A long-simmering feud between a group of people living on Grape Island and the City of Orillia is heading to court.
The Grape Island Property Owners Association (GIPOA) has filed a $3.1 million statement of claim against the city, alleging the municipality has reneged on promises, halted enduring agreements and enacted a bylaw that has negatively impacted their life on the private island.
Because of that, they allege, they no longer have “unrestricted access to their properties” on the island via Forest Avenue South.
The city has filed a statement of defence, disputing most of the claims.
On Monday, city council committee agreed to take $75,000 from the tax rate stabilization fund to hire the firm of Borden Ladner Gervais LLP to defend the city in court. Staff warn if the matter actually ends up in court, the price tag could easily surpass the $100,000 mark.
Decisions made at Monday's meeting are subject to ratification at next Monday's city council meeting.
While councillors could not comment on specifics of the case because it’s a legal matter, several expressed disappointment about the most recent turn of events.
“It’s sad to see that it has come to this point,” said Ward 3 Coun. Mason Ainsworth. “When folks do not work together … it can cost the city and the taxpayers.”
Coun. David Campbell agreed. He said the issue was a significant one during the 2018 municipal election.
In his first interview after being elected, he told OrilliaMatters that resolving the Grape Island dispute was his No. 1 priority.
He said at the time, he “saw a willingness on both sides” to come to an agreement. Work has been ongoing to resolve the issue since before that election - and had been continuing.
“I am very, very disappointed that it’s come to this,” said the Ward 1 councillor.
Mayor Steve Clarke concurred.
“I will say the city was and had been working on solutions for a long-term agreement that might satisfy everybody, so to see this is extremely disappointing,” said the mayor.
Ward 2 Coun. Rob Kloostra said this “is a substantial amount of money that could be used somewhere else.”
Clarke said the city is asking the court, if it rules in the city’s favour and awards damages, to force the GIPOA to pay a majority of the city’s legal fees.
“The goal of the city will be to reclaim as much of those legal fees as possible,” said Clarke, noting council has “an obligation … to protect the taxpayers’ money.”
The issue is a complex one.
Lawyer Hugh Grant developed the island in 1949; it is home to 52 lots.
According to the GIPOA’s statement of claim, Grant secured, from the then Town of Orillia, a development of subdivision that designated the end of Forest Avenue South as the access point for the island.
When negotiations between the municipality and the federal government over a request to have the feds build a dock at the foot of Forest Avenue bogged down, islanders “worked together to build their own dock on Forest Avenue South,” says the statement of claim.
They have used it since.
In the early 1960s, according to the statement of claim, the city built a concrete pier, 33 feet in width, at the foot of Forest Avenue South. The islanders say that pier, angled in a northerly direction to assist barges and boats, meant that islanders could no longer pull small vessels up on shore.
They say this caused congestion. In response, islanders built and installed a second dock in April 1962.
“The two docks were placed in such a way as to allow the barge to land when needed but to keep boats separated … to gain maximum usability with minimal noise and damage …”
Without limitation, the GIPOA used the two docks for large barges carrying heavy construction equipment, lumber, concrete blocks, septic tanks, roofing materials etc. as “well as all manner of craft carrying persons and cargo to and from the island.”
That seemed to work swimmingly until 2018, when the city - the GIPOA alleges in its statement of claim - enacted a bylaw allowing only one dock for 2019.
“The defendant (the city) now asserts the (GIPOA) has no right to use and install its second dock as it has done for several decades and has passed a temporary bylaw which prohibits the second dock, requires that an annual lease be paid to the city for use of their own docks and severely restricts, by day of the week, time of day and seasonal, the use the (GIPOA) and its members can make of their one dock and of the pier.”
That’s the crux of the suit and they seek damages in the amount of $150,000 per vacant lot and $50,000 per lot with cottage; the total is estimated at $3.1 million.
The city’s statement of defence defends, point by point, the claims made by the GIPOA.
For example, the city says it purchased the waterlot not for the exclusive use of Grape Island residents but “for the benefit of the general public…”
The city says a dock on the city’s waterlot is not the only “reasonable means of ensuring water access to Grape Island,” referencing other city-owned boat launches and several private marinas in the area.
In the statement of defence the city concludes: “The (GIPOA) and its members willingly assumed the risks identified ...when they acquired land on Grape Island and the prices they paid for their properties would have reflected those risks.”
On top of that, the GIPOA “at all material times knew or should have known that, if they desired permanent property rights that would enable the unfettered use of two docks on Lake Simcoe, they could have and should have purchased land in the open market to achieve that goal.”
To read the statement of claim and statement of defence, click here.
For a previous story on the dispute, click here.