Property battle makes for sad tale

First published:
April 23, 2003

When Barry King tells the story of his family’s long battle with Haldimand Township over the Russ Creek cemetery, it is a sad tale.

For nearly half a century, one member or another of the King clan has battle with officials over a two-acre Methodist abandoned cemetery, once a site for vandals and party-goers more than a respected place to bury one’s family. In fact, the last burial took place in the 1950s amidst ruined markers and sunken graves of a century before, says King.

Barry is a well-known artist and editorial cartoonist for the Cobourg Star and Port Hope Evening Guide. His talents are well recognized and he was recently honoured with a Architecture Conservancy of Ontario Cobourg Heritage Award. His razor wit and skill with caricature makes him a fine craftsman on the editorial pages. Those he skewers often ask him for copies of his cartoon. There can be no greater respect.

The current battle between King and the township began in the early 1980s when the provincial government required municipalities to provide minimal maintenance to these abandoned cemeteries. King surmises this was where the township’s interest first began in restoring Russ’ Creek.

Like many sour stories, this one begins on a sweet note. King’s mother was approached by the municipality to undertake restorations. Pleased with the opportunity to preserve a small portion of her heritage, she granted permission to create an access road, as long as it was never permanent. In fact, this was part of a long tradition of granting access to the cemetery through the King’s lands. Barry’s grandmother had given permission in the 1920s and 1930s to allow hearses access by using the farmhouse drive way.

This was a neighbourly courtesy, much the same as that commonly extended to farmers, who often used each others land for short-cuts in harvest time, or for easier passage in winter, when the snow had drifted across the roads but left the field’s bare, King said.

While the family was living in British Columbia, a new access had been cut across the family property. When visiting, the land and cemetery were strewn with beer bottles and evidence of vandalism was apparent.Several times attempts were made to black the roads, but it was destroyed. Since the family lived far away, it was impossible to monitor the situation.

It was the mid-1990s when the fight heated up. The township’s abandoned Cemetery Advisory Committee came after the King family following some construction on the road. Temporary access to the cemetery was provided by the Kings, but it was suggested the historic access road off Russ Creek Road be restored. A neighbour offered a grant of land to recreate a proper access directly to the cemetery, not going through the King’s land. The family also offered $5,000 to assist with costs.

A nasty fight ensued as the township refused to acknowledge the historic access road as viable and pushed hard to wrestle access through the King property. Finally the township decided in December 1999 to go to court.

Finally a year ago, a judge heard arguments. The ownership was contested. Affidavits were challenged.

An out of court settlement was presented. And only within the past few weeks was finalized. The township will pay legal costs for the Kings, among other things. A path to the east side of the cemetery has been granted by the family. No vehicles will be allowed accept for the disabled.

If the township had accepted the neighbour’s land grant and a $1,500 grant from the Ministry of Natural Resources to preserve a heritage grassland on which the cemetery is located, the municipality would have borne next to no cost.

Unfortunately, the protracted battle has cost taxpayers uncalculated thousands of dollars. Some estimates go as high as $70,000, said King, but the township is not saying much. Figures of $35,000 were floating around a year ago. Nothing official. It cost the King family about $22,500 for court costs only.

This is a tragic tale in some ways. The incredible pressure put on the King family cannot be measured. Barry said he no longer wished to place his family on the stand. It was not worth it.

What is also sad is how the generosity of the family could become so misconstrued. Informal agreements, friendly permission, done in the kind spirit of community-mindedness became so perverted.

It is a sign of our times. At one point in our history, people did not need contracts, but did deals based on a hand shake and the word of an individual. Personal integrity was the only thing needed.

Today we must have contracts, legislation, lawyers and courts to decide what is to happen.

The township must be held accountable for all of this. Reeve Bill Finley must release all associated costs to the public in a full report. His refusal to do so should be met with a call for an inquiry by the Ministry of Municipal Affairs by taxpayers of the township. Nothing less will do.

In the meantime, voters should be weighing this incident carefully when looking at who should become reeve during the fall municipal elections. One cannot feel there are a lot of unanswered questions about what motivated the municipality to pursue this with such vigor. In a small municipality like Haldimand, intelligent people should be able to reach a compromise. This is something that should have never seen the inside of a court room.

Finley admits it should have never gone this far. In fact, in a published interview, he said it should have never gone to court.

Municipalities have resources unlike individual property owners. It is easy to spend taxpayers’ money. It is harder to reach into one’s own bank account. There is a great responsibility when any council or public institution decides to flex its legal muscles. For those without a stomach for a fight or shallow pockets, it can be devastating. Just ask the parents of L.B Powers Public School or those who fought the closing of Thomas Gillbard.. Ask anyone who has tried to take on a municipality, school board or other body.

It has been a long battle for the King family. Thankfully it is over. Let’s hope it is not over for council until all the facts and figures are on the table.

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