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Williams vs. Dobbin

Animosity grows as St. John’s developers clash over public money spent on infrastructure


Published on September 1, 2017

Danny Williams stands on the future site of his Galway development in 2015.

©Telegram file photo

Two major developers in St. John’s have engaged in a war of words over the potential use of taxpayers’ money for infrastructure just outside their respective developments in the city.

Basil Dobbin, president of Cabot Development Corp. Ltd., which has developments in the city’s east end, and Danny Williams, president of DewCor and developer of the Galway project in the city’s west end, have sparred in recent letters to St. John’s city council and new candidates for council, as well as to Premier Dwight Ball and Finance Minister Tom Osborne.

The letters debate whether there is fair and equitable treatment for developers in both ends of the city. Both Dobbin and Williams highlight examples of where they each think the other has received, or will receive, favour from the city or provincial government.

The issue started this spring in a sort of roundabout way.

Williams and the City of St. John’s were at odds over who should pay for a roundabout at Ruth Avenue and Pitts Memorial Drive — an area just outside the Galway development.

Though the roundabout would be used by residents and tenants of Galway, it would also have multiple other users.

In a letter to the city at the time — just after the city announced major capital expenditures in the east end — Williams questioned why the city was willing to spend on infrastructure in the east end of the city that aided developers there, but not in the west end.

“What was fair to the east end should be fair to the west end, that was the point of (the letter),” Williams said Friday. “It wasn’t that no way any infrastructure should be built down in Clovelly or Stavanger or Hebron Way. It was merely saying, look, if this infrastructure was being built because significant tax revenue was going to be generated by these projects, then I shouldn’t be expected to build infrastructure outside my boundaries when I paid for every single nickel that’s been spent at Galway. There’s not one cent of public money spent at Galway.”

In the end, though, the city held tough and Williams’ company had to cover the entire cost of the roundabout in order to keep the Galway development proceeding on schedule.

When Dobbin read the letter Williams had sent to the city in May, he took it as an attack against east end developments and sent his own letter to council, dated Aug. 21.

In it Dobbin stated that, as primary developer of the Clovelly Trails residential subdivision and Cabot Power Centre on Stavanger Drive and Aberdeen Avenue, he wanted to point out “pertinent facts in the interest of ensuring a level playing field for all developers and equitable spending of taxpayer funds.”

He said there were no issues of unfairness or equality in the way the city has treated east end versus west end developments.

“Mr. Williams was requesting the city pay for infrastructure outside of his Galway development’s boundary. I understand that further infrastructure for access to and from the development will be required by either an overpass or underpass on the Trans-Canada Highway and Pitts Memorial Drive to adequately address traffic demands,” Dobbin wrote. “Neither the city nor the province should spend taxpayer money, the result of which would be to unfairly advantage and likely enrich one developer over all other developers in the region.”

Dobbin said the first developer on a site has the responsibility for infrastructure needed as a result of it.

Dobbin, who could not be reached for comment on Friday, also said in the letter that any new infrastructure or upgrades required as a result of Cabot’s developments in the east end were done at Cabot’s own expense.

He said infrastructure installed by the city near the east end developments was done after the city’s own traffic impact studies and not in conjunction with Cabot. He said the city’s work in the Torbay Road North commercial area encompassed multiple developers.

Williams said Friday he was surprised by Dobbin’s letter.

“It completely shocked me by the fact that he had even written this letter to the provincial government and the municipal government — he never copied me — and it was just mean-spirited and unnecessary,” Williams said. “I don’t know where he is coming from on it, to be quite honest with you.”

Williams said the letter misrepresents the facts about the Galway development and “it’s oddly in response to a letter forwarded by me to council requesting fair and equitable treatment for the west end of the city, similar to the precedents set in the east end. Not preferred, but equal.

“Mr. Dobbin’s primary argument is that no public money should ever be spent on infrastructure outside of the Galway development boundary as it would be unfair and contrary to what his experience has been as a developer, particularly on Stavanger and Clovelly.

“In fact, I know for certain the record will show that Mr. Dobbin personally lobbied the government in the late ’90s-early 2000s requesting not only that the Outer Ring Road be extended past Torbay Road (where it was originally designed to end) to proceed on adjacent to the Stavanger/Clovelly area and that overpasses be built leading into the Stavanger Drive development.”

Williams added that Dobbin was also successful with lobbying efforts in having other infrastructure built on a cost-shared basis with taxpayers’ money.

Dobbin, in his letter, took a shot at Williams for publicly quoting the amount of investment he has made, and is making, in Galway, when Williams had originally purchased the land at below $1,000 per acre from the provincial government.

“Given that the Galway land was acquired for little to nothing from the province in terms of a purchase price per acre, I would suspect that developable cost per acre would be extremely low in comparison to even the land bordering the Galway development.”

In a letter of response that Williams fired off on Thursday to city council and candidates, and to the provincial government, he said Dobbin got it wrong about the per-acre cost of the land.

“I also find his implication very odd that government willfully and negligently sold the land for too low a cost when in fact his own company Cabot Development Corp. in 2007 sold more than 160 acres of land to me for approximately $5,000 an acre,” Williams said.

“That land is a part of the Galway development that he is complaining about. I presume he felt at the time the land had no great value and was not prepared to make the massive infrastructure investment that was necessary to bring services to the land and make it developable.”

Williams explained that, after acquiring the land from the provincial government, he had to spend $4.5 million on it to remove “unsuitable material” that was dumped on it for years previously. That was just to get the land “back to normal” for development, he said.

“The cost of servicing on that land is over $400,000 an acre,” Williams said.

Williams added that, in the end, all he is concerned about is that east end and west end developments be viewed and treated equally.

“I wish all developers well and feel strongly that the west end of the city should be treated equally with the east end,” he said. “If developments create significant revenues and jobs for governments, then developers should receive a contribution for adjacent infrastructure. No one knows this better than Mr. Dobbin and his partners. I have always said and I firmly believe that a rising tide lifts all boats.”