The Simcoe County mayor behind a push to dissolve the Nottawasaga Valley Conservation Authority (NVCA) has ties to potential development lands under its jurisdiction.
Essa Mayor David Guergis’ wife Leesa Turnbull-Guergis owns land on Highway 90 near the No Frills grocery store. The land is within an area designated a flood plain by the NVCA – an area where development applications are met with stringent conditions and are sometimes even denied by the authority. The land was being prepped for the development of a Canadian Tire store.
Guergis tabled motion at Essa council to dissolve the NVCA. The motion was deferred last week and will now be dealt with at council’s Oct. 7 meeting.
His move to effectively remove any powers of the authority has nothing to do with any potential delays it might cause for his wife’s development land, he said. The dissolution motion is based on cost and the inefficiency with which the NVCA works to better the watershed, according to Guergis.
On March 13 Guergis and his wife attended an NVCA board meeting where they expressed concerns the conservation authority is slowing development in the area.
Guergis was asked at the outset of the meeting by chair Walter Benotto to avoid speaking “specifically on the proposed development.”
Guergis advised the board he had attended a meeting with council representatives from Clearview Township and Wasaga Beach, and with Natural Resources Minister Donna Cansfield. He said all the towns were losing development due to NVCA red tape.
 “[Guergis] indicated that Simcoe County mayors would like to see this change across all of Ontario in order to streamline development.”
Discussion then turned to specific development.
“With reference to the proposed development property owned by Leesa Turnbull-Guergis, Mayor Guergis concluded that he has never seen flooding problems in this area,” the minutes read.
Guergis told the Herald the property he was referring to at the March NVCA meeting was not the same property his wife owns.
The NVCA minutes refer specifically to discussion about “development property owned by his wife.”
The Essa mayor challenged the validity of the minutes, saying, “I didn’t take the minutes. My staff didn’t take the minutes.”
“That’s coming from the conservation authority, which right now isn’t very much in love with me,” he said. “I didn’t talk about a particular property.”
NVCA Chair Benotto stands by the board’s minutes from the meeting saying they are accurate.
“If they’d been accepted by the executive committee, which they would have been, they’re accurate,” he said. He said Guergis referred to property his wife owned despite having been told at the onset of the meeting to steer clear of specific developments.
After Guergis’ deputation at the March NVCA meeting his wife asked to speak to the board. While Guergis maintains he had left the room at this point, the minutes record he and his wife leaving together after her deputation.
Although no official development plan or application has been made for the Turnbull-Guergis lands, according to the minutes, “She stated a considerable amount of money has been spent on tree removal for the subject property. She questioned why she had not been informed that she would not be permitted to build on the property before she had made this investment.”
The board was puzzled since nothing about the land had ever come to them for review. There was mention of conditions the NVCA set before the land could be developed when Turnbull-Guergis previously applied to have the land severed, but that’s the extent of any official NVCA comment on the land in question.
At an Essa committee of adjustment meeting on Feb. 19, a month earlier, Skelton Brumwell planner Rob Catarino said the developer he was representing was in the process of acquiring property from Leesa Turnbull-Guergis. Catarino said he was acting on behalf of Canadian Tire, which was interested in the property. He was successful that evening in securing a minor variance to allow the sale of fossil fuels. Canadian Tire operates gas stations at some of its store locations.
When asked if he felt his move to dissolve the NVCA was a conflict of interest in light of his wife’s development lands and the discussion at the March meeting of the board, Guergis said he doesn’t feel it’s a conflict at all. He said he was even getting a legal opinion on the matter and would forward a letter from his counsel to the newspaper. The next day he e-mailed and said he had changed his mind, and would submit the letter after he had read the newspaper article.
He admits he has a conflict of interest when issues surrounding his wife’s property are raised at Essa and Simcoe County councils and he has always declared those conflicts. However, he defends his presence at the March 13 NVCA meeting, saying he was acting as mayor on behalf of all development in Essa and not for a specific property or development.
He said his move to dissolve the NVCA isn’t about less planning.
“This isn’t to ask for a reduction in planning,” Guergis said. “I’m asking for them to get out and fix our watershed… Whatever planning they are doing, carry on doing that.”
Guergis said with authority powers removed, a Nottawasaga Valley conservation “association” would advise municipal planners, who would then consider the recommendations.
“They’re professionals,” Guergis said of municipal planners. “If our planner says this is the way it is – that’s the way it is. We don’t direct our planners.”
Municipal councils do have the power to override municipal staff, or ask for staff to revisit a proposal and find solutions to problems so it can be accommodated.
“My position is still that (the NVCA) should be dissolved and should be an association,” Guergis said.
According to Mayor Guergis, the Canadian Tire deal has expired.
“There is no deal with Canadian Tire,” he said.
As for any other interest in his wife’s property, Guergis wouldn’t comment.
He said as mayor he sees a lot of interest in properties throughout Angus, saying, “There has been tremendous interest.”
Referring to Alliston’s booming west end, Guergis said, “That’s all I want for my community too. I don’t care where they go, I just want them here …I’m not asking for a break for my family, or anyone else’s family.”
In the meantime, his move to dissolve the authority is gaining momentum.
Oro-Medonte Mayor Harry Hughes and Deputy Mayor Ralph Hough have supported the move. Adjala-Tosorontio Mayor Tom Walsh said he didn’t support an end to the NVCA but called for more fiscal responsibility.
 
Without Authority
NVCA CAO Wayne Wilson said turning the conservation authority into an association via dissolution would remove its ability to regulate development.
As part of its provincially legislated mandate, the conservation authority is the lead agency concerning development in flood-prone or erosion-prone areas like Angus. The conservation authority is mandated to review development plans under the provincial planning act.
If a conservation authority advises against development, a municipality can take its grievance to the Ontario Municipal Board (OMB).
That hasn’t ever happened in Essa, Wilson said.
If it did, however, an NVCA appeal “would have significant weight.”
If the NVCA were to be dissolved, it would no longer have the power to mandate cumulative impact studies that would investigate the effects of development on flood plains; would no longer be able to ensure structures are flood-proofed to a regulatory level; wouldn’t be able to ensure adequate storm management; and wouldn’t be able see that development at the site doesn’t impact other properties in the flood plain.
“These are required for development we believe could be subject to flooding,” Wilson said. “If you throw a brick in the bathtub, the water level goes up.”
These restrictions are also described in the Township of Essa’s official plan.