Sutherland Saga: ‘The court costs may have exceeded the costs of repair’


city_scope_logo-cmykNeither of the combatants in the City of St. Thomas vs. Sutherland Lofts hearing was the star of the show Wednesday at the Elgin County Courthouse.
That honour went to his honour, Justice Peter Hockin , who had no qualms about speaking his mind, sharing his thoughts and guiding lawyers Valerie M’Garry and John Sanders down the path of least resistance.
Or as he stressed, “I don’t want to spin our wheels on collateral issues.”
Now remember, this is the same Justice Hockin who, in 2008, overturned a ruling from Justice David Little that gave the city the go-ahead to demolish the four-storey structure.
In reference to the boxes of evidence accumulated since then, Hockin cut to the chase. “Is it unsafe right now . . . there were recommendations of what could have been done but never was done.”

He gave short shift to M’Garry’s assertion the prolonged legal wrangle “has put Mr. Gee (building owner David McGee) in a financial situation where he can’t get anything done.”

In a neck-jerking change of gears, M’Garry then proclaimed “we could start work in a couple of weeks . . . $50,000 has been put in my trust account. Mr. McGee is finally in a position to do something.”

SUTHERLAND BLDG full

Sutherland Press building in 2008, prior to partial demolition of front face

And how far do you think 50 grand would go in remediating the building dating back to 1913?

“I’m paying no attention to Mr. McGee’s financial position today,” remarked an unimpressed Hockin, who later on added, “I suppose if you had unlimited funds it could be fixed up . . . the court costs may have exceeded the costs of repair.”
In response to Sanders observation there is an “acceleration in deterioration,” Hockin pondered out loud, “Do you want a declaration from the court saying the building is unsafe and that would allow you to knock it down?”
Sanders hit the ball out of the park by asking “Will there be an injunction the next day if we decide to take the building down.” 
The city’s legal counsel obviously had vivid flashbacks to 2008.
In allowing Sanders to present the city’s case this past week while M’Garry gets the floor May 31, Hockin made it clear “I’m going to see this thing through to the end. There’s got to be an end.”
An end that can’t come soon enough for city residents who are being held hostage, according to Justice Little.
Don’t want to diminish the input from M’Garry and Sanders over the course of the day. Here are few gems delivered up by the Sutherland adversaries.
“It’s the same building, the same facts.” – John Sanders
“We have three or four engineers whose opinion is different than the city.” – Valerie M’Garry
“Some of the differences in engineering opinions are semantics.” – Sanders
“The building doesn’t meet the definition of unsafe.” – M’Garry
“All we wanted to do was stop the city proceeding with demolition . . . the city could still issue emergency work orders.” – M’Garry
“The city never said the only solution was demolition . . . we did not rule out remediation.” – Sanders
Regarding shoring work done inside the building: “Thirty per cent of the work had been done . . . contractors stopped because they hadn’t been paid.” – Sanders
“The cost efficient thing to do would be to remove the building.” – Sanders 
“This is demolition by neglect, yet the owner says he is passionate about it.” – Sanders
And we’ll leave the last word to Justice Hockin: “Mr. McGee says it’s not a building for occupancy, it’s a construction zone.”
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PERHAPS NEXT MONTH
Scheduled as one of two items to be dealt with at the city’s site plan committee meeting, an application relating to a proposed six-storey apartment building comprised of approximately 100 units to be located at 672 Talbot Street at Ross Street was a non-starter Thursday. The appearance was canceled by the applicant, St. Thomas developer Bob McCaig.
672 Talbot StreetjpgDirector of planning Pat Keenan did not know when the matter would be re-scheduled.
We talked with McCaig last week and he cautioned,  “I would like to see a building there but the numbers are very difficult to make work. I would like it to work but it’s not going to be easy.”
Should the first building prove popular, McCaig said Phase 2 would see construction of a second unit closer to Talbot Street with commercial development incorporated into the first two floors.
McCaig has been working with London developer Vito Frijia, president of Southside Group, who assures him the numbers will work.
The units “would be great for the revitalization of the centre of town,” stressed McCaig.
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SOUNDS OF SILENCE
At the May 15 council meeting, mayor and councillors unanimously voted to extend the service agreement between the city and St. Thomas Energy for the reading, billing and collection services related to water and sewage charges.
stthomasenergyjpgAt no time did any one of our elected officials question the outstanding amount of $5,557,951 still owing the city from St. Thomas Energy from the collection of water bills dating back to at least 2014. The amount due was contained in a report submitted to council in March of this year by the city’s director of finance David Aristone.
Money paid in good faith by city residents who assumed it would be applied forthwith to their water and sewer bills. Instead it was funnelled into the St. Thomas Energy account to help keep the utility afloat.
Even though the formal agreement in effect during this time stipulated St. Thomas Energy “will pay to the municipality the water and waste water charges billed to the customers by the end of the month following the date of invoicing.”
Not one member of council – elected by ratepayers to represent their best interests – uttered a single word about this sweetheart deal between the city and St. Thomas Energy. Not a peep as to whether this will ever be entertained in the future. And not a single query as to the status of the outstanding balance.
We shouldn’t be surprised.
A lack of probing dialogue is the hallmark of this council and a prime reason many meetings clock out at well under an hour.
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TAKING ROOT
It’s an idea with a growing number of supporters. At that same May 15 meeting, council gave green thumbs up to the Moore Food Garden, proposed for the Moore Street parking lot.
Moore Food Garden revisedjpgThe idea was first rolled out the council’s reference committee meeting at the beginning of April. A partnership between Elgin St. Thomas Public Health and Destination Church – which would back on to the garden – designed to assist those in the community struggling with food poverty.
The location has been tweaked somewhat, it will now be located adjacent to the BX Tower at the west end of the parking lot, but the aim remains the same: to create “a beautiful  creative space,” advised Kendall Chambers, public health dietitian with the health unit, based on container gardening of fruit and produce in a fully accessible setting. 
Moving the site closer to the former railway tower will allow for access to hydro and water.
The health unit has received $29,500 in funding from the Healthy Kids Community Challenge so far and is waiting to hear about additional funding.
Inspiration for the container garden comes from Lafayette Greens, an organic vegetable and fruit garden in the heart of downtown Detroit.
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COMPLETE STREETS
Work is to begin shortly with the rebuilding of Stanley Street, from Sunset Drive to William Street. It’s the final project in the 2017 Complete Streets program that marries infrastructure renewal with neighbourhood enhancement.
Stanley Street reconstructionjpg

A new promenade is to be added along Stanley Street overlooking V.A.Barrie Park

Included in the undertaking is replacement of storm and sanitary sewers, watermain, a new sidewalk on the west side of the street and a sidewalk promenade with seating areas above V.A.Barrie Park.

In his report to council at their last meeting, manager of capital works David Jackson noted “Stanley Street will maintain the same historical streetscape with grass boulevards and sidewalks. “
He added the street width will be similar to what it is today to control traffic speed and volume.
“As part of the initiative to enhance the unique character of the courthouse neighbourhood,” wrote Jackson, ” custom street signs and poles will be added.”
Queen street signjpgBirnam Excavating was the low bidder for the project at $2,055,169 and work is expected to begin in July or August and take four months to complete.
We wrote about the Complete Streets program last August when council endorsed the guidelines which are ”a shift in mindset from the historical car-centric streets to modern multi-purpose streets that appropriately support all modes of transportation,” advised Jackson at the time.
City staff are to be congratulated for their practice of going to tender early, setting flexible start dates and providing clear contract documentation, all of which has resulted in a $1.2 million surplus in the Complete Streets program which will be pumped back into sewer and water reserves.
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