What was once meant to grow straight and true can, over time, become rather twisted | George Le Masurier photo
The Week: Comox Council again cancels court dates to resolve Mack Laing obligation
Today should have been the first day of the week that finally brought resolution to the Town of Comox’s shameful abdication of its moral covenant to the late Hamilton Mack Laing.
But if you hoped that the BC Supreme Court hearing scheduled for this week (Nov. 15-18) would bring an end to the 39-year-old saga over Laing’s Trust and the future use of his heritage home, Shakesides, you will be disappointed. Again.
This is the Town of Comox, after all, where things often get messy.
It’s head-shaking, but not surprising, that the town has backed out of the latest trial dates it had scheduled to petition the BC Supreme Court for approval to alter the Mack Laing Trust Agreement. The town wants to tear down Laing’s historic homestead and use the considerable funds he left to the town for other purposes.
Five years ago, the town was in a mad rush to get to the BC Supreme Court and plead its case. But since then, the town has scheduled and canceled court dates multiple times.
And now, despite the feverish pitch reached in 2019 — and the estimated $200,000 plus that it has spent on legal fees — the town still seems confused about whether to go to court or not.
The town spent most of the time from February 2017 to May 2019 trying unsuccessfully to convince two different Supreme Court Justices not to allow the Mack Laing Heritage Society to present opposing evidence at trial.
But when the town finally set a trial date for June of 2019, they canceled it at the last minute (in May). And then the town went dark for the next 31 months.
This year the town decided to revive its application to alter Laing’s Trust and asked the court to set aside four days for a trial that would have started today.
But, like a skipping record, the town council once again canceled these dates at the last minute and then hinted it might revisit its application in the new year.
WHY CAN’T THE TOWN MAKE UP ITS MIND?
So, what is going on with this Town Council? Why do they schedule court dates and then cancel them? Why does the town continue to incur high-priced fees charged by a Vancouver lawyer when the council is apparently undecided about what to do?
Comox voters and taxpayers have no way to get answers to these questions because the council only discusses the matter behind closed doors. Ever since the town took its three-year hiatus on this issue, all Mack Laing discussions have been held in-camera.
That means if you ask a Comox council member what’s going on with the Mack Laing court petition, they will tell you they can’t talk about matters discussed in-camera.
That’s an odd position for the town to take.
When the mayor and council were in a rush to get a court hearing prior to May 2019, the council discussed the matter openly in regular council meetings. Motions were debated and votes were taken.
The council even held a special open public meeting at the Comox Rec Centre on the topic just a month (April 2019) before putting it all on ice for nearly three years.
So now, the council refuses to talk in public about even the simplest details related to the case, such as why they schedule court dates and then cancel them or whether the town even has a plan to resolve the matter?
The council’s lack of transparency is disconcerting. Its indecision is stunning.
With every misstep, the town worsens its culpability over 39 years for not living up to the agreement it signed with Hamilton Mack Laing. The town took his money and his property but failed to live up to their end of the bargain.
It’s a shameful way to treat one of the town’s most notable and generous citizens. And their actions certainly won’t encourage any future citizen to leave anything in trust to this town.
The issue has also divided people in the community, another of the regrettable results of this debacle.
SO WHAT’S THE SOLUTION?
It’s simple. Go to court. Get a decision and move on. If the town fears the court will reject its application to alter the Laing Trust, then initiate some form of arbitration.
Or maybe both parties could find a way to compromise. For example, the Comox Valley Regional District provides a good model with Brian and Sarah McLoughlin Park. The McLoughlin’s former house is open for artists-in-residence from May through September.
Restoring and opening Shakesides for a similar program — perhaps with priority given to natural scientists — would avoid the problems of parking that concern the park’s neighbors. And it would come closer to Laing’s vision for his historic home on Comox Bay than another unused and unnecessary ‘viewing platform’
Whatever it decides, the Town of Comox should quit stalling and start being honest and open with the public.
WHO WAS HAMILTON MACK LAING?
Hamilton Mack Laing was an important Canadian naturalist, photographer and writer. His research has appeared in a variety of publications around the world. Laing moved to Comox in 1922, cleared his land and built his home from a “Stanhope” Aladdin Ready-Cut kit. In 1927, he married Ethel Hart of Portland and they established a successful and commercial orchard which included walnut, pecan, filbert, hazelnut, apple and plum trees. They also grew mushrooms and vegetables.
After his wife died in 1944, Laing sold his original home, Baybrook, and built a new home, Shakesides, on the adjoining lot. On his death in 1982, Laing bequeathed the waterfront property, a sizable amount of money, artwork and other personal property to the Town of Comox according to a Trust Agreement between the parties.
In 2016, the Comox Council, led by then-mayor Paul Ives, attempted to demolish Shakesides but was stopped by the BC Attorney General. Instead, the town demolished Laing’s former home, Baybrook, and began the process to alter the LaingTrust Agreement to permit the demolition of Shakesides and to use Laing’s money for other purposes.
Over the past five years, the town, led by current Mayor Russ Arnott, has appeared in several BC Supreme Court hearings to argue unsuccessfully that the Mack Laing Heritage Society should not be allowed to present any evidence that opposes the town’s application to alter the Laing Trust. Since then the town has scheduled and canceled multiple trial dates.
The Mack Laing Heritage Society believes the town has mishandled Laing’s Trust and misappropriated funds attached to the trust.
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Mack Laing Heritage Society says the Town of Comox is in a rush to clean up a mess of its own making, while town and Attorney General lawyers call The Society’s evidence “irrelevant.”
A small charitable society has restored a heritage home and property with the help of local government into a self-sustaining and job-creating destination for people from all over the world. It’s a possible model for Mack Laing’s property and home
Heritage BC warns Attorney General David Eby that allowing Town of Comox to alter terms of Mack Laing trust sets a dangerous precedent for heritage conservation
The BC Association of Heritage Professionals warns provincial cabinet ministers of the serious precedent that could be set by varying Mack Laing’s trust agreement with the Town of Comox to preserve Shakesides
In West Vancouver, BC attorney general sues a municipality for breach of trust. In the Town of Comox, the attorney general defends breaching Mack Laing’s trust. Is the agency’s perspective changing?
Comox legendary naturalist Hamilton Mack Laing’s account of his motorcycle ride from New York to the San Francisco World Exhibition of 1915 is now available in a new edition of his memoir
In a surprising new development, the BC Attorney General has requested a delay in the Supreme Court trial that will determine the fate of Shakesides, the heritage home of Comox pioneer Hamilton Mack Laing
Now that Chief Nicole Rempel has made it clear the Town of Comox failed to properly consult the K’omoks First Nations about plans to demolish Mack Laing’s heritage home, a serious question arises: With whom did town staff and council members consult?
Comox Town Council voted 5-2 this week to continue designing a viewing platform to replace naturalist Mack Laing’s heritage home, rejecting any other proposals for the property, as it prepares to head back to the BC Supreme Court.
The Town of Comox’s self-imposed period of reconsideration about the future of Mack Laing Park has created division not unity, and a growing rift on the issue among town councillors.