Shaw Wilderness Park sets dangerous precedent for future land deals

Development firm will earn millions in profits—and public park naming rights—by selling the Purcell’s Cove Backlands it bought on speculation to HRM.

Jim Guild is a longtime resident of Halifax. He is retired. - VIA HALIFAXTRAILS.CA
Jim Guild is a longtime resident of Halifax. He is retired.

Allan Shaw and the Shaw Group sold the land for the Purcells Cove urban wilderness park for $6.6 million—300 percent of its assessed value and $2 million more than it paid for the property in 2011.

That’s how to make “corporate philanthropy and real city-building” pay.

And in another altruistic gesture, they got HRM to christen this “wonderful and worthwhile project” the Shaw Wilderness Park. In return, they’ll even pave a part of this paradise for a parking lot.  

The two largest parcels of urban reserve (154 hectares, or 380 acres) were purchased six years ago for $4.7 million when the land, presumably deemed to have some development potential, was assessed at close to $4 million. After Shaw subsidiary Clayton Developments tried unsuccessfully in 2014 to have HRM rezone the land for development, the property assessment dropped to $2.1 million and remains so today. It’s not clear whether or not Shaw had to file an appeal to get the assessment cut in half.

Mr. Shaw and Shaw Group were happy to pay taxes for four years on a $2.1 million property assessment, but when it came to selling this land it couldn’t develop, they extracted $6.6 million from HRM and the Nature Conservancy of Canada (NCC).

A charity—the NCC—now has to raise $2.5 million from donors for its share of the land purchase, and an estimated $1 million more for costs related to the deal, while municipal taxpayers have to come up with $4.1 million. A significant chunk of that is profit for Mr. Shaw and Shaw Group.

Another salient point is that Shaw Group did not sell all the land it purchased in 2011 for $4.7 million. A 9.3-acre plot nearby is currently for sale for $989,900. Its property assessment is $329,000. Whatever this property sells for is additional profit for Clayton Developments, AKA Shaw Group.

As well as Shaw Group getting credit for "corporate philanthropy", they got the naming rights forever, virtually for nothing, and made a good profit to boot. And this for a company that would have developed the wilderness had HRM council not shown unusual backbone in denying them the rezoning in 2014.

So far, media coverage have deemed this as great news: The CBC didn’t mention what Shaw paid for the land or what the assessment was; the Chronicle Herald pushed the HRM spin and didn’t mention the $6.6 million figure and was not clear that the Shaws were getting all of it; Global News mentioned some of the background; The Halifax Metro story was much better but only hinted at the profiteering.

I think the deal, while likely to result in a wonderful urban wilderness park, sets a dangerous but predictable precedent for future deals by HRM. The top priority seems to be that the developer/owner selling land must make money while eliminating any risk. The only time I ever agreed with Gloria McCluskey was when she said, as quoted in a Global News story on September 6, that: “They bought it trying to get permission to develop it, couldn’t, and now they want to download it.”


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