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Fort Langley building fight sparks legal threat from councillor tied to properties

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WATCH: The fallout continues over different visions of the future of tiny Fort Langley. As Julia Foy tells us, this war of words comes just before a crucial vote on the issue.

A Township of Langley councillor has threatened possible legal action against a local businesswoman who has criticized his ties to several Fort Langley properties that are awaiting approval to be demolished.

But Angie Quaale — herself a former councillor — says Eric Woodward is breaking conflict of interest rules by responding to her comments, and has contacted the B.C. Ombudsperson ahead of launching a formal complaint.

Quaale submitted a letter to council as part of a public hearing on July 22, which in part focused on a demolition permit application for 11 buildings owned by Woodward’s Statewood Properties that have been sitting empty and boarded up since 2017.

WATCH: (Aired July 24, 2019) Emotional public hearing into Fort Langley development

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Emotional public hearing into Fort Langley development

Woodward claims the properties will be transferred to the newly-created and non-profit Eric Woodward Foundation after he was elected to council in 2018. But Statewood Properties, which Woodward is the sole director of, is still listed as the holder of the properties in the proposal to council.

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Woodward also recused himself from the portion of the public hearing concerning the demolition permit, citing conflict of interest rules that also require him to not access any communications regarding the permit or speak to any other councillors or staff about it.

Quaale’s letter urges the current council not to approve the application, arguing it shouldn’t be considered since Woodward is an elected official. She also says Woodward should make his future development plans known before demolishing the buildings.

Within a week of the public hearing, Quaale got a letter from Woodward’s lawyer accusing her of defamation, saying her submission contained “vicious libels that have no foundation.” Quaale was shocked.

“Why is he speaking to it at all?” she asked in an interview with Global News. “He shouldn’t be having any of these conversations, not now or not ever, since he’s in a place of conflict, right?”

Woodward and his lawyer both declined requests for an interview, with Woodward saying the issue was “largely a private matter with an uncertain outcome.”

History with council

Quaale was on council from 2014 to 2018, during which time Woodward applied to redevelop the properties along Glover Road, Mary Avenue and Church Street and build a boutique hotel and other mixed-use developments.

The applications hit a roadblock when council requested Statewood Properties include an emergency lane to allow for first responder and municipal service access. Woodward withdrew the proposals altogether instead of altering them.

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Blaming government red tape, Woodward began boarding up the buildings in 2017. He also painted some of them pink.

READ MORE: Fort Langley residents, business owners alarmed over councillor’s redevelopment plans

The Eric Woodward Foundation argues the buildings were boarded up gradually in response to several issues, including alleged drug use inside at least one building, and rodent and insect infestation in others.

The township’s Heritage Advisory Committee has since ruled the buildings, many of which have stood for decades, do not qualify for heritage protection status.

The demolition permit debated at the July 22 hearing says the properties will be converted into green space as an “interim solution” while redevelopment plans are pursued. The plan has been recommended for approval by township staff.

WATCH: (Aired July 6, 2019) Development proposal raises concerns in Fort Langley

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Development proposal raises concerns in Fort Langley

In her letter, Quaale accuses Woodward of disparaging staff and council in public and in the press for rejecting his applications. She also questions whether staff felt they could reject an application made by a sitting council member.

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“There are a lot of people who are afraid to speak out toward him,” Quaale told Global News. “I feel a bit frightened.”

But Quaale says she isn’t letting that fear stop her from speaking up about her concerns.

“It really could impact the entire democratic process here if people stop wanting to participate in these types of opportunities to have their say, if they’re not comfortable or if they don’t feel safe doing it,” she said.

Woodward did not respond to questions surrounding Quaale’s allegations.

Upcoming vote

Council is set to vote on whether to approve the demolition permit on Sept. 9 at its first meeting after the summer break.

Mayor Jack Froese said he and council could not comment on issues surrounding the permit until after that vote takes place.

But another former councillor who sat with Quaale, Charlie Fox, says Woodward’s legal threat over Quaale’s written submission is troubling.

“The public has the right to make a statement in a public input session, or comment in a public hearing,” he said. “They should be able to do that without fear of recrimination.”

The B.C. Community Charter, which dictates how all municipal governments in the province must act and govern (with the exception of Vancouver, which has its own charter), includes a section on conflict of interest for members of council.

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The charter states council members “must not use his or her office to attempt to influence in any way a decision, recommendation or other action to be made or taken” at a public hearing or other meeting if that member stands to make money directly or indirectly from the decision.

Woodward has repeatedly said any money earned by the foundation from the redevelopment of the properties will be donated to local charities.

Lawyer Don Lidstone, who helped write the community charter’s rules, said there are clear steps for how Quaale and others can alert officials about potential conflict of interest.

“The citizen can write a letter to the mayor and council, they can go to court, they can go to the Ombudsperson, they can refer it to the Inspector of Municipalities, they can appear as a deputation in front of the council at the next meeting,” Lidstone said.

Quaale has contacted the office of the Ombudsperson, which has informed her she needs to write to council about her complaint and meet to determine whether they will take action against Woodward. If they don’t, the Ombudsperson will investigate.

The Ombudsperson would not comment on whether Quaale has contacted them, citing privacy concerns.

Quaale says she plans to continue fighting not only Woodward’s proposals for Fort Langley, but also his alleged conflict of interest in the matter — including his legal threats.

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“As a citizen that’s our only power, is to be able to speak to our local government and say, ‘Hey, I disagree with this’ without the constant threat of a legal battle,” she said.