SOUTHWEST COAST, NL – Isle aux Morts mayor Nelson Lillington has had enough of a former fish plant he has labelled an eyesore.
The town’s former fish plant was sold at auction to Greg Sheaves in July 2000 and was subsequently stripped of anything of monetary value. Eighteen years later, the plant continues to rot only six feet from the roadway.
For homeowners on the other side of the road and tourists who visit the scenic town and harbour, the fish plant tends to spoil the view.
Prior to winning office during last fall’s municipal election, Lillington says he was one of the residents who did a lot of complaining about the former fish plant.
“I said well (expletive deleted) why isn’t nothing being done about this property? Why is he allowed to keep this like it is, not knowing of the ins and out of what is required.”
Now that he’s the mayor the complaints haven’t stopped, but Lillington has a better appreciation for what his predecessors went through.
One of the options Isle aux Morts has considered is expropriating the property.
An estimate from a local contractor just to remove the remainder of the building and other debris came in at $200,000. Municipal Affairs estimates that to remove everything and turn the entire site to its original condition would cost around $900,000.
“We could go in. We could demolish what he has over there. We could take it all down,” admitted Lillington. “But the amount of money it would cost us would bankrupt the town. Then you spend years in court and another boatload of money to try to get that money back. And just because you’ve got a judgement stating that you’ve got to pay X number of dollars does not mean you will ever see the dollars.”
Lillington admits he has not spoken directly with Mr. Sheaves. Council records show that Sheaves has made promises in the past to clean up the site, and Lillington believes any further discussion is simply a waste of time.
“I’m fairly certain that he knows that small towns around do not have the money to battle him in court.”
Over the past 18 years, Isle aux Morts has spent about $4,500 just corresponding with Sheaves. Lillington believes legal fees will increase as the town will likely be left with no choice but to continue through the courts.
Rose Blanche – Harbour Le Cou town council is also fighting with Mr. Sheaves for removal of an old fish plant in that town. Mayor Clayton Durnford says that his town has been battling for its removal for at least the past six years, even winning judgements.
“We’ve tried to do something about it. Every meeting, you know, this same topic comes up and we’re trying to figure out the next move or the best move,” said Durnford. “It’s an ongoing process.”
The Rose Blanche – Harbour Le Cou fish plant crumbles next to the wharf where the MV Challenge One docks. The ferry shuttles passengers to and from La Poile, and last year as part of its five-year marine infrastructure plan, the N.L. government announced a small terminal will be built for the service.
Durnford is hoping that once that gets started it will apply even more pressure on Mr. Sheaves.
Both towns have had environmental assessments done on their respective plants. While the Isle aux Morts plants was initially discovered to have lead paint, after 18 years it’s unknown what, if any contamination, remains. Durnford said the Rose Blanche fish plant was found to have asbestos, but because it is currently contained it’s not hazardous.
“The asbestos is not an issue until it gets moved,” said Durnford, who noted the assessment was actually done years ago. Since then the roof of the fish plant has begun to collapse. “Until somebody starts to do work on it or tear it apart, well that’s when the dust and that comes from it.”
Durnford says it’s important for his town to know that its council will continue to fight to have the plant removed and the site fully restored. He promises he won’t let it go and noted that part of his re-election campaign was to get the fish plant removed.
“We is working on it the best we can, and we will do what we gotta do to get it cleaned up because that’s what needs to be done, but it takes a long time. Too long probably.”
Durnford says his town is open to working with Isle aux Morts in any way to help solve their common problem.
Both mayors are currently focused on getting some guidance from the provincial government. Last month the town sent letters to municipal affairs and Service N.L., which is something the previous councils have done too.
“We’re asking for assistance. We’re asking for information, and it seems like we’re not getting any help from the province,” said a clearly frustrated Lillington. “As a town our hands are basically tied on what we can and can’t do until we receive direction.”
Like Durnford, he’s determined to do everything that’s necessary to have the fish plant removed.
“I’m going to let it go when my council tells me I’ve got to let it go,” said Lillington. “I’m like a bulldog.”
MHA Andrew Parsons (Burgeo – La Poile) is also trying to help.
“I’ve been dealing with it literally since before I got elected,” acknowledged Parsons, who has had conversations with both communities.
Parsons won’t comment on details but says enforcement for those non-compliant with judgements is commonplace in any civil litigation.
He said that while the Municipalities Act regarding expropriation is great in theory, the associated costs with an industrial site cleanup is beyond the scope of most small municipalities. But that’s not to say the province should bear that burden either.
“I don’t think by anybody’s imagination that provinces can take on dealing with municipal cleanup issues like that,” said Parsons. “I’ve had multiple conversations with multiple councils over multiple years on this exact same issue.”
Parsons says government cannot afford the costs to dispose of every dilapidated fish plant in the province any more than the municipalities can.
“What I’m saying is can we find other ways to have this dealt with? If it’s not through the Municipalities Act, what can be done through Service Newfoundland and Labrador which is, in many cases, the enforcement arm of government?”
The issue of the dilapidated fish plants on the southwest coast is not a partisan one, said Parsons, but because it has gone on so long it has spanned multiple governments. That makes it difficult to determine what has already been tried and what can still yet be done.
“If there’s no legislative remedy that’s available – I’m sure that this is not an issue that’s unique to our district. I bet you it’s going on in a lot of places. So maybe we can find a way to address this because multiple municipalities are dealing with it.”
There is legislation in place for violating environmental orders should any have been placed, but Parsons is still awaiting responses from Service N.L. and municipal affairs minister Eddie Joyce.
“I completely echo the frustration expressed by multiple communities when it comes to these types of situations,” said Parsons. “I’ve got what I consider to be a pretty good working relationship with both councils and their staff, so what we need to do is continue to work to make this happen.”
Like the two mayors, he believes the onus is squarely on the property owner, and not on provincial and municipal taxpayers.
“You hate to see owners of derelict and municipal properties not take responsibility for them. I think that’s extremely, extremely unfortunate and I don’t think taxpayers should have to pay for the burden of doing it. You think about it. Why should the province bear the cost of somebody not maintaining their own private property?”
Greg Sheaves did not respond to The Gulf News requests for comment prior to publication deadline.