Hamilton Mack Laing has probably turned over in his grave more than once since his death in 1982.

Because if the famous Canadian naturalist, photographer and writer suddenly came alive today, he’d be shocked and angry at how the Town of Comox has fumbled his gift of property and cash.

When Laing died in 1982, he left the town, among other personal items, 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.”

Thirty-four years later, the Town of Comox has done little to satisfy the last wishes of this important literary and ornithological person. It’s shameful how the town has claimed Laing’s celebrity, but ignored his desires for a legacy.

The residue cash from Laing’s estate was $45,000, a sizable sum in 1982. His will specified that 25 percent should be used for capital improvements to his home and the remaining 75 percent should be invested to help fund the ongoing operating expenses of a natural history museum.

… an analysis of the fund by Kent Moeller, CPA, of Moeller Matthews in Campbell River, shows the trust fund should be worth $481,548 today.

But the town ignored the terms of Laing’s gift as specified in his Last Will.

The town did not spend $11,250 on capital improvements to his home. Instead, it rented the dwelling starting in 1982 , shortly after Laing died, at a curiously low rate. It’s done minimal maintenance on the house.

Nor did the town immediately invest the remaining $33,750. The town only started investing Laing’s fund in 2001, so for almost 19 years the money earned no interest.

The town has not created a natural history museum, but has profited from sales of prints of Laing’s drawings and paintings, and his collection of original Allen Brooks paintings.

This is no way to respect a noted North American naturalist.

For the last few years, members of the Comox Town Council have discussed what to do with the Shakesides house, and Laing’s original home, called Baybrook, which he sold to the Stubbs family and was later acquired by the town. The town demolished Baybrook last year, and is considering a similar fate for Shakesides.

The justification is, of course, that restoring Shakesides into a usable public facility would cost too much and, the town claims, and there’s only $76,672 in the Laing Trust Fund.

But an analysis of the fund by Kent Moeller, CPA, of Moeller Matthews in Campbell River, shows the trust fund should be worth $481,548 today. He used figures released by the town and conservatively calculated interest rates.

Moeller suggests that if the town had immediately invested all of Laing’s bequeathed cash plus the rental income, it would have nearly a half-million dollars in the trust fund.

Moellar’s analysis changes the nature of the town’s recent discussions about what to do with Shakesides and how to honor one of its legendary former residents. It’s a different argument when you’re talking about $481,548, rather than $76,672.

Shakesides could be renovated for about $150,000, according to a quote from a Comox Valley builder, and the remaining funds could continue to grow and help pay operating expenses of a natural history museum as Laing specified in his will.

There’s a solid justification for the view that the town owes the Laing Trust Fund $404,876.

But just as important as the fate of Shakeside’s and actuarial debate over what should be the trust fund’s present value, are the ethical considerations.

What responsibility does the Town of Comox have to follow through on the last wishes of any person who leaves a municipality cash, property or other items of significant value?

While the failure to follow through originated with the elected councillors and staff of the Town of Comox in 1982, the gift was to the town itself, not to any temporary combination of individual staff or elected representatives. That makes the town responsible, and all elected officials since 1982.

If the town had good reasons not to follow through on Laing’s last wishes, was it appropriate for them to keep the residue cash on their general ledger? Was any of the money spent improperly, for purposes that do not qualify under the terms of the trust? Moeller notes that $15,600 of unidentified capital expenses were taken from the account.

If the town decided not to respect Laing’s last wishes, should it have transferred the funds to some other community organization willing to take on the transformation of Shakesides to a natural history museum?

The Town of Comox must address these questions in its deliberations about the fate of Shakesides.

Laing was not only a prominent Comox resident, he was a generous one. He gave the Town of Comox his home, his property — now valued at over $1.6 million — and his collection of artwork, which he hoped would be used to create a natural history museum.

It’s wrong that his gift has been handled so carelessly. It’s time to atone.

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