After a protracted legal battle that has spanned nearly a decade – and characterized as a “battle royale” at a hearing Wednesday at the Elgin County Courthouse – the Sutherland Saga comes down to a single question.
Is the Sutherland Press building unsafe?
Justice Peter Hockin set an aggressive tone early as both sides sat across from each other for the first time since a three-member court of appeal panel in Toronto earlier this month ruled in the city’s favour, advising a lower court erred in its determination last September that a notice issued in March of 2016 warning of demolition of the four-storey structure for failure to comply with a previous work order was null and void.
So, it’s time to get down to business advised Hockin.
“I don’t want to spin our wheels on collateral issues. Is the work order issued on the basis the building is unsafe?”
Hockin reminded owner David McGee and his lawyer Valerie M’Garry and the city’s counterpart, John Sanders, “I’m driven by what the court of appeal said . . . go back to a judge and figure this out.
“I’m going to see this through to the end,” stressed Hockin. “There’s got to be an end.”
Ironically, it was Hockin who, almost nine years ago, overturned a ruling from Justice David Little that gave the city the green light to start dismantling the building that dates to 1913.
Hockin had M’Garry and Sanders somewhat back on their heels in the opening hour of the hearing with his determination to consolidate the last two work orders issued by the city instead of zeroing in solely on the 2015 work order dealt with by the court of appeal.
That and his request both parties organize the mountain of engineering reports filed in boxes “to simplify things.”
“By my approach, I’ve probably surprised you,” noted Hockin. “I’m not here to ambush you. The moment you step into this room, away we go.”
Sanders admitted after the day’s proceedings he had come prepared to concentrate on the 2015 order.
The most recent unsafe building order issued by the city was on Oct. 28, giving McGee until Dec. 15 of last year to provide a detailed work plan and schedule repairs to have commenced in January of this year.
That work order covered remedial brick work and securing the roof.
Hockin balked at M’Garry’s request to delay proceedings and, instead, invite an engineer from each party to present arguments at a future date instead of referencing reams of reports.
She attempted to assure Hockin her client was in a stronger financial position and “we could start work (on remediation of the building) in a couple of weeks. He (McGee) has put $50,000 into my trust account.”
She added “the building doesn’t meet the definition of unsafe. All we wanted to do was stop the city from proceeding with demolition.”
At Hockin’s suggestion, Sanders agreed to spend the afternoon summarizing several engineering reports that resulted in issuance of the work orders.
As to differing conclusions than those contained in reports from engineers employed by McGee, Sanders attributed those “to semantics.”
A study undertaken in 2015 by SPH Engineering pointed to a partial collapse of the second floor and the roof at the southwest corner of the structure. Furthermore, some wood beams could no longer support full loads.
The report concluded, “the building is unsafe . . . and posed an immediate danger,” noted Sanders.
He continued, “Areas of the building are extremely vulnerable to collapse. The future performance of the building can’t be predicted. Collapse of the building can’t be discounted.
The SPH reported advised the cost of shoring up the building would be in the range of $360,000 while a city tender for demolition came in at $105,000.
However Sanders stressed, “The city never said the only solution was demolition. We did not rule out remediation.”
In conclusion, Sanders said “We’re looking for confirmation of (chief building official Chris) Peck’s work order. That’s what we’re looking for today.”
Day 1 of the hearing wrapped up with Hockin observing, “I suppose if you had unlimited funds, it could be fixed up. There’s been a battle royale here. The court costs may have exceeded the costs to repair.”
M’Garry will present to Hockin at 11 a.m. on May 31 at the Elgin County Courthouse.