earmarked one of the soccer fields and the adjoining parking lot for the school site. 

“Over $600,000 was fundraised from the community to cover land transfer costs, road development and field development,” the Foundation’s president Fiona Duguid told the Low Down in November 2023, adding, “Thousands of hours of sweat equity [was] provided by community members to literally ‘break ground’ for the soccer fields to be developed.” 

Duguid added that, since 1998, registration data suggests that an average of 556 Chelsea soccer players used each of the Foundation’s five fields in the village. This number does not reflect the frequent use of the fields for summer camps, tournaments and other events, Duguid explained. 

The field that the municipality will acquire is known as “number four” and is the second largest of all the fields that the local soccer association, Soccer des Collines, uses in Chelsea.

‘An unbelievable precedent’

Spokesperson for Chelsea, Maude Prud’homme-Séguin, previously told the Low Down that “discussions with the Foundation are aimed at reaching agreement on a sale price in order to purchase the land,” adding that the municipality has no intention to expropriate the land from the Foundation. 

But Traer is clear that the Foundation is not interested in negotiating. 

He explained that early on the municipality offered to relocate one of the Foundation’s soccer fields to a plot in the Chelsea Creek subdivision. 

“We’re not in the business of land flips,” Traer stated flatly. 

“We’re a board of directors who have a fiduciary duty to protect the lands that were gifted to the Foundation,” he explained. “We don’t have the authority to negotiate the dissolution of the land under our stewardship.” 

If the municipality were to expropriate the Foundation, Traer said, it would create a “media maelstrom” and “set an unbelievable precedent.” He added that, to the best of the Foundation’s knowledge, this will be the first time in Canadian history that a registered charity has been expropriated by a municipality. “What’s to stop future councils from forcibly acquiring additional [Foundation] land?” he wondered. “If [the municipality] is successful this time, it means in the future they could say, ‘We need to build a new library, and we don’t have any land because we were delinquent in planning effectively – we’ll just grab another piece of the [Foundation’s] land.’ That’s very, very worrisome.” 

“This is really the only public greenspace left in the centre-village. There’s no other space for families and residents to enjoy on a year-round basis,” he continued. “This is such a significant point in this community’s evolution. There’s a trust factor here that’s very fragile.”

‘Borders on incompetence’ 

Traer questioned the level of planning that was done prior to confirming the site of the new school. 

“The financial analysis and the comparative analysis among the different options is sadly lacking,” he said. 

According to the municipality, other sites in the centre-village were considered, including vacant plots of land in the Hendrick Farm and Chelsea Creek subdivisions as well as vacant land behind the Chelsea curling rink and La Fab sur Mill. All were rejected for various reasons based on criteria supplied by both the local school service centre (CSSPO) and the municipality itself.  

In particular, cost is a factor that Traer said he believes the municipality didn’t consider carefully enough. 

“First of all, to go through with this will require a borrowing bylaw…and this will just add to the debt,” he pointed out. 

As of January, Chelsea’s debt sits around $50 million. The municipality has earmarked $4 million in its triennial capital expenditure plan this year to purchase land for the new school. Four of the six acres of that land belong to the Foundation, while the remaining two acres belong to the development firm CARGO. The Foundation has stated that a recent assessment of that four acres showed it had a market value of $3.2 million. Traer said he estimates that CARGO’s land will be even more expensive, given its zoning for residential development. 

The Low Down reached out to Mayor Pierre Guénard to ask what financial analysis was done prior to the decision to acquire the land. He explained that the municipality decided to invest $4 million to purchase the land based on a report by the Union des municipalités du Québec (UMQ), which stated that municipalities spend an average of $2.8 million per acquisition of land. The municipality added legal fees and other costs to this number to arrive at the final amount. 

Traer raised another concern: According to him, the municipality didn’t seem to be aware that, until it was already well into discussions with the CSSPO, the Foundation – not the municipality – owned the land. He told the Low Down that the Foundation was forced to produce a notary’s letter proving that the land was theirs, not the municipality’s. 

Guénard responded to the Low Down with regard to the request for the Foundation to provide a notary’s letter that “there was no mal-intent, we simply wanted to have the right information.” 

He asserted that the situation of the land’s ownership was not initially clear, adding, “The director-general [Sheena Ngalle Miano] and myself didn’t have all the information necessary at first, so we went out and got it.”  

A search on the MRC des Collines’ website shows an assessment roll that states the owner of the land as the Chelsea Foundation. 

“It’s a due diligence issue, in my mind. It borders on incompetence to go barrelling down this path without proper due diligence, transparency and consultation,” Traer said. 

‘The municipality’s hands are tied’

Quebec’s Bill 40, passed in 2020, allows school service centres to require municipalities to hand over land for the purpose of building or adding to a school.  

The municipality has said that the CSSPO is solely responsible for the decision to use the Foundation’s land. At a council meeting in October 2023, Mayor Guénard insisted that he initially pushed back on the CSSPO’s decision but was rebuffed. And in an email to the Low Down in November 2023, spokesperson Prud’homme-Séguin maintained that “the municipality’s hands are tied.” 

Traer said he does not buy this explanation. 

“The only way that the CSSPO could have suggested that they wanted [our land] is if the municipality put that option on the table…The municipality will say that the CSSPO simply wants that land and that’s not true because, unless the municipality put that on the table, the CSSPO would not have had an opportunity to say ‘we want that.’” 

The CSSPO has previously told the Low Down that the land was agreed upon by the municipality.  Mayor Guénard has said in the past that the municipality is in a precarious position, explaining that if it delays the process now, the community could risk losing the school building altogether. This would mean that 300 elementary-aged students would eventually need to be bussed outside the community. 

He insisted that the municipality is at the mercy of the provincial government in this circumstance. 

“We have to comply with what the government asks, and in this case demands, us to do,” he said.  “By looking around and talking to other mayors, Chelsea is just one of many stories like this around Quebec,” Guénard added.  

Traer said he is hopeful the Foundation’s efforts will change hearts and minds on Chelsea council, adding that their ultimate goal “is to persuade the municipality to do due diligence, have transparency and engage the community.”

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