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Boylston woodlot owner loses land; province won't reveal plans for the property

John Hall stands at the edge of the 120 hectares he bought from the Municipality of the District of Guysborough but which the Department of Lands and Forestry now claims it owns.
John Hall stands at the edge of the 120 hectares he bought from the Municipality of the District of Guysborough but which the Department of Lands and Forestry now claims it owns. - Aaron Beswick

John Hall thought he owned 120 hectares of woodland in Boylston.

He and his family have cut wood off the land since his Loyalist ancestor Alveras Atwater was granted a neighbouring property in the late 1700s.

But last June a surveyor from what was then called the Department of Natural Resources showed up at his door and said the province owns one-third — or about 40 hectares — of the land.

“I told him it was mine, I have a deed, but he said they own it and he was surveying it anyway,” Hall said in a recent interview.

What Stephen McNeil’s government now dubs the Department of Lands and Forestry wants with Hall’s 40 hectares isn’t clear because it won’t say.

“As this is a case of claim being made against the province, the department can offer only a general comment on land claims,” said Lisa Jarret, who speaks for the department.

“Land ownership can be established using several legal mechanisms, including adverse possession, quieting of titles and conveyancing documents. Each parcel of land has its own unique legal history that is used to establish ownership. Some are more complicated than others, but many facts go into establishing who has true legal ownership.”

Hall knows what he wants it for.

The senior citizen is on a pension and the land in question is largely covered with mature softwood.

He initially presumed that’s what the province wanted it for too — all Crown land in the seven eastern counties was signed over to Port Hawkesbury Paper to manage in 2012. That agreement also requires the province make available to the mill 400,000 tonnes of softwood per year off those lands or make wood fibre available elsewhere under subsidized terms.

“I don’t have anything against the mill,” he said.

“But it’s my land.”

This is where it gets a bit complicated.

Large tracts of Guysborough were just settled and used in the 18th and 19th centuries.

Through the latter half of the 20th century, what is now called Property Valuation Services Corporation would see people living on undeeded lands, assess the property and hand that information to the local municipality.

“Then we’d send them a tax bill,” said Gary Cleary, deputy chief administrative officer for the Municipality of the District of Guysborough.

“There were many of these cases back in the day. If the taxes weren’t paid the municipality would vest an interest for taxes owing and sell it at tax sale.”

One of those properties was Hall’s 120 hectares. It was actually surveyed in 1968 and called the Morgan, Morrisey and Roach property after three other families associated with the land.

Taxes at some point went in arrears and in 1995 it was put up for tax sale.

Hall offered the municipality $5,000 for the property and then-councillor Lloyd Hines, who from 2015-17 served as minister of the department now taking the land, moved to sell it to him.

Hall got a quit-claim deed from the municipality.

But that only transfers the interest of one party in a property to another, as opposed to a warranty deed that comes with a guarantee the grantor has legal title to the property.

“There used to be a lot of cases like this but fortunately they are getting fewer and fewer,” said Cleary, who remembers the transfer to Hall.

“I sympathize with him. If there was anything we could do for him we would.”

A search of property records shows that in 2009 the province claimed 100 unregistered parcels of land in Guysborough County under the Land Registration Act as belonging to itself. One of those parcels was the 40 hectares at the back of Hall’s lot.

Nobody told him.

Then the surveyor showed up last June.

He hired a lawyer to write the Department of Lands and Forestry. The letter asserted his claim, pointed out that not only had he bought the land but had been paying taxes on it since 1995, and accused the province of taking it to supply their own forestry needs.

“Our client himself has been working the land cutting pulp wood since the early 1960s up to and including the present time,” reads the letter.

“He is the acknowledged and assessed owner of the property. He is not prepared to brook trespassers from the Crown or anywhere else, who unlawfully remove his wood or attempt to appropriate his property.”

Hall received the following response:

“… The department had reviewed the claim in 1995 and deemed the (property in question) to be ungranted Crown lands. Staff confirm that no harvesting activity has been authorized by the department for Mr. Hall’s land or for the Crown lands.”

Hall doesn’t see what else the province would want the land for.

But he didn’t figure he could afford to pay a lawyer to do more than write a letter.

So now the province owns the 40 hectares.

Unless Lands and Forestry decides to give it back, Hall will be left watching from the house his father built to find out why the province took it from him.

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