Over 30 years ago, Mack Laing bequeathed his waterfront home, Shakesides, as well as a generous amount of money, to the Town of Comox. The money was to be used for the upkeep of Shakesides and for its preservation as a Nature Museum for the enjoyment and education of the citizens of Comox. After years of neglect and profiting from its use as a rental home, Comox Town Council, in 2015, decided to reward Mack Laing’s generosity by ordering the demolition of his former home. The Mack Laing Heritage Society (MLHS) intervened and asked for help at the provincial level. Our BC Attorney General, the Honourable Suzanne Anton, insisted that the Town of Comox form a Committee to investigate how to fulfill Mack Laing’s Will. Part of that investigation was to figure out what had happened to the money, approximately $45,000, which an accountant says should be worth at least $250,000 today. Neither of these goals appears to have been accomplished.
Instead of protesting what seemed to me to be the very biased composition of the Mack Laing Nature House Advisory Committee (MLNHAC) when it was first formed, I decided to wait for the end result. I hoped that the appointees would be able to investigate ways to preserve Shakesides as a Nature Museum with fairness and common sense. However, this did not happen. It is time to expose the nature of this Committee, as I am sure many residents of Comox have no idea of what has been going on.
Comox Mayor and Council has for some time wanted to demolish Shakesides, just as it had demolished Mack Laing’s first Comox home, Baybrook, in August 2015. Clearly, Council created a Committee that could not possibly fail to achieve that goal. The Town’s Chief Administrative Officer had recommended that two members of the Mack Laing Heritage Society (MLHS) be on the Committee but Councillor Maureen Swift got this changed to only one member from the MLHS. So here is a breakdown of the Committee as formed by our Town Council.
Executive of the MLHS – one member – Angela Burns
Comox Town Council – two members – Maureen Swift and Marg Grant, with Russ Arnott as an alternate. Not only is it a questionable choice to include two Council members from the very same Council that would be voting on how to deal with Shakesides, but these two Councillors had already previously voted to demolish both Baybrook and Shakesides.
Parks Board of Comox – one member – Al Fraser. This Parks Superintendent looks after the Parks of Comox, including Mack Laing Park, knew Mack Laing, and would be a valuable source of information.
Comox Archives and Museum Society (CAMS) – one member – Pam Moughton, Chair of the CAMS Board and responsible for obtaining funding for the Museum. One source of funding for the Museum is the Town of Comox. Talk about being put in a difficult position!
Brooklyn Creek Watershed Society (BCWS) – one member – Christine Hodgson. Once again here is a group which is partially dependent on the Town of Comox for funding and was not supportive of the preservation of Baybrook, perhaps because of a fear of losing some of its funding if it had to be shared. One more committee member put in an untenable situation.
Member of the Community at Large – one member – Terry Chester. This was perhaps the most blatantly inappropriate appointment. Mr. Chester lives in the development created from what was once Mack Laing’s property overlooking Baybrook. He was one of the foremost leaders of the neighbourhood group who lobbied for the demolition of Baybrook and whose name is on the petition requesting this result. He was named Chairperson.
Member of the Community at Large with Construction Experience – one member – Mark Ouelette. With his knowledge of construction, he saw that Shakesides was very salvageable and could envision its conversion into a modest Nature House. Unfortunately, the Committee did not discuss this Nature House option.
The final vote was 3 – 2 for demolition. Councillors Maureen Swift and Marg Grant as well as Pam Moughton (CAMS) voted for demolition, while Angela Burns (MLHS) and Marc Ouelette voted for preservation. Christine Hodgson (BCWS) was undecided, Al Fraser didn’t have a vote, and Terry Chester, Chairperson, did not vote.
This is one of the most ill-conceived Committees, clearly stacked to achieve a predetermined outcome, I have ever witnessed at work and needs to be disqualified. Predictably the Comox Town Council accepted the Committee’s vote for demolition of Shakesides and is now making plans to have the Mack Laing Trust altered in order to divert the original intention of the Trust and to have the house demolished.
Comox Town Councillors, in attempting to justify their votes to demolish Shakesides, variously expressed thoughts similar to those of Hugh MacKinnon who said, “the best way to honour the amazing man he was is to restore this spot to its natural state – to nature”. In other words, tear down the house. However, Mack Laing’s Will clearly states, “To pay or deliver over all the rest and residue of my estate to the Town of Comox, upon trust, so that the funds and so bequeathed will be used for the improvement and development of my home as a natural history museum…it being my desire…that my home remain on the said property.” That is what Mack Laing wanted.
I am deeply concerned that our Mayor and Council think it is perfectly fine to overturn the wishes of a trusting Comox resident who had willed his land, home and money to the Town of Comox. If this decision by Council prevents other Comox citizens from bequeathing land or money to the Town, we are all losers. Could it be that the Town Council believes that if the actual structure, Shakesides, were to be torn down that the investigation into what happened to Mack Laing’s money and the rental money would cease? They must know this wouldn’t work. Too many people want to know where that money went. Mayor Ives also claims that Mack Laing’s Trust will be used for legal expenses to fight any legal action and presumably also for changing the will to allow the demolition of Shakesides. What a convoluted mess and so unnecessary.
To me the only logical, fair and legal solution is to allow the Mack Laing Heritage Society to restore Mack Laing’s former home and create a Nature House. They have thousands of dollars in fundraised money, the support of at least 20 Comox Valley businesses, pledges from individuals who want to donate money, philanthropists waiting to give monetary support. Besides this many people have offered their expertise, workmanship and materials towards restoration. It could be such a positive, community-building project with a beneficial outcome for the Town, for naturalists, and for all visitors to Mack Laing Park. Why not give it a chance?