‘Hi Karan and Malcom’: The RV Park Correspondence

I FOIPOPed all correspondence between the CBRM planning department and Chris Skidmore — the Calgary-based developer who wants to establish an RV Park in Big Pond Centre — because I thought the planning department seemed to be rather decidedly in Skidmore’s corner on this project and I wanted to know if that was true.

I have to begin with a caveat: I don’t know how much correspondence between an applicant and planners is usual in a case like this. I would have FOIPOPed correspondence related to a separate development for comparison but I couldn’t afford it (this is the FOIPOP that, in the end, cost me $478).

I also have to point out that seeing all of these messages at once gives the impression the parties were in constant communication which, obviously, they weren’t — the correspondence took place over a number of years (just how many years being something of a revelation). But I’d also point out that Skidmore “visited” the planners on more than one occasion and seems to have called them quite frequently and we have no records of any of those discussions.

Still, based on the correspondence I was able to see, I think Skidmore enjoyed a significant level of support in his project from the planners, who seem to have aligned themselves with him and his project against the Big Pond residents (and others) who opposed it, and I think that alignment is best expressed in this email from CBRM Director of Planning Malcolm Gillis to Skidmore, who had asked his advice about an open house he planned to hold in Big Pond in September 2017:

The phrase that puzzled Gillis — “I am looking for optics towards the public of the local people that will be involved in some way, shape or form” — actually clarified something for me.

I now understand why Skidmore speaks so rarely in defense of his own scheme.

 

History

I can’t say I’m surprised to discover Skidmore received so much assistance with his project from the CBRM planners — it was pretty obvious at every step of the public process.

What did surprise me was how early this assistance began. Remember, the first local residents knew of the project was that 22 September 2017 open house in Big Pond. The first the broader public heard of it was 1 November 2017, when planner Karen Neville announced during a General Committee meeting that they had received a re-zoning application from Skidmore and recommended that Council approve a public hearing on his request.

A timeline of the project published in the Cape Breton Post in 2018 began this way:

Summer 2014 – Calgary-based developer Chris Skidmore envisions RV campground on shores of Bras d’Or Lake while visiting Cape Breton

September 2017 – Following a feasibility study, conceptual plans are drawn up; 150 info flyers delivered in Big Pond Centre area; Skidmore holds information meeting at fire hall

But the documents I received show Skidmore and the planners were in email correspondence as early as November 2015; that is, almost two full years before the “information meeting” at the Big Pond fire hall:

It’s also interesting that the original concept was 55 RV lots on a 5.7 acre parcel of land. By the time the zoning amendment application went to CBRM Council on 1 November 2017, the proposal included 109 acres and a total of 541 RV sites and 64 tenting sites. The first phase alone, which is what council approved, was to include 221 RV sites.

 

Allies

The correspondence also makes it clear that Skidmore, although he never quite mastered how to spell their names, viewed Gillis and Neville as allies in his undertaking — to the point where he felt perfectly comfortable dissing the citizens of the CBRM to them:


After the 20 February 2018 public hearing on the proposal, Skidmore sent along his review of what he termed “the…ummmm…miss use [sic] of public funds on Tuesday. [smiley face] joking!”

Skidmore told Neville:

Well I want to let you know all the points you attempted to touch on was [sic] appreciated by myself, and hopefully some councillors.

The topic of discussion went incredibly off track and I stopped taking notes after speaker ten.

The councilor who happened to get Chief [Wilbert] Marshall [of Potlotek First Nation] involved was a nice addition to the mix.

It’s funny that my market research team also works with Chief Marshall, on a campground idea for Chapel Island (I think)

He asks Neville if she has “any feed back [sic]” to let him know as he can see this “going to the URB [sic] appeal board regardless of what vote comes up.”

While Neville and Gillis were drafting their (nine-page) response to issues raised by residents during the public hearing, Neville contacted Skidmore about concerns over the park’s proximity to St. Mary’s Cemetery. His reply was snippy:

I am willing to discuss options regarding the situation you have presented. I feel it would be prudent to inform you that, to my knowledge, subsequent to my research, the archdiocese NEVER had a ROW [Right of Way?] agreement with any of the land owners in the past nor, to my knowledge, have they attempted to contact me or the current landowners, in my opinion, this claim is desperate and speaks to the character – or lack thereof – of the concerned individuals in this forum.

He then stated:

…I have already been denied [emphasis his] my full land-use amendment which considerably hinders the economics of the development. I adhered to the process at the February 20th public hearing and refrained from addressing emotional and derogatory comments from the public gallery — after which I received apologetic emails from some councilors saying this does not depict the majority of the CBRM or Cape Bretoners in general.

He insisted that “98%” of the comments involved “environmental” or “transportation/safety” concerns, neither of which he considered appropriate topics for discussion during the public hearing. Then he dissed Gillis and Neville:

I am open to discussing solutions but will not commit to anything until I receive approval for Phases 1 and 2 or subsequent phases to move forward. I am in this predicament because you “suggested” that I go for a “DC” Direct Control land use to eliminate the need for subsequent land use amendments. That is not what I received from your team.

Skidmore clearly sees Gillis and Neville as working for him — to the point where he feels free to chastise them for not delivering. That’s kind of amazing.

Then he pitied himself:

Please note that from where I stand it feels as though I have been consistently making sacrifices that may detrimentally affect the viability of this development.

Finally, he reminded everyone concerned that this development:

…was intended for the greater good of the CBRM.

Just how much good it would do the CBRM is spelled out elsewhere. Skidmore consulted Altus, which did an appraisal for him on a completed Phase 1 and a fully completed RV Park.

The annual benefit to the CBRM of Phase 1 would be an estimated $13,715 in “new tax revenue.”

The annual benefit to the CBRM of a completed RV Park would be an estimated $39,325 in “new tax revenue.”

 

Support staff

In addition to keeping Gillis and Neville posted on his progress, Skidmore promised on 3 October 2017 to get his rezoning application to them “a week or two before” he actually submitted it so that they could “preview” it for him.

This isn’t a service I had realized the CBRM offered free-of-charge to private developers requesting zoning by-law amendments.

Skidmore treats the planners as his personal assistants, phoning them, ordering up copies of maps, soliciting their advice on everything from how to watch council meetings he won’t be attending in person to how he should address the mayor in letters. (The answer is “Mr. Mayor.”)

On 6 March 2018, the day before Council was to vote on his proposed amendment, Skidmore updated Gillis and Neville on his activities:


In response, Neville sent him a copy of CBRM Solicitor Demetri Kachafanas’ legal opinion on a motion — made by District 3 Council Esmond (“Blue”) Marshall — that a decision on Skidmore’s amendment be postponed “until such time that Aboriginal Consultations could be conducted.” Kachafanas opined that the CBRM had no duty to consult and that the vote could go ahead, which it did.

When Council approved the zoning amendment in March 2018, Skidmore wrote to Gillis and Neville:

 

 

Gillis replied:

The decision, of course, was appealed to the UARB and when a board tribunal conducted a site visit in Big Pond Centre, Skidmore discussed it with Neville, who asked if his lawyer, Chris Conohan was planning to attend. Skidmore replied:

 

To which Neville replied:

 

Speaking of the UARB, you will no doubt recall the board reversed the CBRM’s decision (in an exhaustive, 98-page ruling I discussed at the time) leaving the CBRM to consider its options. Which leads to what might be my favorite email of the entire batch, given it was obtained via an access to information request:

“Off the record,” indeed.

On the subject of the appeal, I was hoping to find out why Skidmore himself didn’t file it, given it was his project, but I didn’t find an answer to that question in these emails, just an indication that it never seemed to have crossed his mind to spend his own money doing so:

 

So everyone is now waiting to go to court, but they’re not wasting their time: Neville has been helping Skidmore find other potential CBRM locations for his RV Park — or as Skidmore put it a 13 March 2019 email to her:

I was looking for land parcels that would be zoned already for a Campground? If that exists.

Or possibly a parcel that would need a zoning change but a less controversial area, something that the CBRM has control [sic] and to show to the nay sayers [sic] that CB is open for business. I will give you a call tomorrow if you will be in the office to discuss.

Neville wrote him on 14 March 2019 to provide him the information he requested. She included a link to the land-use by-law (which you would think, by now, Skidmore would be somewhat familiar with — or would at least have bookmarked) and a link to the CBRM’s surplus property site.

I will provide a link to the documents I received from my FOIPOP, but just to give you a taste of how much effort Gillis and, particularly, Neville, put into Skidmore’s application, here’s a representative sampling of emails.

As I read them I could not help but compare all the assistance Skidmore was given free of charge to the exorbitant fee (final total: $478) I had to pay for access to these emails. I am an actual citizen of the CBRM with a right to the information I requested and I was forced to compensate municipal staff for the time they spent responding to my FOIPOP request.

Skidmore is a private developer based in Calgary who seems to have used the planning department as support staff, free of charge. (And who, in passing, seems either unable or unwilling to learn how to use the internet. He frequently sought information from Neville that he could have found himself, without much effort, online.)

 

28 April 2016
[Skidmore to Neville] “Hi Karren [sic], Under advisement of Malcolm I wanted to touch base and discuss my concept with you when you have some time. I have a few questions regarding the process and roles of the CBRM and the tourist accommodations regulations of the province.”

4 May 2016
[Skidmore to Neville] “Hi Karen, I have reached out to Nova Scotia tourism from the website you provided. Thank you for that. I have a couple of other questions that you might be able to help with.

Items that I wish to resolve:

1) is there a deed transfer tax? Who would I speak to on this?

2) who would I speak to about property taxes?

3) business tax amounts

I hope you can understand that doing this from Calgary is a bit on the challenging side.

I am unable to just walk down to city hall or the municipal offices and get this information.”

17 June 2016
[Skidmore to Neville] “Hi Karen, I have planned a trip out your way to do some further investigation on the RV park concept…I would like to have the opportunity to meet with you and the planning team if you all have time.”

2 August 2016
[Skidmore to Neville and Gillis] “Hi Karen and Malcolm, I wanted to extend a thank you note for taking the time to meet with me the other day. I look forward to the potential development and working with the CBRM in the future.”

26 August 2016
[Skidmore to Gillis] “Hi Malcolm, Are there any maps pertaining to the land sell off the federal government is proposing? My group would be interested in looking at potential lands up for sale.”

30 August 2016
[Skidmore to Neville and Gillis] “I was just wondering if either of you had a contact for a marina development officer. I’m looking at adding that potentially into the site we went over in your offices.”

14 September 2016
[Skidmore to Neville and Gillis] “Hi Malcolm and Karen, I am moving forward with my concept and as I do know how the developmental process works in my area. I would like to get a detailed description of how your process works.  I am looking for fee’s [sic] and time lines for the process from start to finish.”

1 August 2017
[Skidmore to Neville and Gillis] Hi Karan [sic] and Malcom [sic], I wanted to send you a note regarding the update for the potential RV park…My business plan is under way [sic] and being perfected. Karen could you provide me with the information or direct me to where I can find the formal proposal guidelines for an [sic] land use re-designation for the RV park project. I am always available by cell if you wish to talk [phone number redacted].”

2 August 2017
[Skidmore to Neville] “Hi Karen, I am meeting my design and architect team today 10am my time. We will be coming up with a plan for proposal submittal [sic], would it be okay if I gave them your contact information if they have any questions?

11 August 2017 
[Skidmore to Neville and Gillis] “Hi Karen and Malcom [sic], I want to introduce Carmen Kubrak from NORR, if Carmen has any questions I have given her Karen’s number for clarification of the proposal requirements.”

15 August 2017
[Skidmore to Neville and Gillis]”Hi Malcom [sic] and Karen, I know Karen is away for a bit, but I would like your opinion. I am in the process of planning an open house.”

13 September 2017
[Skidmore to Neville and Gillis] “Hi Malcom [sic] and Karen, Would you both be able to have a meeting possibly next week sometime?”

22 September 2017: Open House in Big Pond, first the public is told about Skidmore’s proposal.

25 October 2017
[Skidmore to Neville] “Hi Karen, Do you remember the person Sarah, I think her name was, from the environment department? I have lost her contact information and was wondering if you had it?”

1 November 2017: Neville recommends to Council that a public hearing be held on Skidmore’s land-use amendment request.

1 November 2017
[Skidmore to Neville] “I will try to watch [the general committee meeting] today, if you can maybe tomorrow let me know what the feel from the council is after the presentation has concluded.”

2 November 2017
[Skidmore to Neville] “I was able to view the majority of the land use amendment application. Whenever you have time to call me please do.”

3 November 2017 
[Neville to Skidmore] “I am free if you want to call.”

24 November 2017 3:53PM
[Skidmore to Neville] “Could you send me a list of the officials that were in attendance at the Big Bond Community meeting please.”

24 November 2017 12:55
[Neville to Skidmore] “Councilors in attendance [Neville provides list of councilors including contact information.]

29 November 2017 07:24
[Neville to Skidmore] “Ok, I just spoke with the Clerk’s office, the video of last night’s meeting should be available within the hour.”

29 November 2017 12:02PM
[Skidmore to Neville] “I’m done with the conference call if you and Malcom [sic] are available to chat.”

21 December 2017
[Skidmore to Neville] “I appreciate all the information and effort your group has done to this point. I am very excited about the public hearing and the outcome. Have a Merry Christmas and Happy New Year and I look forward to seeing you in the new year.”

17 January 2018 2:28PM
[Skidmore to Neville] “I still am curious on the public hearing process, I hope that the councilors try to keep the topic of land use amendment on the fore front [sic] of the discussion as this is the first step i [sic] will need to move forward. The land use is the main topic that I need to convey so I can move forward with obtaining all the other required approvals.”

18 January 2018
[Neville to Skidmore] “When it comes to the Public Hearing, the Mayor is the chair. He is responsible for keeping things on track and moving forward.”

12 February 2018 8:51
[Neville to Skidmore] “Malcolm and I are waiting for an audience with the Mayor to finalize the process of the Public Hearing. That being said, it is my understanding that the Mayor would like you to provide an overview of your proposal prior to opening the floor to public comments. Upon the conclusion of public comments, if you wanted to respond to comments you would be able to do so.”

12 February 2018 7:37
[Neville to Skidmore] “Could you forward the names of those individuals that will be speaking as part of your presentation to the Clerk’s Office…Or if you would prefer, you may forward them to me and I will pass them along. I am currently finalizing my issue paper to Council; once completed, a copy will be sent to you.”

14 February 2018 2:17 AM
[Skidmore to Neville] “Hi Karen, I am working on some more images potentially, plus I have some letters of support from various sources. Would the letters be something to just bring up? Or submit? I am looking to get some more imaging together, and I’m in the airport now and will be in town at 130pm…Looking forward to seeing you and Malcom [sic].”

14 February 2018 8:28 AM
[Neville to Skidmore] “I would submit the letters to the Clerk’s Office…or you can drop them off at their office at the Civic Centre. Travel safe.”

16 February 2018
[Skidmore to Neville]”Hi Karen, Thanks again for your assistance, the imagery and text ppt would be best if I could have that running during my summation while addressing concerns. Are you in the office today? I could drop by for a visit.”

20 February 2018 Public Hearings held into Skidmore’s request for land-use by-law amendment.

22 February 2018
[Neville to Skidmore] “I am sorry I did not get a chance to chat with you after the Public Hearing…I will rel[a]y your concerns to Malcolm to see if he has any words of wisdom to relay.”

28 March 2018
[Neville to Skidmore] “Chris, The Utility and Review Board is looking for your contact information.”

18 May 2018
[Skidmore to Neville] “Hi Karen, I’m scheduled to be in town from May 23rd to June 1st are you and Malcolm available for a meeting, just to catch up. One other question for you do you have a map of land holdings of the Membertou first nations [sic] within the CBRM?

22 May 2018 11:41 AM
[Neville to Skidmore]”Let’s say Monday May 28th at 10:00 in Malcolm’s office. The Membertou Development Corp owns 102 properties in the CBRM that we know of. They’re colored red on the map attached.”

13 August 2018
[Skidmore to Neville] “Hi Karen, Hope you are doing well, have you heard when the URAB [sic] hearing continuation is scheduled for?”

19 September 2018:
[Skidmore to Neville] “Hi Karen, Do you guys have a topography mapping of the land parcels under review?”

22 January 2019
[Skidmore to Gillis] “Hi Malcolm, Do you have time for a call?”

25 January 2019
[Neville to Skidmore] “Chris, As discussed, here is the website for the Eastern District Planning Commission…Here are [sic] suggested contact information [Director John Bain, Policy Planner Paul Dec]”

 

You decide

I have been puzzled all along by how invested in Skidmore’s plan Gillis and Neville seemed to be and 345 pages later, I remain puzzled. Presumably, they believe Skidmore’s incredible claim that he will put $4.5 million into the first phase of his development and create 25 to 30 full-time jobs. In an RV Park. In Cape Breton.

Maybe they like his wife (seriously, I’m at a loss here and that seems as likely an explanation as any).

A post on the Ceilidh on the Lakes Facebook page on 22 February 2019 linked to a CBC story about the CBRM going to court over the UARB decision and stated:

Our dream is to work WITH the community to bring a new vibrancy to the area and to support the economy in a way that respects the land and the people.

But Skidmore doesn’t seem to know how to work “with” a community. He doesn’t seem to have built any social capital at all where it counted, in Big Pond, focusing instead on courting municipal planners and provincial bureaucrats while viewing the locals as “grandstanding”  “naysayers” lacking in “character” and impervious to his “logical” thoughts.

In the end, his position is untenable: I am going to buy this land and do something for your greater good whether you like it or not.

Which is not to say he couldn’t have succeeded despite himself — the UARB didn’t overturn the CBRM’s decision because Skidmore lacks people skills. It overturned it because it said the CBRM’s planners didn’t follow their own rules. So in the end, their being so firmly in Skidmore’s camp may actually have done him more harm than good.

But that’s just my hot take. You know how this works. I get the documents, read them, analyze them and tell you what I think but I also give you those documents so you can read them yourself and draw your own conclusions.

So here they are — I’ve uploaded them to Dropbox and they are available to anyone who accesses this link.

Treat them gently, please — they were expensive.

 

Featured image: Top (L-R) Chris Skidmore (CBRM Council video), Karen Neville (CBRM Council video), Malcolm Gillis (Tom Ayers CBC/Photo). Bottom: Map of proposed RV Park.