South Peace News
The old Forestry building in Peace River may finally be getting cleaned up.
The complex question of who is responsible for the derelict building was reviewed at a special council meeting on July 6 to hear an appeal to a Town order to clean up the property.
The building used to belong to the Alberta government but has sat vacant for the better part of two decades and has become a target for vandalism.
CAO Chris Parker says the Town and the RCMP have responded to 20 complaints about the property since 2017, such as complaints of trespassing, excessive noise, weeds, shots fired, and overall unsightliness.
Neighbours who submitted comments to the appeal say the site is regularly used by teenagers and the homeless.
A fire at the site in May 2020 has left rubble that needs to be cleaned up and lingering questions about when there could be another fire.
On June 24, the Town of Peace River issued an order about the property to Magnum Office Inc., previously known as Jenks-Cochrane Properties Ltd, and to Brent Taylor and Gabrielle Blankenship under Section 546 of the Municipal Government Act.
The order requires the recipients to take action within a week to obtain an engineer’s report on the structural integrity of the two remaining structures on the property and provide a copy to the Town of Peace River; follow any recommendations contained in the engineer’s report; remove the rubble from the burned building; erect a proper fence around the property to prevent access; and remove the on-site trash including weeds.
Taylor appealed the order on June 30. Taylor says he doesn’t have care and control of the property and Blankenship of Oklahoma has control.
But the Town has not heard back about the order from Blankenship or her lawyer.
Parker says the actual ownership of the property is murky. The corporation is the registered owner but is struck from the corporate registry, while Blankenship has equal ownership but is not registered on the property title.
“I served both of them so I could catch both the legal and the equitable owner,” Parker says.
Taylor attended the appeal hearing to speak on his own behalf. He says he has had an interest in the property for over 16 years.
“I have really only experienced opposition to the development with two different sets of partners with many barriers,” Taylor says.
“It seems [the] Forestry is tainted and I’m tainted as a rebel absentee property owner.”
Taylor has also been involved in multiple bylaw disputes over his prototype portable homeless shelters sitting vacant in downtown Peace River.
Taylor says council sees the issue with the Forestry property through a lens of “strategic complaints and controversy.”
“The fact is that this property has been through four complete concepts in my experience with two separate investing groups,” he says. “After suffering all the realities of conflicted parties…against these developments and being faced with angry town bureaucrats imposing impossible conditions basically from biased and malicious complaints, we have nothing left except for the sale of this property which was ordered by the court four years ago.”
Taylor’s partner, Trudy Plaizier, says constant disputes with former Peace River mayor Lorne Mann, whose residence neighbours the property, have led to the complex legal ownership of the property today.
“[Mann] offered to purchase the lands using a numbered company rather than his name. Within this offer he threatened that if the offer was not accepted he would make it impossible to ever develop the property because it would be bombarded with maintenance orders and the Town would insist on hazmat remediation which would render the value useless. True to the threat, every year he has made complaints and demands reporting fencing which is persistently damaged by vandals, which has been repaired many times, [and] for weed control, even though it’s out of public sight,” she says.
“The purchase offer demanded an engineering study, building removal and asbestos mitigation using almost exactly the same wording we find in today’s order.”
Plaizier says Mann has also blocked Taylor by organizing a petition of local residents against Taylor’s planned development of 198 condos on the site, and she says the former mayor involved himself in a lawsuit that entangled Taylor against his partners investors, which Taylor eventually lost. She accuses Mann of feeding Taylor’s former partners and investors “mis- sinformation.”
“Brent was characterized as oppressing the financial partner and enriching himself from her efforts. Neither could be further from the truth,” Plaizier says.
After litigation, Blankenship was granted ownership and ordered by the court to deal with liquidation of the property to settle all matters and claims on the property.
“That still hasn’t happened,” Taylor says.
Plaizier says she has personally invested in the fruitless development plans for the buildings.
Brent and his brother and myself put all of ourselves – all of ourselves – in financial harm’s way to maintain the taxes and keep up with maintenance as best we could when not a dime of income ever came to Brent or any of us as a result of participating in this property.
“This property and the stance that the Town has taken against its development serves as an embarrassment to the past councils of Peace River governance,” she says. “The municipal development plan is clearly in favour of developing this property, yet the former mayor was able to destroy two former development entities interfering with misinformation between development stakeholders, stonewalling town applications, instigating unreasonable town orders and litigation under untidy unsightly premise complaints singularly focused on the property.”
Plaizier also complains that because of the recent fire, the fire department demolished the “centrepiece” segment of the restructuring plan for the property, and that owners should have been consulted before the fire department destroyed the building.
She claims assets were lost and a masonry firewall meant the building was still structurally sound. She says the demolition has spread asbestos and devalued the property by a quarter of a million dollars.
Taylor and Plaizier did not have insurance on the building.
Plaizier says she and Taylor responded to the order from the Town out of desperation because they care about the property.
“We believe Ms. Blankenship is the one who should be held accountable,” she says.
Parker calls the state of the facility a “dangerous situation.”
Recent drone shots and photos show people have access to the building. All of the windows are smashed leaving glass on the ground, and there are 10 locations where the fence around the property has been breached and there are obvious footpaths around the building.
“If we do not act on this the Town could be held responsible,” Parker says.
In a written submission to the Town, Lorne and Phyllis Mann also warn the Town could be liable.
“Should a worse event than the recent fire occur, like a life lost, the Town may have a bigger problem on their hands because you know the property is dangerous,” the Manns say.
“Mr. Taylor’s ability to do anything suitable for the area of this property are simply dreams and are out of his reach. This has been proven for the last 10 plus years. The Town needs to step in and take control.”
Parker says while he understands and appreciates the presentation by Taylor and Plazier, nothing in it shows the order is not valid.
However, Taylor says he doesn’t have the financial resources to respond to the order.
“The property has been vacant for almost 20 years. Kids have grown up who’ve had parties there. Perhaps the buildings should be taken down,” Taylor says.
“We don’t have the means to deal with this order. We just don’t. If not us, who?” he asks.
Taylor says he has even asked the former Town fire chief if the building could be used for fire practice and was told no.
“The next fire could be tonight or tomorrow night and there could be a fatality,” says Councillor Colin Needham. “I think we need to move quickly.”
Needham says he appreciates Taylor’s and Plaizier’s presentation, but there is no market in Peace River to make their development plans feasible.
“I see the passion in your voice and I know you put a lot of time into this project. Sixteen years is a long time, but I think it’s time to move on,” he says.
“Peace River’s population hasn’t changed in 25 years and I’m not sure that your dream is actually doable,” he adds.
He also responded to Taylor’s suggestion about using the property for a fire department practice.
“I would point out that former fire chief ordered a building demolished north of the Travellers Hotel with a backhoe. There was a missing person that was found in that building about a week later. I wouldn’t put a lot of stock in advice from the former fire chief,” Needham says.
The former Forestry property has been in tax arrears since 2016, and the amount owing is somewhere around $100,000. Magnum and by extension Taylor is responsible for those taxes.
Any action by the Town of Peace River on the order will be added to the outstanding tax roll.
Council unanimously agreed to confirm the order.