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Former Maple Ridge mayor fights city hall
A former Maple Ridge mayor who is being sued by the district for operating a golf course in violation of current zoning has pledged to recoup the losses he's suffered as a result of the lawsuit.
In a response filed Wednesday, Gord and Mary Robson call for the municipal lawsuit to be dismissed, with "costs" and "special costs."
The Robsons' lawyer, Jonathan Baker, believes the district's notice of claim constitutes "an abuse of public office."
"There's no doubt about that," Gord Robson said.
The civil suit, filed two weeks ago, alleges the Robsons are in contravention of a district bylaw and must permanently cease operating Heather Hills Golf Course.
It seeks the removal of all golf-course related infrastructure, including the club house, tents and golf carts, as well as food and beverage services.
Robson claims he's already lost business because of the lawsuit. B.C. Golf Magazine planned to feature Heather Hills, he said, but called off an interview scheduled for this week. Two charity tournaments have also been cancelled.
“It’s affecting business hugely. We’ve had about 100 calls asking if we are still open,” said Robson, who began constructing the golf course just before he became mayor in 2005.
"Because the district chose to use civil court, now I have the right to sue each of them individually. There is a claim for damages coming and it's going to be in the hundreds of thousands."
Located at Webster’s Corners, on 117th Avenue, the property lies within the provincially protected Agricultural Land Reserve and is currently zoned one family residential under the district’s bylaw.
The district sent the Robsons a letter in February, asking them to voluntarily cease operation of the golf course.
The legal action is being pursued because the Robsons’ did not comply.
A statement of defence notes the district had an opportunity to clarify the property's zoning in 2011, when the Robsons appealed to the B.C. Property Assessment Board after the golf course was reclassified from "farm" to "outdoor recreational."
"They chose not to do anything," said Robson.
The golf course is operated seasonally, from spring through the end of summer, as part of the non-profit Heather Hills Farm Society.
In 2011, the Robsons hosted a summer barbecue for Premier Christy Clark on the golf course, one of many public gatherings the district believes are not permitted under its zoning bylaw.
The Robson family invested in the original property in the 1950s and planted several acres of Scottish Heather, which is still grown there.
Over the years, neighbouring properties were purchased and a large hazelnut grove was added. Poor soil conditions, pest and disease eventually wiped out much of the orchard.
Today, the Robsons raise 27 sheep and are testing a genetically modified species of blight-resistant hazelnuts that they hope to eventually plant around the property. The wool from the sheep goes to local weavers. The animals are eventually sold for meat.
Charities and church groups often use the golf course for fundraisers, with Robson estimating they’ve raised more than $100,000 since Heather Hills opened.
The family also uses the land to promote farming, while using revenue generated from the golf course to support the non-profit society’s work with youth advocacy, sports and community groups.
The “club house” is a removable tent structure, while the “food and beverage service” consists of a small bar fridge with pop and water and an assortment of packaged nuts.
Robson says he has no plans to stop operating the golf course.
"The only thing they have wanted to talk about is discontinuing my operation," he added.
"I've got a million dollars in this, and besides, it's a good thing."
It’s not the first time Robson has fought the District of Maple Ridge in court.
Robson sued the district over the private-public-partnership downtown redevelopment project – which featured an office tower, library, arts centre and leisure centre. He won and the P3 agreement was declared illegal.
The District of Maple Ridge, meanwhile, is defending its decision to settle the bylaw breach in court.
Mayor Ernie Daykin stressed court action is not being pursued for “political” or “personal” reasons.
“It isn’t, [as] though, we just decided in February. We’ve been talking about it for a while,” he said, noting the decision to file a civil claim in Supreme Court was done after much discussion with legal counsel.
“The zoning that he’s under does not permit a golf course. We have bylaws in place for a reason.”
The district suggests the Robsons could apply for rezoning, a route they are not willing to take.
“It’s would kill us if we rezone,” said Robson, who has a business license for agri-tourism.
Rezoning would mean the property, currently assessed as “farm class,” would be taxed as a commercial venture and make Heather Hills too expensive to operate.
“We couldn’t afford to maintain the property as it is. We have found a viable way to keep the land green forever,” Robson added.
The owners of Hacker’s Haven, a Par 3 nine-hole golf course on 240th Street, support the district’s civil suit.
Hacker’s Haven was built on agricultural land, but its former owners applied to have the property rezoned before beginning construction.
John and Helen Kastelein purchased the property in 1981.
“When I bought it, it was already a golf course. But I know that the fellow that developed it, it took him five years to get permission for rezoning,” said John Kastelein, whose property is taxed as recreational commercial.
“[Robson] just goes ahead and does it anyway.”
Kastelein believes the district should have acted sooner, especially since Robson was working on the course while he was mayor.
“To let him build it and close their eyes to the fact and now they’ve come heavy-handed down.
“Gimme a break. It’s been a sore point for years,” he added.
The district assures taxpayers the lawsuit won’t cost them millions. Maple Ridge budgets around $200,000 per year for legal issues.
District spokesperson Fred Armstrong said if the municipality anticipates a civil claim, its finance department works that into the budget.
“It won’t be an outrageous expenditure.”