ST. GEORGE – Charlie Avery sold his home on the outskirts of London, Ont., put his belongings in storage and headed east, like many, looking for a more affordable place to live.
He was planning to go to Nova Scotia, but COVID lockdowns left him stranded in New Brunswick for months. He got to know the province and liked what he saw. After a hunt with a realtor for properties, he spotted an ad on Kijiji for a 1.7-hectare (4.3-acre) piece of former farmland for sale in St. George. It was just the kind of spot he was looking for.
He bought the property for $87,500 with a plan to carve off less than half an acre and divvy it up into three lots that would be rezoned from farmland to residential to sell to people looking for land to build a home. The proceeds would give him enough for a down payment to have his own place built on the remaining acreage, which he planned to keep zoned agricultural.
But Avery, a dump truck driver, has run into some speed bumps.
One of the first questions he was asked at an open house held at Magaguadavic in early August to consider his proposal was prefaced with, “So you’re from Ontario, aren’t you?”
“I said to myself, ‘I know where this is going,’” he told the Courier in a recent interview. “Right from the get-go, as soon as I went to that first town meeting, it was far from the welcoming mat. I wasn’t expecting a welcoming mat, but I wasn’t expecting the kind of reception that I got. Personally, I felt attacked.”
Avery says he “understands people getting their dander up a bit” because investors are swooping in and “buying all the properties up” and driving up prices for locals.
“But that’s the total opposite of what I’m doing. I’m going there to try and build a few houses, which is good for the community,” he said. “New Brunswick is having a big-time housing crisis. It’s a crying shame. I can’t make sense of why they wouldn’t want a couple of houses on my property.”
His piece of land at 110 Mount Pleasant Rd. is part of a much larger tract of around 16 hectares of generational farmland and wood lots Harold and Alma Shaw purchased in 1944. The land’s been divided up numerous times over the years. It’s now flanked by two small farms, one owned by Lisa McKay and the other by Raymond Hall and his wife, Vicki Hall, a descendant of the Shaws who inherited the property.
McKay marshalled supporters to join her at the meeting. While not opposed to the construction of houses on the land, she doesn’t want to see it rezoned from rural agriculture to residential. She worries about the loss of farmland but, more importantly, that such a change would create the expectation that any new neighbours at her 100-year-old farm might think they’re entitled to live free of odours and noises from her horses, pigs, cows, chickens, goats, turkeys and rabbits.
“When you have rezoning of a property to residential, you have the right of enjoyment,” she said in an interview. “If someone hears a rooster crowing at three in the morning or a tractor at four in the morning, they can start complaining.”
St. George Mayor John Detorakis and his daughter, Coun. Alexa Detorakis, are also adamant about the community and Charlotte County not losing any more farmland.
They both say in emails to the Courier that St. George has plenty of other lots to build houses.
Over the summer, the mayor described Avery as “an investor,” who wants to put in “a high-density subdivision” between two existing farms on land that’s used to farm hay for animal feed. He said Avery’s first phase for four lots had an option to expand.
Avery says he is not developer and is simply looking for a way to build a home for himself.
“I barely have two nickels to rub together,” he said. “If I wanted to make the big bucks off this property, I would have asked to zone it residential right from the start, not sell a couple of small lots for a down payment for a house.”
Avery says he knows farming. His ancestors, who came through Pier 21 in 1911, were farmers from England, his grandparents had a large farm when he was growing up and his daughter is a cattle farmer.
“I’ve been around farming my whole life. Trust me, there’s not enough property there to make a nickel off haying,” he said. “I told the neighbour she could have the hay. I wasn’t getting anything for it. It’s not much, but it would have fed a couple of animals a little bit.”
The mayor’s daughter wrote a Facebook post in July, weeks ahead of the public meeting, saying that rezoning the land puts neighbouring farms in jeopardy from “altering bylaws that enforce noise complaints (and I know how loud a rooster can be) to raising insurance rates.”
“This isn’t someone wanting to build a house on their property,” she wrote. “This is someone who knowingly purchased agricultural land and now wants to build on it. We should not make decisions to benefit one developer (from Ontario, mind you) when it hurts local farmers and homesteaders who have been on their land for decades. We aren’t that kind of community.”
She notes that St. George has some of the most fertile land in Southwest New Brunswick and that, in the province overall, less than five per cent of lands is classified agricultural.
In an email to the Courier, she said municipalities need to be increasingly mindful of preserving and protecting agricultural land as demand for housing development grows.
“(New Brunswick) accounts for less than one per cent of the total farm area in Canada,” she said. “I do not want to see that number go down. We cannot afford to let it go down.”
Detorakis, whose family operates a farm, nursery and garden centre at 88 Mt. Pleasant Rd., a few doors down from Avery’s property, says, under zoning rules, he can subdivide his land into four lots of an acre (0.4 hectare) each and keep its rural/farming zoning without requesting approval from council.
Avery doesn’t think the neighbours would be happy with that option because, instead of each home having frontage on Mt. Pleasant Road, two would have to be at the back of the property with a road connecting them and likely need septic systems instead of getting hooked up to the town sewage system that now runs to the front of the property.
“I would just rather keep the houses at the road and everybody should be happy,” he said.
Vicki Hall told the Courier four homes would be acceptable to her as long as the property doesn’t lose its agricultural zoning.
“Ideally, it would be nice to have one neighbour and not four, but we could live with it,” she said.
A descendant of the Shaw family who didn’t live in the province owned the property Avery bought. It was on the market for seven or eight years. Avery says if the mayor and others wanted it preserved as farmland, they could have purchased it.
St. George’s town manager and staff at the Southwest New Brunswick Service Commission recommended Avery’s proposal be accepted.
The area was primarily farmland from the 1900s. Over the years, a high school and federal buildings have gone in on the road and the land subdivided for residential development, including two lots for two houses in 1988. The town sewer and water system run to Avery’s property, which is just inside the town limits.
“For staff, when they look at a proposal like that, it’s been done on Mt. Pleasant before,” said town manager Jason Gaudet. “This isn’t anything new.”
Nevertheless, councillors voted to reject the proposal. The Sept. 12 meeting, however, was full of confusion.
The mayor insisted the vote be on Avery’s initial proposal for four lots. Some councillors objected, noting Avery had filed a second proposal for three lots on larger tracts after concerns were raised about the size of the properties in his initial plan.
Some councillors signaled a willingness to vote in favour of the revised plan and expressed frustration that they weren’t getting that opportunity. The hitch, apparently, was that Avery hadn’t pulled his original proposal.
Avery says he’s had phone calls from councillors apologizing for how the meeting went and indications that the vote would have gone his way if they got the chance to vote on his revised proposal.
Other than the mayor’s daughter, councillors didn’t respond to interview requests from the Courier or declined to comment, saying the mayor was the official spokesperson for St. George.
Avery says he’s considering whether to appeal the vote or file a new proposal.
“I can understand there would be a problem if I wanted to put in high rises that deviated from the area,” he said. “I’m not looking at developing the whole thing. I wish I had lots of money to develop the whole thing, tastefully, of course.”
He says he has no intention of farming the property.
“It’s too small to work as a farm. It’s a waste of land,” he said. “It’s like a freshwater lake in the middle of Ethiopia and having a ‘no drink’ sign there.”