Despite court ruling, resort opponent claims the litigation was meant to ‘silence’ critics

By Chris Simon

All of the lawsuits launched against opponents of the former Big Bay Point Resort have been settled, according to an environmental lobbyist group.
Nine separate legal cases, seeking about $150 million in claims against opponents that included the Innisfil District Association, Gilbert’s LLP, and several local residents, have either been settled in favour of the defendants out of court, or dismissed outright during the last few years.
In March, Geranium Corporation discontinued one of its final claims. So with all of the litigation matters done, opponents are calling on the provincial government to enact legislation against Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation (SLAPP) cases.
“When a developer sues for more than $150 million in nine separate cases, but never takes those cases to trial, you know you’re dealing with a SLAPP,” said Environmental Defence lawyer David Donnelly, one of the people named in the litigation. “A main point of a SLAPP is to silence voices speaking for the environment from participating in required processes. The Environmental Bill of Rights guarantees Ontarians the right to fair and open consultation, free from developers and their SLAPP tactics. That didn’t happen at Friday Harbour.”
On Thursday, Environmental Defence released a report entitled SLAPPed: How lawsuits hurt the environment at Big Bay Point, Ontario, which suggests the litigation intended to ‘silence’ critics of the project.
The lawsuits were launched by Geranium several years ago, with claims opponents had committed libel, intentional interference and conspiracy against the resort owner.
Geranium president Earl Rumm says Environmental Defence’s accusations are simply inaccurate. In January 2009, the Ontario Municipal Board dismissed a $3.2 million cost recovery case against the Innisfil District Association, Nextnine Limited, 2025890 Ontario Inc., and Gilbert’s LLP lawyers Tim Gilbert and David Donnelly. However, the judge in the case clearly indicated the litigation was not a SLAPP.
“In the judge’s decision on the cost award, which is the only time we’ve lost to Environmental Defence and the Innisfil District Association, it says there was no SLAPP intent,” said Rumm. “If Donnelly is accepting the decision that we lost the cost award, he has to accept on the merits of that decision. There’s nothing to talk about. (Donnelly) plays a fool’s game. I don’t hear anybody else arguing (over this issue). I don’t believe the province agrees with Donnelly. He can’t stop the project, there’s no need to.”
The developer was attempting to recover legal fees and expert costs for themselves, the County of Simcoe and the Town of Innisfil.
Over two years ago, the provincial government announced the formation of an expert panel, to look into the SLAPP issue. Although the Opposition has asked for an update on the progress of the panel, there’s little indication a report or recommendations will be coming forward anytime soon, said York-Simcoe Progressive Conservative MPP Julia Munro.
“The government did have a panel to look at the issue,” she said. “They’ve done nothing about it; it’s been swallowed up, with no response from the government. We’ve had no answers. It would seem this is another one of those situations where the government sets up a panel and then it just languishes somewhere in an office. We don’t know what the panel is suggesting, or what the government’s reaction to it is. In theory, the object of any legislation should be to provide some balance for everybody.
“You can’t have people looking over their shoulders, but there needs to be some fundamental opportunity for public expression.”
Once complete, the recently renamed project will feature 1,600 residential housing units and 400 hotel rooms. Now called Friday Harbour, it also includes 87- hectares of environmentally protected land, a golf course, 1,000-slip marina, conference centre, theatre, an indoor sports, recreation and fitness facility and retail space.
Rumm says the initial public response has been outstanding.
“We’re doing a lot of work on the site,” he said. “We’re expanding the mouth of the marina entrance right now, put the main road through the resort, and have done a lot of work to protect the lake. We’ll start to excavate the marina in the fall. We’re plowing ahead. We started our marketing campaign about a month ago. The response is unbelievable; we’ve had 13,000 people hit our website since, and we have over 3,000 appointments to view the project. We are going to provide a thousand jobs. The spinoff is in the millions (of dollars range). Our focus is getting on with the business at hand.”…