In Hay River, a territorial land tug-of-war breaks out
A Hay River businessman accuses the town council of interfering with his years-long quest to obtain a lease on NWT government property in the community.
Jeff Griffiths, owner of Trade Show Direct, says what should have been a simple six-month process has turned into a three-and-a-half-year nightmare.
Griffiths says the Town of Hay River is now competing against him for a parcel of territorial land, despite initially helping him apply to lease the lot from the GNWT.
Griffiths first took interest in the land – Lot 872 – back in 2017, when the Department of Lands hosted an open house in Hay River that mentioned how applying for leases would be streamlined.
The irony isn’t lost on Griffiths.
After being told he would need to apply through the Town to obtain a lease, he made his first application with the Town’s help in October 2017. He paid a $150 fee to the Town’s lands department and waited to go through the approval process, which he was told may last six months.
The same month, Griffiths says, town council passed a motion allowing the Town of Hay River to apply for the primary lease so it could sublet the land to Griffiths – as he expected.
That’s when things began to go wrong.
New application required
Confusion about how NWT land ownership works began to set in. Griffiths was subsequently told by the NWT government he must reapply for the same land directly through the Department of Lands, leaving out the Town of Hay River.
He says he paid $250 for that second application and followed the department’s directions.
“They said, ‘No, no, we already realize you’ve been doing this for a year and a half. When your application comes to Yellowknife, everything is going to be ready to roll. Everything’s done,'” Griffiths recalled.
“I felt quite encouraged last January.”
But in June last year, after five months without progress, he was told there was now a competing application for the lot – from the Town of Hay River itself.
He believes that presents a conflict as the Town had been involved in overseeing and supporting his original application. In essence, he feels the Town saw his application for the land and decided it was too attractive to pass up.
The Town plans to build a sewer lift station on the lot in question.
From July 2019 until February 2020, Griffiths says he and the Town of Hay River were in touch on several occasions to try to resolve the matter – without success.
He says he discussed the issue with the Department of Lands in August 2019, offering the Town 2,000 square feet of the property so a lift station could be built. But by February 2020, the department told him it was going to lease the entire parcel to the Town instead – and the Town could sublet a portion to Trade Show Direct.
“I expressed my disagreement [with an] arrangement which favours the municipality, and explained that this does not follow the legislation,” said Griffiths.
‘I don’t believe we screwed up’
The Department of Lands is now performing the necessary consultation with local groups regarding the Town’s bid, and confirmed it is not considering Griffiths’ separate application – despite having received it before the Town’s most recent application and taken a fee for it.
Department representative Blair Chapman, who has been involved in deciding what happens to the lot, told Cabin Radio the department sees the Town’s latest application as a continuation of the first application it submitted two years ago, when it was acting on Griffiths’ behalf, even though the new application opposes one from Griffiths.
“We felt that because they were applying on his behalf, that we would continue to honour that and move that forward, as we were in the process of doing,” Chapman said.
“We have been going back and forth with the community to try to gather additional information, so we have fully understood exactly what was planned for that lot and what their intended purpose would be.”
Griffiths says he has heard nothing from the Department of Lands since March this year.
Meanwhile, the Town of Hay River this month held a council meeting at which it awarded a $5.8-million contract to build the sewer lift station – even though the land dispute is not resolved.
Mayor Kandis Jameson told Cabin Radio the fault lies with the Department of Lands, not the Town of Hay River.
Jameson says the regional Department of Lands office, in Fort Smith, told the Town the land was available when it applied.
“Sometimes we just have to admit, ‘OK, we screwed up,'” said Jameson. “But, you know? In this case, I don’t believe we screwed up. We followed the process, the government stepped out of theirs.”
Griffiths’ application for the same lot was not mentioned by council at its June 2 meeting.
Asked by a council member why the Town didn’t have a lease for the land in place, Jameson said she did not know why the department’s consultation process had not started sooner.
Yet Griffiths says both the mayor and senior administrative officer, Judy Goucher, were aware of his application for the same land.
Griffiths said Goucher had been involved in his original application through the Town lands department, and Jameson had made the 2017 council motion supporting that application.
Cabin Radio could not find any record in council minutes of a bylaw being passed to acquire the Lot 872 lease for Town use, which a spokesperson for the Department of Municipal and Community Affairs said was a requirement for acquisition of land.
Jameson and Town officials were not immediately able to provide the relevant documents.
Town starts work on lot, illegally
On May 8 this year, the Town of Hay River was ordered to stop work it had begun to clear the lot despite not having finalized a lease.
The Department of Lands ordered the stoppage, stating it is illegal to perform work on land owned by the territory without a lease in place.
“At the time that it came to our attention, we were out to consultation and we were unaware of the fact that they were already in there, doing some clearing,” said Chapman.
“We’ve made it clear as well in a follow-up to ensure that they recognize we are out to consultation and that no development is possible because, quite simply, they don’t have tenure to that land. And so we issued the stop-work order.”
Jameson said the Town believed it had the “go-ahead” for the property.
“We were under the impression that this was going ahead,” the mayor said, adding the lift station is needed to service nearby building developments.
Griffiths feels the Town beginning work could have been a means to pressure the Department of Lands to award the lot lease. He thinks issuing a contract for construction is a similar move.
“Many in town feel that issuing a tender for a project worth millions is a pressure tactic,” he said, “to force the GNWT to lease this lot to the Town of Hay River.”
A solution for all parties
Chapman said the department is trying to find an outcome agreeable to all parties.
He said one prospect is dividing up the parcel of land, as Griffiths had earlier offered.
“Obviously, if you’ve got a large lot like this one and they’re only going to be using a corner, then perhaps we have the ability to find a better solution for everyone down the road,” said Chapman.
Jameson said the Town expects the consultation process to be complete by mid-July so work can begin on the property.
“I’m of the opinion that anything should be able to be figured out if everybody’s reasonable,” Jameson said.
“Jeff’s a taxpayer in this community, and I certainly don’t want him to be pointing fingers at us and not understanding why the Town’s position is what it is. And I certainly get his [position].”
Griffiths said he will keep pushing to have the proper consultation process carried out on his own application.
He has lodged a complaint with Colette Langlois, the NWT’s ombud, who is able to investigate territorial government departments to assess fairness in decision-making. That complaint is under review, he said.