By Richard Bell
Opponents of the proposed sale of Owls Head Provincial Park to an American billionaire took the next legal step forward on August 18 with the filing of an amended version of their January request for a judicial review. A hearing to set a date for the full judicial review will take place on September 23, although the trial itself will probably not take place until 2021.
The amended petition challenges two different secret decisions by Lands and Forestry Minister Iain Rankin: the decision to de-list the park on March 13, 2019, and the decision to entertain a Letter of Offer with the golf course developer on December 19, 2019.
Documents released through several FOIPOP requests show that Lands and Forestry was engaged in secret negotiations going back several years with Beckwith Gilbert, an American billionaire who owns property adjacent to the park near the fishing community of Little Harbour. Gilbert wants to convert the park land into three golf courses with associated luxury accommodations. Opponents of the deal argue that the park has irreplaceable wilderness resources that would be completely destroyed by the golf course construction.
Rankin’s backroom deal became public on December 18, 2019, when CBC reporter Michael Gorman broke through the wall of secrecy about the sale of the park thanks to information he received in a FOIPOP request.
At the end of January, Robert Bancroft, a retired forest biologist who worked for the province for several decades, and the Eastern Shore Forest Watch Association (ESFWA) filed a petition for a judicial review of the decision.
The province attempted to wiggle out of this legal jam by arguing that the applicants had not filed their request in time. On June 29, Supreme Court Justice Kevin Coady heard the applicants request for an exemption from the deadlines because the government’s secret decision making made it difficult to meet the deadlines. Coady ruled in their favour on August 5, 2020.
Jamie Simpson, the attorney for the applicants, explained to the Cooperator that the applicants had amended their original request in order to oppose not only the original decision to delist the park, but the subsequent secretly negotiated Letter of Offer to Gilbert setting conditions for the sale.
“The applicants did not get a copy of the actual Letter of Offer until Barbara Markovits [co-chair of ESFWA] received it as part of a FOIPOP request on April 17, 2020,” Simpson said. “We wanted to make sure that the judicial review covered the decision-making involved in drafting this letter.”
In their petition, the applicants’ first major claim is that Lands and Forest Minister Iain Rankin breached “procedural fairness” in several ways, such as failing to provide notice to the public that he was considering the delisting and Letter of Offer, or holding any public consultation on the two matters.
The second claim is that Rankin’s decisions on delisting of the park and the signing of the Letter of Offer were “unreasonable” because he failed “to provide justification” for his decisions.
The applicants are asking the court to send the decision to de-list the park and to enter into a Letter of Offer to sell the land back to the Minister of Lands and Forestry “to be remade in consideration of this Honourable Court’s decision.”
Simpson said he was aware of rumours that the sale was imminent, and that the pending judicial review in itself “does not automatically stop the sale. But there are conditions in the Letter of Offer that have not been met yet. So I would be surprised if the sale were to go through and work start without us knowing. But yes, if the sale looked imminent, then we could apply for an emergency injunction.”