Real Estate Reporter
It’s summertime and the livin’ is easy at Big Bay Point, snug on the southwest shore of Lake Simcoe.
All appears peaceful, from gulls wheeling across a cobalt sky to ducks herding their fuzzy youngsters over glass-smooth waters.
But beneath the veneer of tranquility big trouble is brewing.
A Toronto-based developer seeking approval for a $1 billion vacation resort and marina in Innisfil has caused a storm of controversy by taking on detractors with a flurry of lawsuits. Opponents counter that that Earl Rumm and his Geranium Corp. are abusing the courts in an effort to muzzle them. Rumm and his company have four lawsuits on the go – at one time there were seven – seeking a total of $85.8 million in damages.
Rumm says he is only trying to protect his interests, but the targets of his suits accuse him of bullying.
“We think this is just another intimidation tactic aimed at keeping the people quiet,” says Don Avery, the president of the ratepayers’ group, Innisfil District Association, and one of those being sued.
“I think this has become a personal vendetta.”
Rumm says this is nonsense, explaining that the suits were launched to hold his critics accountable.
“The courts will decide if these are just done to intimidate,” he adds. “Otherwise this is nobody else’s business. So my answer to you about the lawsuits is `no comment.'”
If given final approval, Big Bay Point Resort will feature 1,600 condos and townhomes as well as 400 hotel rooms, all clustered around a 1,000-slip boat marina.
The 600-acre property is a prime chunk of Lake Simcoe real estate near the tip of upscale Big Bay Point, about 10 kilometres east of Barrie.
The point itself is chockablock with million-dollar homes and has long been a summer hangout for wealthy Torontonians. But it’s also the kind of mixed community found on lakes across the province, featuring rambling waterfront estates next to places like the Bee Happy Family Campground.
Rumm himself has cottaged in the area for many years, so many of his opponents are neighbours.
The resort proposal has driven a wedge between area residents, with some saying it will raise property values and attract much-needed economic activity.
Others say it will be a too-large, out-of-character, environmentally unfriendly blight on the landscape. According to a list of resort supporters supplied by the developer, everyone from the head of a local environmental group, to artists and area ratepayers’ groups are lined up firmly in the resort’s camp.
What makes this battle a little different from the typical development brouhaha are the lawsuits, which pit a cast of incongruous local characters against Rumm.
Defendants include Avery, two prominent local lawyers, a couple of top Toronto investment bankers and the former head of the Canadian Federation of Independent Business.
Court documents offer up some meaty, lakeside reading.
The defendants are accused of everything from conspiring to buy the main marina property out from under Rumm’s nose, to badmouthing him in a letter to the town.
One suit seeks damages of $41 million from Murray Brasseur, chair and founder of investment firm Middlefield Group, and Ned Goodman, chief executive officer of Dundee Bancorp Inc. That one alleges the duo set up an elaborate and secretive scheme with two Barrie-area lawyers to cheat Rumm out of the marina property using a “sham” offer to purchase.
In his statement of defence, Brasseur says the offer to buy the marina, when Rumm had already purchased it, resulted from a misunderstanding. This was allegedly cultivated by the seller, who was “playing both Geranium and Brasseur off each other,” in the hopes of boosting the purchase price, the statement of defence says.
A separate suit filed against lawyers Thomas Wilson and Marshal Green, a numbered company “and persons unknown,” alleges the defendants were part of this same “conspiracy,” a statement of claim says.
In their amended statement of defence, Green and Wilson say the suit against them, also for $41 million in damages, “is completely without merit. It is an abuse of process of the court, brought solely in an attempt to enhance Geranium’s prospects of obtaining planning approval for its Big Bay Point proposal.”
Lawyer David Donnelly, with Gilbert’s LLP and Environmental Defence, is acting for Avery, Brasseur, Goodman and John Bulloch, former head of the independent business association, at an upcoming Ontario Municipal Board hearing.
Donnelly maintains the lawsuits are “casting a pall” over the full OMB hearing, which is scheduled to begin in August. “The process can’t work if the parties feel threatened or constrained by people suing them all over hell’s half acre,” Donnelly says. “That could chill the process.”
Whatever the outcome of the suits, there is no doubt they have fostered a climate of distrust between Rumm and some of his neighbours, who, in turn, don’t see eye-to-eye among themselves on this issue. The acrimony has led Rumm to post a round-the-clock guard at the front gate to the resort.
The proposed resort’s three- and four-storey condo buildings will not be marketed as full-time residences. Instead, they will be sold as time-shares or fractional ownership units. No full-time residents are expected to live at the resort, eliminating many infrastructure costs.
“The town wouldn’t permit it,” says Jim Maclean, a Geranium spokesperson.
Along with shops and restaurants, the resort would feature a conference centre, sports and fitness centre, Main Street-style retail, an 18-hole golf course and an amphitheatre.
“The whole idea is to make this above standard,” Maclean says. “This will not be your typical resort.”
Rumm is proud of his project, which he says will have the largest inland marina in the province.
The resort will be built to LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) silver or gold standards and the golf course will be designed to Audubon benchmarks, he says.
“This is an environmentally sound project with lots of protected green space,” Rumm adds.
Maclean says the resort will create hundreds of jobs and direct millions of tax dollars to the town’s coffers.
But critics say the project is too big for the sleepy residential community and won’t be economically viable. “The developer has tried to marginalize us as a lot of NIMBY’s,” Avery says. “But this is a low-key cottage area and it isn’t designated for growth. This thing just doesn’t fit in.”
Donnelly argues that the 1,000-slip marina spells trouble for a lake already under assault.
“It may be Lake Simcoe can sustain this level of increased activity,” he says. “But there has been a dramatic increase in near-shore weed growth and the cold water fishery has been decimated. The lake doesn’t need any more problems.”
Such talk infuriates Rumm, who says the residents have never been able to come up with any scientific evidence to show his development poses a threat to the environment.
“All they can say is, `It’s too big, it has too many people,'” Rumm says. “They just don’t want it in their backyard.”
Donnelly wants Queen’s Park to declare a provincial interest in the area based on environmental concerns, as it did in a proposed development on the other side of the lake near Shanty Bay.
That would mean the provincial cabinet – not the Ontario Municipal Board – would get final say on whether the development is approved. Both the town of Innisfil and Simcoe County have given the development the green light.
Two months ago, a memorandum of agreement spelling out a list of conditions, was signed by officials with the province, Simcoe County, Innisfil, another local ratepayers’ group and the developer.
Three issues are still outstanding: the production of an environmental impact statement, a report on sewer and water treatment and a report on the marina basin.
Avery’s ratepayers’ group refused to sign off on the agreement, however, saying they had not been included in the process. The deal would also obligate them to withdraw their opposition to the plan, something the group refused to do.
“The fix was in when they held meetings without us,” Avery says. “We had no say in those issues they agreed to. We are counting on the province to hang tight and fight this on the environmental issues.”
Larry Clay, director of the central regional office for the Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing, says talks with the developer continue. “The ministry is still looking at their studies and reviewing them,” Clay said this week. “But we expect to have a decision shortly.”
Clay said provincial lawyers are expected to be at the table at an OMB pre-hearing scheduled for Monday.