By Laurie Watt
Big Bay Point resort’s Geranium Corporation is the focal point of a call by Environmental Defence for the province to put an end to intimidating lawsuits against development opponents.
Last Thursday, Environmental Defence wrote a letter to Premier Dalton McGuinty urging him to act quickly to “end the scourge of strategic lawsuits against public participation (SLAPP) in Ontario.”
The move comes in the midst of an Ontario Municipal Board costs battle, expected to climax in an October hearing. Developer Geranium Corporation – which won OMB hearings in both Hillsdale and Big Bay Point – is seeking $3.2 million from opponents, including Environmental Defence counsel David Donnelly, the Innisfil District Association and a numbered company that wanted to expand the Big Bay Point Golf and Country Club.
A former director of Concerned Residents of Hillsdale agrees McGuinty should step in and make sure neighbours aren’t afraid to participate in the Ontario Municipal Board process.
Jay Pattison attended the OMB hearing on a project that would add 593 homes to the small village on Highway 93 that’s now home to approximately 900 people.
“Five of the six (CROH) directors voted to change our status (at the
OMB) hearing for fear of litigation against the directors personally.
They were afraid of something,” said Pattison.
As the Hillsdale OMB hearing opened literally two weeks after Geranium announced it would seek costs in the Big Bay Point matter, CROH chairperson Tanya Mullings requested the group’s status be downgraded from party to participant.
The downgrade removed the group’s ability to question witnesses and limited its involvement to making statements; it could also not call witnesses.
After a two-day hearing – which had been expected to last three weeks — the OMB quickly approved the Hillsdale development; it heard no contrary evidence, only opinions from several individuals.
Mullings would not comment on Environmental Defence’s letter to McGuinty, as she is to appear as an Environmental Defence witness in the OMB costs hearing.
Environmental Defence executive director Rick Smith said Mullings is not alone.
“Based on mounting evidence from other development cases across southern Ontario, where citizen groups are thinking twice about appearing in front of the OMB for fear of crippling financial penalties, we believe Geranium’s high-profile SLAPP suit is having the desired effect of chilling public participation,” he said in the letter.
“It is unjust to allow this process to drag on for so long. We are calling on our partner organizations in the Ontario Greenbelt Alliance to join our call for anti-SLAPP legislation.”
Geranium spokesman Jim Maclean said the SLAPP term doesn’t fit the Big Bay Point situation since other ratepayer groups, the Town of Innisfil, the County of County and provincial ministries approved the resort plan.
The letter to the premier is actually an attempt to intimidate developers, he added.
He said Smith’s letter is filled  “with misrepresentations and drama: it is a threat and a warning to developers that if they take any legal steps to defend themselves from defamation or illegal interference, they will be met with the charge of SLAPP and will be stripped of their due rights and liberties by the intimidation of NIMBY-ist opponents and self-styled environmentalists.”
He added Environment Defence, which received hundreds of thousands of taxpayers’ dollars from the Ontario government and the publicly funded Friends of the Greenbelt Foundation, is asking the government to introduce legislation “that would give a small group of citizens who oppose the democratic public process and the considered approvals of all three levels of government and the OMB the right to veto any project that they do not agree with.”