Mysterious sale of the OBRY

June 2, 2022   ·   1 Comments

By Neil Orford

Over the past two years, the Town of Orangeville, in virtual secrecy, sold off one of the municipality’s most valuable assets – the OBRY rail corridor – in a process that lacked any kind of public consultation, democratic oversight or, most significantly, imagination. The question I have for our local officials is this: who benefited from this opaque process?

As was announced last week, the Town sold the entirety of its 51 km railway operation to Peel Region for an undisclosed amount. Not a single citizen had any say in how the sale was conducted. Rather, the OBRY lands were sold by the ultra-secretive Orangeville Railway Development Corporation (ORDC) – which you own – through a series of closed-door negotiations involving the City of Brampton and Peel Region.

In a May 27th, 2022, news release from both the Town of Orangeville and Peel Region, we learned that Peel Regional Council has “endorsed a report outlining the intent to finalize the acquisition” of the corridor, to be used “as a recreational trail and future utility corridor.” The deal is expected to close on July 13.”

Furthermore, a conditional sale agreement for OBRY has been in place since last August, but the parties won’t reveal for how much money.

On the surface, there appears to be many benefits to this sale – the potential for an extensive trail network, an enormous cash infusion for the Town of Orangeville to reduce debt-load for citizens, and some surety from Peel Region that the rail corridor will be protected from development.

Yet there is too much about this deal that is unknown & shrouded in mystery.

Last January, in a move that surprised many, the ORDC sold a five-acre parcel of prime industrial land – belonging to the OBRY line – to the City of Brampton for $24 million. That money will be transferred to the Town, but how it will be used is still a mystery. Nor do we have any way of knowing whether the Town got a good deal in such a hot real estate market.

Both the vendor and likely purchaser openly hinted that the sale of the rest of the OBRY operations was imminent. But again, they didn’t solicit public input, and instead conducted the negotiation behind a shroud of secrecy.

The vehicle for this bureaucratic opacity is the ORDC, a private corporation owned by the Town of Orangeville, and established in 2000 to operate OBRY. The mayor acts as the chair of the ORDC board, and all the serving councillors are ‘directors.’ With Orangeville as the sole shareholder, the ORDC board need not report to the citizens, provide annual financial accounting, nor do they have to hold open public meetings. All agendas & minutes are private, and if you ask for access (as I did), the answer is, ‘no.’

Since the Town put OBRY up for sale in 2019, not one public consultation meeting has been held, nor could any member of the public acquire access to the affairs of the ORDC. Surprisingly, it has no presence on the Town’s website at all. Indeed, it is only through a Freedom of Information (FOI) request I submitted earlier this year that I could glean any kind of understanding of the OBRY sale.

The ORDC was compelled to provide a response to my FOI request and sought legal advice on what documents could be publicly released. I had to cover all the costs to obtain the documents.

Most were heavily redacted. Still, they offer revealing details about the three-year chronicle of the effort by the Town to dispose of OBRY and realize a tremendous windfall, just in time for the 2022 municipal election.

What’s clear from the documents is that the ORDC had only one intention for the OBRY after 2019 – abandonment and sale. By that time, the five remaining industrial users of the OBRY (three in Orangeville and two in Brampton) had determined that Orangeville would dispose of the OBRY and chose to terminate their use of the line by 2020.

Furthermore, the ORDC documents suggest that no other options to preserve rail service were considered. No thought was given to GO commuter rail service, improved industrial capacity, tourism, or critical infrastructure rehabilitation. Unlike other Ontario municipalities in similar situations, the Town didn’t conduct a public consultation and consequently produced no plan for what the future could hold.

The decision to abandon OBRY comes with a cost for the Town. As other regions have discovered, the decommissioning of rail lines is an expensive undertaking.

Consequently, over the last decade, communities across Canada have partnered with various levels of government to save vital short-line rail infrastructure, devising inventive mixed-modal uses to provide both commuter and industrial service at a time when supply-chains bottlenecks stifle trade, and commuter transit has never been more urgent.

There are multiple sources of support-funding available for innovative projects, and lots of successful models facilitating transportation solutions. Trail networks run alongside rail corridors, while heritage railways (like the ones in Waterloo and Tottenham) provide healthy revenues as part of vibrant tourism strategies.

The ORDC documents illustrate a startling lack of planning, vision and consideration of the business potential. Thanks to all the redactions, it’s impossible to know whether consideration was given to the millions of dollars required to remove the OBRY rail-tracks, secure the corridor, indemnify the Town against liability, remove the 100-year-old trestle across the Forks of the Credit valley, cover the costs associated with a full environmental assessment for the ‘brownfields’ in Alton, Orangeville and along the corridor, or any comprehensive engineering study at all.

Critically important for Orangeville taxpayers, is whether there is a charge-back to Orangeville for the haulage of the contaminated materials located along the rail corridor, or will Peel Region assume those costs as the new owners of the lands? Such provisions are typically considered in these sale agreements – but the ORDC documents provided to me offer no evidence.

It may be that a full accounting of the remediation and decommissioning costs, as well as a robust new vision for the OBRY, exists somewhere hidden behind the pages of redacted ORDC documents. But if so, why would the Town not want that vision made public?

Revealingly, when challenged on this point at a January 27th meeting of the Dufferin County Community Development and Tourism Committee, Mayor Sandy Brown admitted that there  has never been any other plan considered by the ORDC, other than selling the railway corridor to anyone who would take it off the Town’s books.

Again, what’s critical to remember here is that all of this has been done without your input, knowledge, or scrutiny. Voters will have a chance to question the candidates in the coming months to find out why the Town uses a cloak of secrecy to conduct its railway and real estate affairs. Some of the current councillors (also ORDC directors) are running for re-election. How will they explain the decisions to voters who’ve been systematically excluded from the process?

Excluded as they have been, voters should nevertheless ask these (and other) serious questions of our municipal candidates: will the monies realized from the sale of OBRY be rolled-back into capital investments or squandered in one-time tax relief? How does the next Council intend to consult the public on this? What will happen to the OBRY Station & rail lands off Townline? What will become of the mysterious ORDC now that the Town has given-up on rail?

‘Freedom of Information’ is a funny thing – the answers I had hoped to find in the ORDC documents accessed through the FOI process remain elusive: If the sale of the OBRY was so beneficial for the Town and its taxpayers, why did the ORDC and the councillors who sit on its board do it in secret?

Perhaps an election campaign is the best time to ‘free-up’ some of that information.

Readers Comments (1)

  1. Raymond says:

    What has been completely overlooked was the potential to increase tourism by expanding the Credit Valley Explorer train with quality accommodations as well as reaching out to a wider audience of travelers such as those on the weekend GO Niagara Falls service which can include US dollars. Travelling to/from Toronto Union station to Brampton on GO then OBRY through the scenic Credit Valley to Orangeville.


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