May your house be safe from bureaucrats
Consider, homeowners, what the Ministry of Transport did to Harry Kohne and his neighbors in Richmond, BC
Barbara Kohne was looking out her window the morning of May 30, 1973, watching the postman make his way around circular Tapp Road, delivering to each home those plain brown envelopes favored by pornographers and civil servants. She telephoned her husband, Harry, at the University of British Columbia, where he works as a technician. “Here it comes,” she said. Harry began to laugh: equal parts fear, fury and the gut-twang of final tension.
What the envelopes contained, the Kohnes knew, was the price the government had set on property on Sea Island in Richmond, BC, which had been ordered “returned to the crown” to allow for the expansion of Vancouver’s International Airport. The moment of waiting was bearable for Barbara because like all the moments she and Harry and their three children had shared with the government of Canada on this issue for six years, this one, she knew, would be unbelievable. Familiar behavior, no matter how gross, becomes in the end a kind of security.
The moment had been a long time coming. Unlike the people of Pickering, Ontario, and Ste. Scholastique, Quebec, where expropriation procedures for new airports were made clear almost from the start, the people on Sea Island had lived with rumors of the federal government’s plans for 12 years. At first, in the early Sixties, no one worried. Perhaps the Sea Islanders didn’t really believe the rumors. Then in 1966, Transport Minister Jack Pickersgill announced that airport expansion was imminent.
Pickersgill’s statement set the pattern for the way Ministry of Transport policy continued to be revealed in Vancouver. By announcement. No prime documents exist ordering the total job to be done. Expansion of the airport has gone forward under pressure from unseen forces. Glacial action. Suddenly one day Harry Kohne and his friends would look up and discover that things had moved.
D. H. MacLeod, then an MOT employee and now regional manager of property services for the Department of
Public Works in BC. says that in the spring of 1968 he was asked by the airport planners to begin buying land on the west of the Cora Brown Subdivision to accommodate a taxi strip for the new CPA hangar. Not too many people came forward to sell to MacLeod's men. This was a stable community. In fact, during the 15 years of its existence only five families had moved away, and that was because heads of households had been transferred to other parts of Canada.
On July 17, 1968, in an aviation news column in the Vancouver Province, it was reported that “the planned new east-west runway [at the Vancouver International Airport] will be to the north of the new Terminal Building [through the middle of Cora Brown] and both Department of Transport and Richmond officials don’t think it will cause many noise problems. Under present planning the work will start in 1971 and the new runway will be in operation by 1973. The crown is gradually buying up privately owned land and homes on Sea Island, as they become available, with the eventual goal of owning them all.”
The effect of tfiis report was to announce the reality of the pressure on Cora Brown homeowners to sell, and to render their properties worthless on the open market. There was only one buyer now, and that was the crown. Think about it for a moment. You wake up one morning and read in the newspaper, not that your home is going to be expropriated but that it is going to be bought at the crown’s leisure whenever you go to one of its agents and say you are ready to sell. No protection under the Expropriation Act. Just you and the Ministry of Transport agreeing on a price — according to the crown’s rules.
Tapp Road, where Harry and Barbara Kohne lived, is shaped like the figure nine and branches off a two-lane secondary highway that winds northward across the island until it eventually strikes the north arm of the Fraser River. Between the Kohnes and the river, about 500 yards away, are pasture lands, riding ponies grazing, tall grass,
pheasants, rabbits, seabirds constantly aloft and fruit trees bearing. Cora Brown is 20 minutes from downtown Vancouver and as far out into the country as you can get — cut off, idyllic. Harry’s 2.400-square-foot two-story house — typically west coast — is set on a half acre of ground. The airport is just 1.000 yards from his sun deck, but by some acoustic miracle the jets that scald themselves at the ends of the runways over there and then scream up into the sky are only peripherally heard by Cora Brown. A similar lifestyle in a similar setting elsewhere would involve a premium investment, akin, say, to living in Southlands, Cora Brown’s twin area across the North Arm, where a place like Harry’s might have sold for $90,000.
The Ministry of Transport’s view was different. “A lot on Sea Island,” D. H. MacLeod says, “was the least expensive in Richmond, and some of those postwar VLA houses over there were not in good shape.” Harry, on the other hand, says, “Never were criteria given for appraising and making an offer on a house and property.” MacLeod counters by saying that appraisal was a three-part process and the formula is easily stated: the cost of a similar lot elsewhere in Richmond, plus the replacement cost of the house (less depreciation), plus the
value of the property’s development. Reasonable. The only things left out are a family’s investment in time, in human relationships, in lifestyle — all the affective elements of living. Especially the kind of life possible in Cora Brown, a place that was no more like Richmond proper than townhouses are like hobby farms.
The drama of the expropriation of Cora Brown is a long one and the prologue to Act One is a letter to Transport Minister Hellyer by the Sea Island Ratepayers’ Association, in September 1967, asking what the government’s intentions were. In due course the minister wrote back saying there were no firm plans yet. “We will let you know in the near future.” That near future never came to pass.
“Looking back,” Harry says,“that was our first brush with what we came to call Defer, Deflect and Delay. He just wanted us off his back for atwhile. You see, all we poor naïve people wanted was some information to act on. Unlike Toronto’s new airport site at Pickering, where the conflict was ecological, or Montreal’s new airport at Ste. Scholastique. where the heart of the problem was the destruction of a way of life established there for centuries, Cora Brown was no problem at all. No one
was saying the runway shouldn’t be considered — at least not then — or the airport expanded. We simply wanted to know when these things were going to happen, and how and in what manner we could be certain of relocating in reasonably equivalent premises.”
The curtain for Act One rose on rampant Trudeaumania. In 1968 the riding of Burnaby-Richmond elected a new MP. He was Tom Goode, a Liberal, who won easily in part because he got the Cora Brown vote by promising government action to clear up the trouble there. It wasn’t, however, until a year later that he was finally persuaded to hold a meeting in Cora Brown, attended by himself and D. H. MacLeod of the MOT. This was the first time the residents had been able to face someone from the ministry and the questioning was prepared and intense. But, as Harry recalls it, all replies boiled down to this: we're not actively buying; we’re only helping people relocate when they come to us. We’re not building a runway yet; one’s just mentioned in future plans.
After the meeting had broken up, Richmond Alderman George May told a group of Tapp Road people: “Never mind asking them for yardsticks, make your own.” Which was the beginning of a group named the Twopercenters.
The Two-percenters were-called that because they got together and hired a lawyer to advise them and to negotiate for them. His fee would be up to 2% of the final sales figures for the houses of the 40 residents who went along with the scheme. The lawyer was Charles Johnstone, Liberal president of BurnabyRichmond riding, and he must have thought the deal a fair one. A few months of hard bargaining on behalf of his clients and the whole thing would be successfully concluded. Nearly five years later, Johnstone must be wondering if his original advice to them (“You're sitting ducks as individuals”) isn't somehow a great laugh on him.
Despite his Liberal connection, Johnstone wasn’t able to get a meeting in Ottawa with new' Transport Minister Don Jamieson until December, 1969. Meanw'hile, MOT land agents were making deals with people curious enough or brave enough to offer their land privately to the crown. One of the first to sell was Norman Edwards. For a halfacre lot and a 1,150 square-foot house in fair condition he was offered $31,500, according to Land Registry Office records. Not bad. In fact, according to the MOT formula, very good. (Say, $10,000 for the lot. $17,250 - 1,150 square feet x $15 — for the house and $4.250 for improvements.) Not that anyone knew what the formula was, but hopes rose anyway, and a number of people came forward. Offers grew progressively smaller. The Harold Hammel place was twice as big as Edwards' and he got $29,000. Hardly consistent. The MOT said that every property was different. Some were more different than others. Gus-Gustavson over on Myron Road died and his widow was without means. She had to sell the one acre she and her husband had been virtually living off since he came home from World War II. Unbelievably, the records state that she got $21,000. With faceless banality the crown's own affective criteria were applied by the land agents. continued on page 44
BUREAUCRATS from page 35
Bill Schaeffer, a Two-percenter represented by Johnstone, had to move. The department refused to negotiate beyond their first unreasonable offer of $30,000 for his home. He’s still trying to get a decent settlement. On the other hand, Ralph MacDonald, for eight acres and an elderly farmhouse, got $91,000 ($11,375 per acre) after hard bargaining. “We gave it to him,” MacLeod says, “on the grounds that he could have subdivided, and that kind of land is more valuable than ordinary land.”
On the side of the seller, the affective and human elements never contributed to the outcome of negotiations, but those elements seemed often to influence crown buyers. For instance, Walter Bush and Mike Anderson lived in identical houses built by the same builder. Bush was Johnstone’s man; Anderson did what Harry calls “the mercy trip.” Bush’s offer was $23,000; Anderson’s was $29,800. Pushed very hard, crown officials in Ottawa finally adjusted the Bush offer to $28,000, saying the original one had been “a clerical error.” These kinds of buying practices were discussed when Charles Johnstone finally met with Jamieson in Ottawa. He came back with a statement saying, in effect: there have been mistakes made; Justice Minister Turner is bringing in a new Expropriation Act. so let’s turn over a new leaf and bargain in good faith; the principles of the new act will apply if expropriation becomes necessary but in the meantime voluntary negotiations can proceed.
Despite their suspicion of the crown, 20 Two-percenters decided to test the new ground. Johnstone bargained for six months, everything was put in writing, no inconsistencies were allowed. Four sample houses were appraised by both sides. Hope rose. In August, 1970, the offers were finally made. They were uniformly 20% to 30% below offers made the previous year to people who’d done the mercy trip. All 20 residents re-
fused them. A Liberal wheelhorse was their champion and things hadn’t changed at all. “The message was clear,” Harry says, “knuckle under, and no mass bargaining. But almost immediately one of our people got into financial difficulty and broke ranks. Dealing privately he got $44,000 for his house and an acre of ground. Now, we were very happy for Doug Thomas and his family. We always were when someone got out okay, but the fact remained that his house was actually a pair of World War II ablution huts bought on the island when they were still full of basins and urinals.” MacLeod defends the sale this way: “The house was 2,200 square feet, and in good shape. Its replacement costs warranted the offer.”
Meanwhile people moved into recently vacated homes in Cora Brown, wrecked the houses and moved on. Motorcycle gangs and other undesirables used the places on an ad hoc basis. One MOT tenant was caught stealing cattle, another was charged with possession of drugs. The crown seemed unconcerned. Perhaps it felt a bit of slum here and there wouldn’t hurt its bargaining position. Good burghers from other parts of town came with trucks to strip property of anything that was movable. Red Colburn returned home one night and found a fellow removing his kitchen sink. What had been simply grim Existentialist Manoeuvring — where Cora Brown shouted questions into the civil service void and received no answers — became Expropriational Absurdist Theatre.
So, Act Two begins when Tapp Road residents optioned a lot next door to Harry Kohne’s place and announced that they were going to build an expensive house on it that the crown would then have to buy from them. UBC architecture students cooperated by producing a geodesic dome of radical design that had eight split levels. Theatre needs a stage. The residents held a press con-
ference and party on their optioned lot. Models and pictures were assembled as scenery along with signs and balloons, beer, soft drinks and even a West Indian steel band. The press came and the “play” got front page notice in Vancouver’s morning paper next day, as well as generous coverage elsewhere. The lot. which had been appraised at $7,500, was later bought by the crown for $10,000 from the original owners, who admitted to considerable pressure from Ottawa via Vancouver MOT people not to cooperate with the Tapp Road residents.
The next setting is the VIP Lounge at the airport on July 1, 1971. The Honorable Don Jamieson, the Cora Brown people and Charles Johnstone are there, together with a great crowd of MOT officials from many sub-departments. Tom Goode chaired the meeting. Local MP to the fore. Nominally the meeting was set up to air Cora Brown grievances, but Jamieson had news for Harry and his friends. The crown was ready to expropriate. All Cora Brown had to do was ask for it. Long pause. The new Expropriation Act, unlike the old one, says that people who are expropriated can demand a public hearing to state their grievances, but there is no compulsion on the crown to present its side. There is no such protection for those who agree to the buying practices. The idea of a hearing seemed to disturb the MOT considerably; perhaps they kept thinking of lawyer Johnstone’s voluminous files on the crown’s buying practices on Sea Island. Cora Brown turned down Jamieson’s offer. He was told that the problem was not created by the residents and that they shouldn’t be asked to provide the solution. This was the crown’s problem and the crown must resolve it. Cora Brown said that since the government refused to negotiate under the act and had said it was in no hurry to buy their land, it should enter into an acquisition agreement which would not force a blanket solution on all residents, but would call upon the government to negotiate under that part of the Expropriation Act which deals with compensation. MOT officials objected: procedures, quotas, budgets and timetables would all be violated. Jamieson said he’d take the acquisition proposal “under advisement.”
A couple of weeks later, a new scene. Government offices downtown. Two senior men from Ottawa flew in to try to cool out Cora Brown. One of the bureaucrats was W. F. Whitman, Director of Real Estate for the MOT; the other was Peter Troop from John Turner’s office. The local Department of Justice lawyer, Norman Mullins, started off the proceedings briskly by saying, “I don’t know what this is all for, it’s just a question of money.” Harry promised himself he’d pin Mullins to the wall, but he continued on page 46
BUREAUCRATS continued never got his chance. About halfway through the meeting, Mullins got up and told them all; “I’ve had enough of this crap. I’m going to my office and do some work.” Good, but old-fashioned labormanagement theatre. “A bit of schtick to beat us with,” Harry says with rue. Whitman opined that “Generous offers have been made to you and they’ve not been accepted.” But the residents’ acquisition formula was discussed. After the meeting, Troop was shown the Johnstone file on MOT buying practices. Troop was especially interested in the Thomas house; in fact, Harry thinks, it may have persuaded him to stay in town a month to work with Johnstone on their acquisition formula, which became known as the Troop Formula. He put personal pressure on the MOT so that some Cora Brown residents during his stay received fair prices for their properties. He got service for those who were hard pressed. One couple pocketed a cheque in an unheard-of seven days.
Troop went east in September, 1971, to put his formula through channels and have it approved. Months went by. Things were at a standstill, but the pressure wasn’t off. People folded, went to the MOT and got what they could. Then, in March, 1972, the Troop Formula was turned down by cabinet.
There was no appeal. The action took Cora Brown’s breath away, and in that moment the crown, on the attack now, sent out MP Tom Goode with another ploy. He held a meeting on May 25, 1972, at the east end of Sea Island (Cora Brown is on the north). There he made a curious announcement: if the citizens of Cora Brown did not tell him by eleven o’clock the next morning that they didn’t want to be expropriated, then he, Tom Goode, MP, would assume they wanted it and he would ask the minister to expropriate. Harry and five friends had made the trip to the meeting. They raised objections, were supported by the people attending and Goode had to hold another meeting for Cora Brown. The residents voted 100% for the Troop Formula and sent Goode back to Ottawa with the message. The minister then issued a statement, released in Richmond at a Chamber of Commerce meeting, that said Cora Brown would be expropriated in a year or so.
Everything and everyone was exhausted. There wasn’t anything left to do but petition the Prime Minister himself. Trudeau and his BC connection were holidaying on the coast, and just before he returned to Ottawa he appeared on Jack Webster’s talk show. Cora Brown appeared with a placard in front of CJOR’s Gastown studio. The RCMP security men allowed Harry and Bill Schaeffer to wait in Webster’s anteroom while the PM did his thing with the people. As time went on the room continued on page 50
BUREAUCRATS continued filled up with Cora Brown kids who had simply ignored the fuzz and climbed the stairs. The ice melted. Trudeau’s aides suddenly considered a meeting for the next morning (Sunday) to be good public relations. Then the PM appeared among the children, was photographed by eager mediamen and disappeared.
The next morning at the airport a government jet was on the tarmac. Two RCMP walked Johnstone and Kohne to the aircraft where they were met by — you guessed it — Tom Goode. It was, Harry remembers, a moment of mindblowing shock. They’d gone on a trip through Gastown, through radioland, past media pictureland and had arrived back in the same theatre with the same actors gargoyling down at them. Nothing different was going to happen. They watched the PM watch the TV and press cameras. “So, we asked him,” Harry says, “to appoint a member of his staff to look into the Sea Island problem. And do you know what he said? He said, ‘I will.’ ”
It was the last Harry and his people heard of the request. In a few days the Third (and final) Act curtain rose. The 1972 election had been called, and Tom Goode was in trouble. When a vote by the people is near at hand and someone is in trouble the civil service for a moment loses its grip on high profile situations. Memos from ministers often become suppository rockets designed to increase the flow of charity and decency toward constituents everywhere. Tom Goode had been a good boy. Suddenly everybody owed him, and he collected. He got a letter from Jamieson and had it printed in the Richmond Review: “We have decided to take immediate steps to expropriate the remaining properties on Sea Island required for airport expansion . . .”
So that was settled; but then quickly another hoax. A letter was sent to all Cora Brown residents offering free appraisal of their homes and properties. Just sign the accompanying document and return it to your friendly MOT man. But a careful reading by Johnstone showed that signing it meant putting your signature to a contract saying you wanted appraisal with a view to reaching an agreement privately and not under the protection of the Expropriation ActSome residents signed anyway. The tally was now 100 properties down and 53 to go, and the figure remains substantially that today.
On November 2, 1972, 6'A years after the Pickersgill announcement, the first legal document from the crown appeared in Cora Brown’s mail boxes. It was a Notice of Expropriation, signed properly by Minister of Public Works Jean-Eudes Dubé. But even as these notices were being made up in October, and just before he was defeated at the
polls, Tom Goode went over the head of Charles Johnstone and phoned as many of Johnstone’s clients as was possible. He told them that expropriation was in the works, but that if they were to negotiate now their cases would be settled quickly and at fair prices. For those who waited on expropriation there would be no service, no convenience. None of Johnstone’s clients negotiated.
A public hearing was demanded by Cora Brown and it was presided over by Isidor Wolfe, bagman for the Honorable Ron Basford. “Talk into the microphone,” Harry remembers him saying, “it goes straight to Ottawa.” Harry spoke. His words didn’t go to Ottawa. They dropped unheard into limbo. “It was the emptiest experience of the whole six years,” he says. “The men who could have replied were sitting there right in front of me. But nothing.” The media and interested groups from Vancouver were there too. Transport Minister Marchand refused to let the crown
speak in rebuttal. It was a hearing, he stated, where only Cora Brown should be represented — forgetting, perhaps, the Pickering hearing where many interests were represented and the crown rebutted at length. Johnstone asked repeatedly for justification, for supporting evidence. The crown refused to give it, but prodded by the media, a minion was flown in from Ottawa with air traffic studies that lumped 747 arrivals with Piper Cub landings, and environmental data so raw as to be meaningless. Johnstone blew his cool. “Is that all you have? After all these years?” He blasted the crown for a very long time. It was bad form for a lawyer, and in the end it only stirred the media. The MOT continued arrogant and the hearing dragged on. March 2, the legal expropriation day, approached. The hearing ended abruptly, and Wolfe managed to get his report to the minister in Ottawa 36 hours before the decision on expropriation had to be made. Obviously the notices were already in the mail so that they could be delivered before the deadline. The hearing was convened because
the act said it had to be. Turner’s, and parliament’s, fine effort in 1970 was already a farce by 1973.
And now, three months later, at the last possible legal moment, the crown was making offers to the 50-odd “holdouts” in Cora Brown. Barbara took the envelope from the postman and opened it. And laughed. For a 15-year-old, 2,400-square-foot, four-bedroom house on half an acre of land in the best part of Cora Brown the crown was offering $38,500. In 1973, the house alone, at $20 a foot to build, would cost $48,000 to replace, the half-acre lot would cost anywhere up to $18,000 even in Richmond, and the improvements to property might run as high as $7,500 just to do a bit of landscaping and put in fences and a garden, for a total of $73,500. Let’s depreciate the house 20% because it’s 15 years old. That’s $9.600. It brings the replacement price to $63,900.
In the next couple of months, the Kohnes wrote half a dozen letters a week. And tore them up. “They were incoherent,” Harry says now, “and besides, who would I send a letter to? The public thinks I’m greedy, my MP is new and in opposition, the MOT would probably liquidate me if they could and the Prime Minister is still saying ‘I will’.”
It was a long trip for the Kohnes from faith to incoherence, and largely an unnecessary one. Had all 153 residents been given at least an “outrageous” $50,000 apiece for their properties in 1966, at the time of the Pickersgill announcement, everyone would have walked away better off. As it is now, the high cost of the MOT’s buying tactics, the time spent bringing them off, the appeals to the courts and the building of the runway itself will have cost us millions and millions of dollars more than if the project had been handled well eight years ago.
It is often necessary that the crown buy up private property. What is important is the way it is done. The frankness, the evenhandedness, the honesty of the process. Now, under the aegis of its buying policy, the crown first effectively removes your property from the marketplace by announcing future plans for a new government service. Then your civil servants are sent in to try by whatever means they can devise to get title to necessary properties without invoking the Expropriation Act.
The pressure and stress forced on the people of Cora Brown have been brutal and inhuman, and they are testimony to the way discretionary power is often wielded even by effective civil servants and honored elected officials. It’s a problem that no one will ameliorate for you. Under present legislation you are going to have to be Harry or Barbara Kohne all over again when (not if) the story happens to you. Good luck.'ÿ