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What happened when the city tried, but mostly failed, to widen Herring Cove Road 

The city bought over 50 properties, but seems not to have known what it was doing.

As the city buys properties in preparation of widening Bayers Road, it's instructive to look at a series of similar property purchases made decades ago. The lessons: Nothing terrible happens when roads aren't widened, and when the city buys lots of property, it invariably screws up some of those purchases.

As early as the 1970s, the then-city of Halifax began buying up properties along Herring Cove Road in preparation for widening and re-aligning the road. I've been unable to find the complete plan for the road, but judging by the property bought, the idea seems to have been to widen it to at least four lanes, from the Rotary all the way through Spryfield.

This was soon after the Harbour Drive proposal was killed. That project envisioned North West Arm Drive being extended across a bridge over the Northwest Arm, and the loss of that potential bridge may have prompted traffic engineers to think they needed a wider Herring Cove Road to handle more cars coming onto the peninsula.

The city bought well over 50 properties, or pieces of property, along Herring Cove Road from 1971 to 2004.

Many properties were acquired through "opportunity purchases" similar to the purchases now being made along Bayers Road, with an owner making an unsolicited offer to the city. Staff reports to the former City of Halifax council are kept at the Municipal Archives. I've read about a dozen of the reports on these opportunity purchases, and it appears that the sales price was worked out by staff and the owners ahead of time, with council rubber-stamping that decision.

For example, the houses at 397 and 399 Herring Cove Road were owned by Commercial Developments, the company owned by Ralph Medjuck. Medjuck had bought the lots in 1984 from Bryant Investments, and three years later sold them to the city for an undisclosed amount.

Medjuck also owned 401 Herring Cove Road, but did not make such an opportunity sale to the city. Instead, that parcel is included among 34 properties listed in an expropriation order approved by council in 1989:

expropriation_order.jpg

For the most part, the city didn't need the entire lots listed in the expropriation order, but merely a strip along the road. The city acquired all the property by 1991, and went ahead to widen that section of road to four lanes.

This is, roughly, the part of Herring Cove Road that is parallel to the Captain William Spry Centre. The land under the Centre was itself acquired by the city in 1982.

click to enlarge 407 Herring Cove Road is owned by the city.
  • 407 Herring Cove Road is owned by the city.
There's a weird historic relic left over from the 1990s road widening: 407 Herring Cove Road, a cute one-and-a-half-storey house that sits on the slope leading from the road down to McIntosh Run, just south of the footbridge leading to the Captain William Spry Centre. The city still owns the house, and rents it out.

Curiously, the Property Values Service Corporation, the non-profit agency that assesses property in Nova Scotia, lists no value at all for 407 Herring Cove Road. This appears to be an oversight on PVSC's part, says city spokesperson Brendan Elliot. The adjacent empty lots are also owned by the city: 405 Herring Cove Road, which was bought for $58,000 in 1991, is now assessed at just $49,500, the lower amount reflecting the loss of the house that once occupied the lot; 409 Herring Cove Road, which appears to have been an empty lot when it was bought by the city in 1990 for $2,400, is now valued at $18,800.

PVSC assigns a value to every piece of residential property the city owns, even though the city is exempt from paying taxes on it. I've been attempting to compile a list of all such property owned by the city, but it's slow going. The list will certainly be in the dozens, at least, and the houses are all over HRM.

For most of the property acquired by the city for the Herring Cove Road widening, the city either didn't need the part of the lot where the house stood, and so the houses still are owned privately, or the houses were torn down. But even though the city has acquired dozens of property nominally for widening Herring Cove Road, except for the section parallel to the Captain William Spry Centre, none of that widening has happened.

Take, for instance, two lots on either side of these poorly designed and desolate apartment buildings in the 500 block of Herring Cove Road:

crappy_apartments.jpg

click to enlarge 546 Herring Cove Road
  • 546 Herring Cove Road
The city stopped the four-laning of the road immediately north of these apartments, even though it had bought up 530 and 546 Herring Cove Road in anticipation of the widening. The property to the south of the apartments, 546, now holds a basketball court; 530, however, is just a weed-covered mess.

Several other properties the city bought for the road expansion are likewise not very well maintained. For example, the property at 130 Herring Cove Road had two- and three-foot grass when I checked it out, albeit the flowers had some appeal. That parcel seems to be where the road was realigned, with the old road serving as a driveway for several houses.

Other properties acquired for the road widening are better maintained, however. This pocket park at the corner of Williams Lake Road provides a nice respite from the nearby traffic:

pocket_park.jpg

And then there are five lots owned by the city, just up from the Rotary, and across from the Herring Cove Road Carwash. The addresses are numbered 48 through 56. Here's a site map:

screen_shot_2013-08-20_at_3.51.56_pm.png

The city began buying these lots, for purposes of widening and re-aligning Herring Cove Road, in 1977, when it paid $22,000 for a house and lot at 48 HCR. In 1982, the city bought 50 HCR, for an amount I haven't been able to discover. In 1998, the city bought two more of the houses in this stretch: 52 HCR, from the estate of Harry Kennedy, for $63,500, and 56 HCR, for $92,000, from the estate of John Welsh.

With one exception, these two 1998 purchases were the last houses among the 50+ properties the city bought along Herring Cove Road for purposes of widening and re-aligning the road. In fact, the city seems to have given up on the widening at some point in the late 1990s, and over the next nearly 20 years, with that one exception, no effort has been made to widen the road or to acquire more property for widening the road.

The one exception is 54 Herring Cove Road, one of the five properties across from the carwash.

That property actually consisted of two houses: 54 HCR, near the road, and 54 1/2 HCR, at the rear of the hockey stick-shaped property. The front house was the family home for George and Florence Finck. George died in 1997, and then Florence in 2000. The Fincks had four children, but they didn't pay the taxes on the property, and so it went to a tax sale in 2004, owing $17,331.88 in back taxes.

According to city spokesperson Brendan Elliot, the property was bought by Marjan Enterprises on March 3, 2004, for $75,300. Soon thereafter, in July, 2004, HRM council agreed to buy the property from Marjan, for $100,000, and the sale was recorded on August 4, 2004. By flipping the property, Marjan had turned a tidy $24,700 profit in just five months.

But then, the city gave the rear part of the property, addressed 54 1/2, back to Marjan, for free.

The July 13, 2004 staff report to council about the sale was prepared by city staffer Mike Woods, who was involved in the re-zoning dispute involving Mary Thibeault's property, which The Coast explored last year. The report was approved by three people: Peter Stickings, then the acting director of Real Property, who is best known as the city official overseeing the contested sale of St. Pat's-Alexandra to a developer; Richard Paynter, then the director of Public Works; and Dale MacLennan, then the director of Finance. The report reads:

BACKGROUND
The subject property, civic number 54 and 54 1/2 Herring Cove Road, is required to complete the necessary land acquisitions to facilitate the future upgrading and realignment of Herring Cove Road between the Armdale Rotary and Cowie Hill Road. The Municipality has made a significant investment in land acquisition to date in support of this project and the subject site is a key property in the PWTS's plan. With reference to Attachment "A", HRM now owns civic numbers 46,50,52 and 56 Herring Cove Road.

Civic number 54 is a two storey building situated on a large irregular lot of 9,000± sqft and is located entirely within the new proposed alignment. A portion of the structure currently encroaches over the existing street line. Civic number 54 1/2 is a two storey located on the rear of the property. The building is in poor condition and hasn't been occupied for a number of years.

DISCUSSION
If the current owner, Marjan Enterprises Ltd. retained the properties, considerable funds would need to be spent for property upgrades to civic number 54. The owner is aware ofthe proposed re-alignment and has offered to sell the Municipality the front portion, which it requires for the re-alignment. The owner would retain the rear portion of the lot which currently supports 54 1/2.

PURCHASE CONSIDERATIONS
The property had been independently appraised at a value of $79,000 in the year 2000. Conservatively adjusted @3% per annum this results in an indicative 2004 value of in the order of$90,000.

The negotiated purchase price with Marjan Enterprises Ltd. is $100,000 which represents a slight premium but not one that is out of step with market. Council should note that 56 Herring Cove Road, the closest comparable to the subject, was acquired by the Municipality in 1998 for $92,000 plus seller's legal expenses. The alternative of expropriation would likely exceed this amount.

Due to timing considerations, suggested by the owner, it is proposed that HRM acquire the total property and close on August 6th, 2004. The property would then be subdivided and the rear portion not required for street purposes conveyed back upon completion ofthe final plan of survey.

Not only did the city give 54 1/2 back to Marjan, but it also gave the company the rear portions of 50 and 52, the parts not needed for the road widening. Those properties were all combined in a site plan recorded in the property office in June of 2005.

Marjan is owned by Roger Stirling, who also owns Stirling Realty. Over the years Stirling has used Marjan to purchase 17 properties, mostly through tax sales; Marjan still owns 13 of those properties. Stirling has not returned a call for comment, but there's no indication he has done anything improper. It's clear he saw an opportunity and took it.

Moreover, the house at 54 1/2 Herring Cove Road no longer exists, and so Stirling is making no rental income off the property. Additionally, the property is somewhat stranded, with no street access until Herring Cove Road is widened, assuming that ever happens. In the meanwhile, Marjan continues to pay property taxes on the parcel, now assessed at $60,000. This is hardly a cash-cow for Stirling.

And the city-owned stretch along the road is now just an empty field, except for some crumbling former driveways, a couple of foundations and an ancient stone wall.

This looks to me like one hand of the city not knowing what the other hand is doing. The city doesn't actually own the properties put up for tax sale, but it certainly had the chance to bid on them against other potential owners. The city seems to have given up on the Herring Cove Road widening project entirely, and the staff report implies that it was reminded of it by Marjan. A city that had its shit together would be on the look out for properties it intends to buy, but here's one that was right under its nose, completely missed.

Another unfortunate aspect of this is that, up until 1998, it looks like the city was waiting for the elderly residents of the small houses along that stretch of road to pass away, and then it would make opportunity purchases from the estate. That's what happened with 52 and 56 Herring Cove Road, anyway. It's a sensible approach, allowing old people to live out their days in their family homes, then giving some money to the children via the estate. But after 1998, that sensible approach was forgotten.

Had the city maintained that approach, instead of seeing the property lost for a measly $17,000 and change in back taxes, the heirs of George and Florence Finck would have received a payout of $100,000 for the property. Because the city had given up on that sensible approach, the money instead went to a savvy realtor.

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